As of early Friday afternoon, star quarterback Aaron Rodgers was expected to be back on “The Pat McAfee Show” next week, and an ESPN executive was publicly standing by its bombastic and often controversial afternoon TV host, after Rodgers appeared on the show this week and suggested ties between Jimmy Kimmel and serial abuser Jeffrey Epstein.
“Aaron made a deeply dumb and factually inaccurate joke about Jimmy Kimmel,” Mike Foss, ESPN senior VP of studio and digital production, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “It should never have happened, and we all agree on that point.”
Shortly after Foss spoke to The Post, McAfee returned to his daily show and promptly thrust the network into a new round of chaos, delivering a broadside against one of his bosses on the air.
“There are folks actively trying to sabotage us from within ESPN,” McAfee said, singling out one of ESPN’s most senior executives. “More specifically, I believe Norby Williamson is the guy attempting to sabotage our program.”
McAfee’s apparent ire was over a New York Post story Thursday that cited lagging linear TV ratings for his show, which debuted on ESPN this fall. Williamson is a longtime executive dating back to the 1980s, known for his longevity at the network and past willingness to clash with some outspoken talent, including Stuart Scott and Jemele Hill.
Foss spoke Friday afternoon about how ESPN and McAfee planned to move past the Kimmel episode, preaching ESPN’s confidence in McAfee to handle the fallout.
“Pat has created a multi-billion dollar company, I don’t think he needs my advice on anything,” Foss said. “We’ve certainly spoken about the shows this week and the shows beyond. Ultimately, Pat makes his own choices and I trust him to continue to make the right moves.”
Foss declined to comment on McAfee’s segment about Williamson.
Williamson is now the second of McAfee’s teammates to catch fire on his show this week. Kimmel is an ABC employee, which, like ESPN, falls under the Disney umbrella. According to multiple people with knowledge of how Disney handled the Kimmel situation, ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro reached out to Kimmel to smooth things over this week. (One person said Disney boss Bob Iger did not mediate any discussions.)
Representatives for Kimmel and Rodgers did not reply to emails seeking comment. Williamson did not respond to a text message seeking comment.
ESPN spent much of this week the subject of national media attention, including segments on the “Today” show and on CNN with Jake Tapper, after Rodgers implied during his weekly appearance on McAfee’s show that Kimmel didn’t want a list of associates of the now deceased-sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein to be released. He seemed to suggest that Kimmel himself could be on the list, an escalation of a long-running feud between the quarterback and comedian.
Kimmel responded on X, formerly Twitter, and threatened to sue. The next day, McAfee offered something that resembled an apology on his show, saying he understood Kimmel’s anger, but that Rodgers was just “talking s—.”
Some of the Epstein names were released in court documents this week; Kimmel was not among them.
McAfee’s explanation did little to quell the gawking and gasping by current former and employees at ESPN, nor the speculation around Rodgers’s future with McAfee.
“Jimmy Kimmel is probably your most famous Disney employee on the TV side,” said one former ESPN talent. “He’s been doing late night for 20 years. And they let somebody go on Disney TV and call him a pedophile. That is bananas.”
Even before the Williamson comments, a question was circulating around ESPN headquarters in Bristol: Is McAfee and his $15 million a year salary worth it for ESPN?
Surely, it will only get louder now.
Some measure of drama was expected when McAfee joined ESPN this fall from a YouTube show he was doing for FanDuel. ESPN signed McAfee for all that money and five years for his bro-ier, more casual style, and, in theory, to bring his younger viewers to the network. ESPN does not produce the show, but licenses it from McAfee, which means less oversight than its other studio shows.
In three months of the partnership, the culture clash between the tank-top wearing YouTube star and the buttoned-up world of Mickey Mouse has been rocky. McAfee has attacked ESPN executives once before, and speculated wildly about the exit of an NFL coach and a possible FBI raid. Rodgers, whom McAfee has paid more than $1 million for his appearances through the years, has repeatedly voiced vaccine skepticism and antipathy toward Dr. Anthony S. Fauci and fixated on Travis Kelce for being a pitchman for Pfizer.
Foss declined to say if Rodgers’s continued participation was being evaluated by either ESPN or McAfee.
“We’re three months in to Pat being on ESPN,” he said. “The show has evolved dramatically, and the show will continue to evolve as the show’s audience grows. We’ve had guests on the show in the past three months that haven’t been on before and I expect all of the people who participate in the show will evolve, as the show evolves.”
As for what ESPN is getting from McAfee, along with these troubles, is a Rorschach test for linear, digital and demographic analysis.
The New York Post noted that McAfee’s linear TV ratings are around 300,000 viewers, or down 12 percent against SportsCenter in the same time slot last year. Foss said that was an outdated way to think about viewership. He cited a daily average minute audience for McAfee across linear TV, ESPN Plus, YouTube and TikTok of more than 800,000 in December, with viewers averaging nearly an hour of watch time per day. That audience, he said, is more than 85 percent 18- to 34-year-olds.
“There’s just no way it hasn’t been successful,” Foss said. “The math is the math.”
He also emphasized that McAfee’s true value — and the way all studio shows will be evaluated — is going to be transformed by streaming when ESPN offers a direct to consumer product in the coming years.
“I can understand how people looking specifically at a TV number would say Pat has a ways to go, but we’re not interested in only TV,” Foss said. “This is a multiplatform acquisition, so you have to look at everything in the aggregate, and also where the industry is headed.
“Look at the relationship between McAfee, [Mike Greenberg] and Stephen A. [Smith]. That’s working together [on each other’s shows], and those three are the key to our future,” he added. “As you turn to direct-to-consumer, audiences all of a sudden get to choose who they spend their time with. It is a personality-driven industry way more than a brand-driven industry. Who do you want to spend time with more than the three most important voices in sports?”