“Keith was tough on everybody. There was a rumor a few years ago that maybe he would come back, and one of our coordinating producers said, ‘I think it would be a good idea but with one caveat. If we hire Olbermann back, he first has to stand in the reception area and everybody who wants to, gets to come up and punch him in the stomach.’” — ESPN’s Rece Davis, in ESPN: Those Guys Have All the Fun, by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales.
Work on those abs, Olbermann! Get your brass-knuckles ready, Bristol!
According to the New York Times — in a story penned by the plugged-in James Andrew Miller — Olbermann and his representatives have approached higher-ups at ESPN about returning to the sports network where he first became famous 20 years ago. Back then, Olbermann partnered with Dan Patrick for the 11 p.m. SportsCenter, turning the highlight show into the sports equivalent of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, the gold standard that all subsequent sports anchors aspired to emulate. From 1992 to 1997, Olbermann was one of ESPNs biggest and loudest personalities, an unrivaled talent in the field of sports television who didn’t mind reminding you of that fact. “Intellectually, he was a genius and socially he was, well, a special-needs student,” former ESPN anchor Charley Steiner told Miller and Shales for their book. And Steiner was a friend!
But ESPN didn’t love the fact that Olbermann was threatening to be bigger than the brand, and the two engaged in numerous dust-ups during his tenure, including at least one suspension. Olbermann so frequently butted heads with ESPN management and napalmed bridges with co-workers that there was a palpable sense of relief when he departed for MSNBC in 1997. Of course, what happened at ESPN was not an isolated incident: Olbermann went on to confound and alienate bosses at Fox Sports Net, MSNBC, the New York Yankees, and Current TV, with which he’s currently engaged in a $70 million lawsuit over his March 2012 termination. But more than 15 years have passed since he departed ESPN on bad terms. Many of the people he crossed are long gone, and some of the employees now in Bristol likely idolized Olbermann in their formative years. Perhaps the time is perfect for the prodigal son to return…
Not so fast, at least according to ESPN’s president John Skipper. A Disney publishing exec during Olbermann’s ESPN days, Skipper had no problem publicly dismissing the possibility of a reunion and diminishing the man in the process. “I agreed to dinner with Keith because I assumed he’d be provocative and witty and fun to have dinner with, and he was indeed lots of fun,” Skipper told the Times. “Clearly he was looking to see if there was an entry point to come back … After the dinner, at that point, there was no real appropriate place for Keith to come back, nor did I feel like I was prepared to bring him back.”
Translation: We’re ESPN. We don’t need you… or anyone, for that matter. Sports fans would watch the Boom Goes the Dynamite guy give the scores and highlights. But give my secretary your number on your way out, and I’ll keep you in mind if we ever need a weeknight guy to cover the high school cricket championship.
Olbermann — who’s currently in Arizona watching baseball’s spring training and didn’t respond to EW’s request for comment — has other options in the sports world, but not as many as you might think. He’s likely not going to work for the new Fox Sports 1 cable station that was announced today — not as long as one-time boss and political adversary Rupert Murdoch is in charge at News Corp. anyway. His old SportsCenter partner, the more convivial Dan Patrick, is firmly entrenched at NBC, but their 2008 reunion on Football Night in America lasted only two seasons before Olbermann was jettisoned from the crowded studio cast that also included Bob Costas. CNN and CBS Sports, both networks that he worked at prior to his time at ESPN, are possible landing places, as is HBO Sports, which could find a home for him between the sensibilities of Real Sports‘ Bryant Gumbel and Real Time‘s Bill Maher. But of those three possibly friendly ports, only CNN has baseball (via Turner Sports), certainly a consideration for Olbermann, a passionate baseball fan. (ESPN and Fox, meanwhile, have a virtual lock on the national pastime for the next eight years.)
Skipper’s unvarnished dismissal could be construed as a long-range negotiating ploy, but I don’t think so. Not only does Olbermann have his own complicated history with the network, but ESPN has been burned before by big, polarizing names with political baggage. (See: Limbaugh, Rush.) Plus, it’s difficult to imagine ESPN inviting Olbermann back inside the gates after their difficult previous experience — make-up stomach-punching session or not. Why would they risk the headaches, knowing Olbermann the way they do? “We don’t have a policy that says we won’t bring somebody back,” said Skipper. “There’s no such thing as a condemned list.”
Translation: Not on paper anyway.