ESPN’s interchangeable women

To the Bristol brass, it's the network, not the talent, that makes the star

In recent months, ESPN has taken a distinctly Bill Belichick-ian approach to its on-air talent, in particular its female announcers. With the news that the host of SportsNation, Charissa Thompson, is moving to the new Fox Sports 1 venture, ESPN has once again told one of its distaff voices to not let the door hit her on the way out.

In the last 18 months or so, fellow high-profile women Erin Andrews, Michelle Beadle, and Rachel Nichols have all left ESPN for other endeavors (Fox, NBC Sports Channel, and Turner/CNN, respectively). ESPN, to its credit, has always been at the forefront in hiring female on-air talent and developing them into stars. Robin Roberts, Linda Cohn, Doris Burke, Hannah Storm—multiple top female stars have flourished on ESPN’s air.

So why let so many good ones bolt, seemingly without much of a fight? The New England Patriots under Belichick have succeeded mightily by using a personnel formula that holds each player to a strictly dictated price tag. With the notable exception of star quarterback Tom Brady, who plays by his own rules (ESPN equivalent: Chris Berman), the Pats are always ready, and occasionally eager, to dump players, even excellent ones, the moment they threaten this rigid salary structure. Pats fans still weeping over the departure this offseason of highly productive fan favorite Wes Welker know just how it feels to root for a team that operates under such a cynical, if effective, mindset.

ESPN has done much the same with Andrews, Beadle, et al. The network’s long history of finding and shaping female talent has led execs in Bristol to be quite confident, and rightfully so, that the next Charissa Thompson is waiting to be plucked from the TV equivalent of the soda fountain counter.

While salaries are not a matter of public record, industry whispers indicate that the money the women received for jumping off the ESPN mothership is in the $600,000-$900,000 range—huge paychecks for women who, while talented, have hardly proven that they are able to handle their own shows and drive eyeballs to televisions sets.

Thus, ESPN is quite content to let them get (over) paid by its competition, while having replacements lined up. Inevitably, the next generation of blonde microphone holders will be launched into the netherworld of buzzy success by the sheer power and overwhelming presence of ESPN’s multiple platforms, and the process will begin anew.

And it’s not as though the women who left are coming back to haunt ESPN. Andrews is overmatched in her role as Fox’s college football pregame host, Beadle’s new show, The Crossover, is lost in the clutter, and Nichols, at least on Turner’s NBA telecasts, adds little, as do the other sideline reporters. ESPN is mostly right in feeling that it was the network, not the talent, that was responsible for their breakthroughs.

Fast Breaks

Poor weather in much of the nation, combined with a plethora of intriguing storylines, drove NBC’s telecast of the Kentucky Derby to strong ratings over the weekend. Alas, the race itself was a bit of a letdown, with the favorite, Orb, winning on a sloppy track. Still, Peacock execs must be displaying their colors (or whatever peacocks do when excited) this week at 30 Rock. The network’s investment in the supposedly dead Sport of Kings appears to have paid off, at least for one Saturday in May.

The question is, why doesn’t the interest in the Derby translate to the rest of the year? The other Triple Crown races do okay, but are enslaved in mass appeal to whether any particular Derby winner can break through at last to capture the Crown, a feat not seen since Affirmed defeated his great rival Alydar thrice in 1978. Otherwise, horse racing is essentially invisible on the sporting calendar, save the Breeder’s Cup in the fall.

If gambling breeds such great interest in football, why not in the thoroughbreds? If people are truly drawn to the intriguing personalities and stories that are rife at the Derby, why aren’t they interested in those personalities and stories at the other big races?

It seems that the Derby, like the Indy 500 and the Penn Relays, carry just enough cachet through their storied histories to draw in the curious. It helps, in the case in the Derby, to be an event that is an excuse to throw a party and wear crazy hats. If NBC could find a way to gin up a reason to party over the Wood Memorial or the Santa Anita Derby, it surely would.

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Robert Weintraub is the author of The House That Ruth Built. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and Slate, and a television writer/producer based in Atlanta. Tags: , , ,