Rabbit Hole: Why Pat McAfee is Winning While So Many Others in Media are Losing
In a sea of media smugness, an island of friendly authenticity
Rabbit Hole” is a single-topic deep dive column that comes out twice per month for paid subscribers. The free newsletter returns later this week.
Former ESPN host and current DraftKings-sponsored content creator Dan Le Batard was going after his former ESPN colleague Stephen A. Smith in a segment last week on his show — in theory. In reality, Le Batard and his crowded group of mostly anonymous producers with microphones were attacking me, and you, and most of the country.
How did sports media “became this dumber thing,” wondered Le Batard. “We want to be dumb. We start dumb, we watch dumb things, we consume it like cotton candy, and that's what wins.”
Le Batard, though, wasn’t really talking about “we” — as in him and his patronizing group of producers. One mentioned how CNN has now mirrored the ESPN “First Take” debate television format. “It works!” said Le Batard. “Feed the dumb people.” (They did? It does?)
Another producer cited the success of Joe Rogan. “Now there's that new form of media that targets the dumb people but tells the dumb people they're the smart ones,” he said. “‘Everyone else is dumb, you're not dumb, in fact, get this, you're smarter than everyone else.’”
“Did this start because people were dumb, or did the dumb television make people dumber?” Le Batard asked, rhetorically, in conclusion.
It’s hard to find a more condescending — and less self-aware —media segment over the past few years. If you’re a hardcore fan of the show, I suppose you think you’re better than the “dumb” people out there getting pilloried. But how is this anything other than alienating to literally anyone else?
Le Batard left ESPN a couple years ago, and went “independent,” backed by DraftKings’ gambling money. His YouTube channel — one of the primary locations to consume his content — has just 150,000 subscribers. Most videos get less than 5,000 views. Some have under 1,000. His weekday live streams net out at around 30,000, which means that’s the total number of people who consumer mere seconds of the program. The video where he went after Stephen A. has close to 200,000 views though — I guess it’s all those dumb people who like conflict?
Dan Le Batard got a nice chunk of money from a gambling company, but in the current media environment, any objective analysis would show he’s losing. He has what appears to be a fairly insignificant audience. When his DraftKings money runs out next year, it will be interesting to see what happens next.
Contrast that with another sports media personality who got a big bag from a gambling company — Pat McAfee, and FanDuel. A few months after Le Batard, McAfee’s got an even larger, and longer, deal. However that deal is now done, as McAfee has instead opted to take his show and go to ESPN, and Disney, in a reported 5-year, $17 million per year deal that begins in the fall. It’s huge — and it got even more scrutiny recently when ESPN announced more than a dozen shocking cuts of some of its biggest stars a few weeks ago. They included Jalen Rose, Jeff Van Gundy, Max Kellerman, Steve Young, Suzy Kolber, Keyshawn Johnson, and more. (For a great deep dive on the reasoning behind the cuts, check out fellow Substackand his analysis on it.)
McAfee was forced to address the juxtaposition at the time — and while it’s a bit unfair to connect the exits with his imminent arrival, it’s not entirely disconnected either. A couple weeks ago McAfee got to showcase why he was being brought over to ESPN, as the de facto ESPYs host (since the writer’s strike left the sports awards show without one) — and he crushed it. Funny, self-deprecating, and appreciative of the moment, respectful of the stage — and of sports. A sports media star who doesn’t hate sports? It’s a revelation!
McAfee is winning while so many others in media are losing. Why? I haven’t been much of a McAfee consumer, but I dove into some recent episodes to try to understand the phenomenon. And the lessons about why he’s working and winning are relevant beyond sports media — they relate to news media, to the entertainment industry, and beyond. Here are a few specifics:
McAfee’s show is not based in New York City, or Washington D.C. — or Bristol, Connecticut where the ESPN campus is. It’s not in LA either. It doesn’t have that coastal sensibility because it’s physically not there — he’s based in Indianapolis, Indiana. And you can feel it. There’s a cultural connectedness that exists throughout the program, that is the antithesis of the Le Batard vibe (despite Le Batard being based in Miami himself). It’s devoid of smugness, and that’s a symptom of the geographic location itself.
Positivity Over Negativity
One jarring aspect of the program is how so much of the content centers around positivity. There’s a celebratory nature of the show, celebrating the greatness of sports, and celebrating the fans who enjoy it. Not only that, the topic selection avoids the controversial topics that put a negative spin on the day’s news cycle. It’s the polar opposite of so much of the sports media (and news media) today, and it’s refreshing. McAfee’s entire MO is positivity. Fridays are “Feel Good Friday,” where he literally gives away money some weeks. A catchphrase is “hello beautiful people.”