Today brings the latest rumor in the years-long question of whether Keith Olbermann will return to ESPN—the network that made him a star and, to a necessarily lesser but equally formidable extent, the network he made into a star. The New York Daily News reports “serious discussions” with the former “SportsCenter” and MSNBC host to helm a late-night talk show.
We know that ESPN had approached Seth Meyers of "Saturday Night Live" (who will suceed Jimmy Fallon on NBC after Fallon takes over “The Tonight Show”) for such a program. Given that ESPN, a $40 billion behemoth majority-owned by Disney, traffics in the last thing people still show up in droves to watch on television live—sports—it has a late night “lead-in” that the networks, TBS, and Comedy Central would kill for. And we know that ESPN is under unusual pressure to perform: Fox Sports 1, the closest approximation to a competitor it has seen in years or even decades, launches next month, and to maintain profits the network cut several hundred jobs last month. So it’s certainly a smart idea.
Olbermann, meanwhile, is a massive talent. My favorite example is his on-air Mickey Mantle obituary, which (as reported in Jim Miller and Tom Shales’s indispensable oral history Those Guys Have All The Fun) Olbermann had about an hour to prepare, and basically did on the fly. He kind of made MSNBC into MSNBC. He even maintains an outrageously good (if sporadically updated) blog on Major League Baseball’s website (it’s called “Baseball Nerd,” an extremely accurate title; check out his incredible Marvin Miller obituary from last year). He simply would not allow his late-night show not to be great.
Olbermann is also, by all accounts, massively difficult to work with. Daily Intelligencer’s Joe Coscarelli has saved me the trouble of grabbing Those Guys Have All The Fun off my shelf and printed some of the choicer quotes on this subject, like ESPN anchor Bob Ley saying, “We felt not so much relief when Keith left as unrestrained fucking joy.”
That ESPN would consider Olbermann’s return confirms—in addition to the adage that time heals all wounds—ESPN’s increasing acceptance of a star model. For decades, and with the ever-bizarre exception of Chris Berman, ESPN did not tolerate stars. You were not allowed to be bigger than the network. The strategy made sense insofar as a sports network has a pretty obvious stable of stars to showcase (namely, athletes) and it held personnel costs down. But in the past decade, it has become impossible to ignore the increasing ubiquity and popularity of on-air personalities like Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless (I didn’t say all stars are good!); columnists like Rick Reilly (ditto!); and cross-platform writers like Michael Wilbon and Bill Simmons. And, of course, on Monday, millions of sports fans will continue their annual tradition of pressing mute in order to watch the Home Run Derby without subjecting themselves to Berman.
Which brings us to the issue of that which you should never badmouth: synergy. Olbermann has the opportunity—if he’s got some juice left—to become bigger and better than he ever was two decades ago, when he was busy transcending the “SportsCenter” anchor desk. He has kept half a foot in television, with appearances on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” studio show and some baseball work for TBS. So it is not hard to imagine him extending himself across multiple media.
Actually, in addition to the late-night show, Simmons’ Grantland—which ESPN owns—would be an intriguing home. Olbermann can write about sports for the Internet in a distinct and nostalgic style, which is pretty much the definition of that site. (I know I sound like I’m flacking at this point, but seriously, read this post about “The Steinbrenner Door” at P.J. Clarke’s and tell me it’s not a Grantland piece.) Plus, Grantland has an increasingly robust podcast and YouTube empire, which presumably could create some opportunities for a guy who used to host his own nightly primetime newscast. The question would become whether Grantland—much less ESPN—is big enough to contain the egos of those two accomplished and, er, self-assured men. (Remember, there was a time when ESPN wasn’t big enough for just Olbermann.) I promise you Simmons is considering this very question right now, and so to put it in the terms he himself would: He can choose to be Wilt, and keep Olbermann out and continue to rack up his stats; or he can be Russell, efface himself a bit to let in this other mega-star, and then win.
Either way, though, Olbermann would make ESPN better, which is good for sports fans in much the way that making Google better is good for people who like to search the Internet. Olbermann is at least as much an egomaniac as, say, Bayless, the ESPN2 host who stands for everything wrong with the network. Difference is, Olbermann has the goods to back it up.