Pat McAfee’s rise in the sports media landscape has been meteoric, as the former player-turned-media personality put his imprint on radio, TV, podcasting, and ESPN’s “College GameDay”—all at the same time.
It has also generated no shortage of controversy, and experts say McAfee reflects a changing sports landscape at ESPN and beyond.
“He’s a performer,” Prof. Mark Hyman, director of the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism at the University of Maryland, said. “That’s what ESPN is seeking and is paying him to be. He’s bringing eyeballs to ‘College GameDay’. That’s the bottom line.”
A punter with personality before becoming a professional wrestler and later a media star, McAfee brought his YouTube-based “The Pat McAfee Show” to ESPN in May with a five-year, $85 million contract. This fall, he arrived on the “College GameDay” set.
Although criticized for adapting his show for mainstream cable, ratings for the first four weeks on ESPN, from Sept. 7–29, show his popularity has continued, averaging 1.4 million viewers per show across both platforms.
Viewership on “College GameDay” is averaging 1.956 million, the second-most-watched year of the show, behind only 2.043 million viewers in 2022.
But McAfee has also faced challenges and critics.
He joined ESPN weeks before the network laid off multiple high-profile personalities, including Jeff Van Gundy, Max Kellerman and Suzy Kolber, as well as “College GameDay” mainstays Gene Wojciechowski and David Pollack, whose seat is now occupied by McAfee.
Among McAfee’s biggest gaffs were a tweet about convicted sex offender Larry Nassar designing Michigan State’s alternate uniforms and the time on “College GameDay” he criticized Washington State, proclaiming, “Shut up, Washington State. I’m about sick of you.”
Perhaps no move gained more attention or vitriol than the revelation he paid New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rogers more than $1 million annually to come on the show and talk football, as well as conspiracy theories.
Ben Koo, founder of Awful Announcing, said McAfee represents a face of sports media that started changing with the digital arrival of Barstool Sports in 2007 and made sports coverage more about entertaining than purely informing an audience—a change that proved extremely lucrative.
“It’s not surprising that other media companies are paying attention to that and, to some extent, following,” Koo said. “There’s an audience for people who get in front of the camera and perform the way Pat McAfee does. If there’s an audience and it can be monetized, it’s probably going to end up on TV.”
Koo said ESPN and parent company Disney brought McAfee onboard to address a growing concern that younger audiences were not buying into the brand as much as the prior generation had since the start of the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network in 1979.
That move is also represented in the hiring from Bleacher Report of Omar Raja, who serves as commentator for ESPN’s digital and social content and, like McAfee, has brought edgy and sometimes controversial content—and a lot of eyeballs—to the company’s channels.
“It seems like it’s paid off in the sense that I don’t think anybody has talked about ESPN quite as much as they have in the last couple months,” Koo said.
Despite the return on investment, there has also been a price extracted from ESPN, namely in the respect for journalistic standards that appear to have softened, Koo said.
“Something you’re seeing come into play more and more is [ESPN saying] these guys solve a big problem for us, and we’ll give them a lot of leash to get the results,” he said. “The juice is worth the squeeze, even though we do have these editorial headaches or weird moments where people are questioning what we do.”
ESPN has long been known as much for reporting news as it has for providing commentary and covering games. It has also featured some of the sports world’s best journalists, including Pulitzer Prize winner Steve Fainaru, CNN veteran Mike Fish, Washington Post veteran Michael Fletcher and feature writer Katie Barnes.
Some of McAfee’s actions create a challenge for the network that, in 2019, changed its name from “The Worldwide Leader in Sports” to “Serving Fans. Anytime. Anywhere.”
“Journalists don’t pay for interviews; it crosses too many ethical lines to count,” Hyman said. “But Pat McAfee isn’t a journalist, so the rules don’t apply. Journalists go to the story; they gather information, they piece together facts. Whatever you think of Pat McAfee, that’s not what he’s doing.”
Fan criticism of his work on “College GameDay” has so far kept McAfee from re-signing with “College GameDay,” stating on X, formerly known as Twitter, “I’m not right for some crowds, and the ‘distinguished’ College Football folks are definitely one of those.”
Koo agreed that McAfee is not for everyone, but he added that sports fans who seek more straight-up analysis from experts can still find it in more focused environments like the Big Ten Network or behind paywalls like The Athletic.
No matter McAfee’s path, big personalities like his will continue to dominate networks like ESPN, Koo predicted.
The reason: It’s what viewers want.
“A lot of people are under the impression that ESPN is forcing this on us,” Koo said. “They are, but it’s really us as an audience that is pointing them in that direction.”