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ESPN’s Burke Magnus on replacing JJ Redick, managing Pat McAfee and more

As has been written before in this space, if there was a ranking of people who shape sports consumption in the United States, Burke Magnus would be very high on the list. His title is president of ESPN’s content, and he has oversight of ESPN’s most significant properties, with thousands of talented people working under him.

This week, he returned to my Sports Media Podcast for an hour-plus to discuss a variety of sports media storylines including media rights deals and on-air talent at his place. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. You can listen to the full interview here.

JJ Redick recently left ESPN to coach the Los Angeles Lakers. This is the second NBA analyst on your top team who’s left for an NBA job this year. Do you have a plan right now heading forward as to who will be the top NBA team next year?

Not specifically, and that’s probably no surprise as it was only a couple of weeks ago where the world thought it was going to be Danny Hurley (coaching the Lakers) and JJ would in fact still be with us.

As difficult as the decision was (to part ways) with Jeff (Van Gundy) and Mark (Jackson), we felt like we were very, very solid going into the season in both the game team and the studio. We had it solved in a really interesting and innovative way that we thought was going to last for several years with Doris Burke making history, stepping up to the “A” team, a proven, high-caliber broadcaster and Doc (Rivers). We even had our succession plan worked out with the “B” team, with Ryan Ruocco, JJ, and Richard Jefferson. … Obviously, we got the curveball of all curveballs with Doc’s departure. But I thought JJ stepped right in and helped us continue to perform at a high level. He had indicated interest in coaching, so that was not a surprise.

We have some work to do in advance of next season. The one thing I will say about Doc, because there was some reporting out there down the angle of, “How could they not see this coming; how could they not be prepared for this kind of thing?” In fact, we were. We took Doc at his word that he was done coaching. He gave us a three-year commitment. It was written into the contract specifically that he was not going to go back to coaching. That’s not what happened. Unfortunately, it left us in the lurch in the middle of the season, which was extremely uncomfortable.

But I thought JJ really stepped up and filled in at a very high level. By the way, if he ever wants to come back and be a broadcaster after coaching, I think the world knows now that he’s a great basketball mind, and he has a bright future in our world if he ever finds himself in it again.

What can you say publicly about where ESPN/Disney is right now regarding a future media rights agreement with the NBA?

Obviously, I can’t confirm anything. … But I can say that our team has been working really diligently over a long period of time. Based on the existing relationship that we have with the NBA over many years and also the current state of it, which is strong, positive, productive, a great two-way street and great collaboration with Adam (Silver) and his team, we feel relatively confident about our future with the league as they work to finalize everything with all of their partners. We feel good about where we stand at the moment.

Let’s move to college football. What’s the ESPN reasoning for licensing those early College Football Playoff games to TNT?

(Warner Bros. Discovery) reached out to us. They made a really compelling case to get involved. The arrangement has several facets that we felt were kind of table stakes for us, which in my world is that we are going to produce the games and it’s going to be our talent on the games. As we sit here today, (WBD doesn’t) televise regular-season college football, so they don’t have an infrastructure that’s built around the sport. They looked immediately to us and our expertise in terms of how they get produced and presented. Branding can be figured out easily. So we thought this is an opportunity to get somebody else involved who’s got a big platform that has reach, that has a different audience composition than we do.

Is it two games per year for the sublicense?

It’s that for the first two years, which are technically the last two years of the original deal and then it expands beyond that to two more in the quarterfinal rounds. So it could be four. There is also at our option the ability to (sublicense) a semifinal game potentially over the six years of the new term. So two becomes four, and then there’s sort of this option on a semifinal game, which we’ll evaluate when we get deeper into the relationship.

An option for them to sublicense a CFP semifinal game?

Our option. If they’re interested in it, we can decide whether or not we want to do that.

Stephen A. Smith’s contract is up in 2025. Puck recently reported extensively on that salary negotiation. From an executive point of view, give me a sense of how you see Smith in the larger ESPN ecosystem.

The guy’s a bona fide superstar, right? In today’s media environment, he just is, because everything he does, people have a high interest in. Nobody works harder than him. He is everywhere all the time, and everything we ask him to do from a different show or a particular appearance or even internal ESPN things such as, “Can you join this meeting with sales because it’s an important client meeting and they’d really love to have you stop by and meet the client?” — he’ll do that. He never says no. He is great in that regard.

“First Take,” which is his primary assignment, is a juggernaut. I think we’re going to get 24 straight months of month-over-month, year-over-year audience growth. That just doesn’t happen in today’s world. It happens because he’s built this show … We’re in the 24/7, 365-day sports business. … I feel as good about our 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. lineup as I’ve ever felt, and I think the results bear that out. He’s a key component to that. But the games are still the games, and that’s why you have to sort of calibrate accordingly in terms of how you invest in non-game programming.

I realize you are not going to negotiate publicly here. But there is an existing salary structure when it comes to game talent such as (CBS’) Tony Romo and (ESPN’s) Troy Aikman. (Fox’s) Tom Brady is obviously in a different stratosphere. How do you judge someone like Smith who does not do live sports but, as you said, is a very important part of your studio programming?

The people you mentioned have one thing in common on the game side: They’re NFL analysts. They broke the mold. Tony Romo’s deal broke the mold. In my opinion, the money that we are paying (“Monday Night Football” broadcasters) Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, they’re worth every cent of that. I mean it sincerely. … When Damar Hamlin happened, to have Joe Buck and Troy Aikman and Lisa Salters and the team around we had is hard to put a value on that given the investment that we have in the NFL overall. Relative to what networks pay for NFL game content, that’s what drove the high end of the analyst and play-by-play market to where it is today. I think that makes sense. … Studio (shows) Monday through Friday, daytime studio, it’s different. There’s a different calculus there, for sure. But again … (Smith is) the best there is right now.

How would you analyze your confidence level in terms of Smith returning to ESPN?

I tend to be an optimistic person by nature. I know he’s great for us. I know we’re great for him. From a relevance, reach and Q score if you will, there is a rocket fuel that ESPN naturally kind of provides to big personalities by being on our platform. There’s a value to that for people. I’m optimistic because I think it’s a mutually beneficial situation, and I think both sides realize that, and this is just the dance we have to dance.

If Smith does not return to ESPN, do you have a replacement plan for the shows he’s on?

Not specifically, but “First Take” would continue, obviously. We’d figure that out. The great part about the environment that we live in … there is a wealth of talented people out there who, if given the chance, I think could also become superstars very easily on our platform. The format of “First Take” I think lends to that. It’s already an ensemble situation in many ways. So, I don’t worry about that at all.

Will Pat McAfee be on “College GameDay” this season?

Yeah, I presume he will. What Andrew (Marchand) reported is technically true relative to ink on a piece of paper. But as you know in our world, it’s a fairly common situation to have reached an agreement without an executed contract or piece of paper. …

I think from time to time Pat likes to just muse on what he may or may not want to do. … We’re not in the business of handcuffing anybody to a table. This is not unique to Pat. If somebody comes to us and says, “Hey, I’d rather do this or that instead of that,” we’ll listen and have those conversations. But Pat I expect to be there on “College GameDay.”

McAfee books his guests and has creative control of his show. ESPN licenses the show. Has Pat crossed any lines for you, and perhaps more importantly, is there a line for ESPN when it comes to that show?

Yeah, I don’t love the conversation around a line because a line by definition is sort of clear and definable. Let me start with this. I often read or hear things on podcasts where the sentiment is, “(Is) ESPN committed to Pat McAfee?” We absolutely are. This guy is so talented. Everything he’s created, he created on his own with his team.

I can say this with great authority, having kids that are 25 and 22 and are enormous sports fans. He is the voice of the younger generation from a sports fan perspective. He books guests like nobody else in the business right now. … So there’s a validation in today’s world for being a guest on his show, and that’s because he sets the conversation in many ways and particularly for younger audiences. …

He talks for three hours, five days a week, right? What makes him great is that he goes right up there. Then occasionally he has said some things or done some things that either he would have wanted to take back or rubbed some folks the wrong way. Believe me, he does not have a free pass for all of eternity. We have a standing conversation with him. (ESPN chairman) Jimmy (Pitaro) and I talk to him pretty much on a weekly basis whether we have something to talk about or not. He’s extremely receptive to feedback and wants to know how he can continue to be better. …

There’s no truth to the notion that we’re not committed to him long-term. We’re not even a year into this relationship. Between his show and his work on “College GameDay” and other things he’s done for us on the business and sales side, it’s been a great experience for us, notwithstanding the fact that of course we’ve had to manage some of the situations that you mentioned, which were either uncomfortable or difficult for us.

Is ESPN responsible for when someone on his show, not him, says something on his airwaves? Say if Aaron Rodgers goes down a road that’s either political or some might say conspiratorial or something else, what is ESPN’s responsibility here understanding that you license this show?

He’s technically not an ESPN employee, which limits sort of the conventional paths we have in circumstances like that. We do license his show, which he fully produces and controls entirely. But … it is our platform at the end of the day. That’s the delicate balance when in circumstances like you mentioned.

So, yes, I do think we play a role and bear some responsibility. I would be a lot more concerned about circumstances like that going forward if we didn’t have the kind of dialog and open channels we have with Pat. I want to make it clear: He is not saying, “Hey, don’t talk to me, it’s my show.” It’s quite the opposite. … It is set up for us to be able to deal with those situations as they come.

Netflix getting NFL games (on Christmas) feels very significant. From your perspective, someone who might have to compete with them on sports rights, how did you view that?

I think it was a circumstance that was … right up their alley. I don’t know what their strategy is … but it seems to me what they’re doing is trying to find one big or interesting event. … They are full-time in the direct-to-consumer business, so that dynamic is the same for all of us, which is you have to acquire subscribers and then you have to retain subscribers.

To the NFL’s credit, here’s two games on a holiday that become available in isolation and separate from any kind of bigger package that they would have to bite off. The NFL gets yet another partner into the mix. I wasn’t surprised at all. I don’t know that it bodes any further “what’s next” speculation for Netflix in the NFL because I think that’s all that exists right now, some individual opportunities. We’re perfectly happy with our NFL package, we’re looking forward to another season of “Monday Night Football,” and we got a Super Bowl coming in a couple of years.

Netflix is going to need someone to produce these games. Would ESPN be interested in doing that?

As you probably know, that’s probably the busiest … two weeks of our entire year. We have five NBA games to produce that day. We have 40 bowl games over the two weeks. We’ve got the CFP right around the corner. We’re good. We can’t take on anybody else’s stuff.

How aggressive will ESPN be when it comes to the WNBA heading forward?

We’re extremely bullish on it. We’ve been there since Day 1 of the WNBA, and we’re really proud of that. We feel similarly about the women’s NCAA basketball tournament and the hard work that’s been done over decades with that property in order to grow the game. Caitlin Clark is a phenomenon, and of course, it’s brought sort of meteoric levels really quickly, which is a little bit of an issue they’ve been dealing with relative to the coverage and the scrutiny around the game. When that sort of normalizes and finds its level, the audiences and the interest in the WNBA is going to be significantly higher than it has been historically.

Where would you characterize ESPN having the WNBA Finals in any long-term deal?

Really important. The answer I gave you when you asked me this last year for the NBA Finals was “must-have,” and here I think a little bit differently. Maybe somewhat unselfishly, we look at the growth of the WNBA on the number of various entities involved in it. We see an upside in other broadcasters also being involved. Of course we want the WNBA Finals. I’m sure that at some level that’s going to be a component of the deal. But if we don’t have them every single year because it means it is on other networks in a similar fashion, I think that’s actually a good thing for the ultimate continued growth and development and interest in the league.


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(Top photo of Burke Magnus in 2022: Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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