Dan Le Batard to Leave ESPN


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Dan Le Batard, the flame-throwing host of sports television and radio shows, will leave ESPN in January, the company announced Thursday.

“It was mutually agreed that it was best for both sides to move on to new opportunities, and we worked together closely to make that possible,” Norby Williamson, an ESPN executive, said in a statement.

Le Batard, 51, has written for ESPN or appeared on its shows for two decades, but became a mainstay on the network in 2011. That is when his television show — originally titled “Dan Le Batard Is Highly Questionable” — debuted on ESPN2. It later moved to the flagship ESPN channel, and the company also syndicated Le Batard’s South Florida-based radio show across the country on ESPN Radio.

But Le Batard, the son of Cuban exiles who insists on speaking freely and takes immense pride in his independence, has repeatedly clashed with his bosses.

The final confrontation occurred in November, after ESPN laid off 300 employees, including Chris Cote, a producer on Le Batard’s radio show. Le Batard rehired Cote, paying the producer’s salary out of his own pocket, and said on-air that the layoff was “the greatest disrespect of my professional career, that I got no notice, no collaboration.”

The layoff followed a number of decisions that diminished Le Batard’s reach. The television simulcast of his radio show was recently moved from the cable channel ESPNews to the streaming platform ESPN+, which has tens of millions of fewer subscribers. ESPN Radio also reduced the hours that it carried Le Batard’s radio show, from three daily to two.

The relationship between Le Batard and ESPN was always challenging. He was known for gags that tested the humor of his bosses: The network suspended him for two days in 2014 after he commissioned billboards, and also planned to hire a plane flying a banner, to mock LeBron James’s decision to leave the Miami Heat and return to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

A more serious conflict surfaced in the summer of 2019. Le Batard publicly criticized ESPN’s tepid approach to covering politics after President Trump tweeted that four Democratic congresswomen of color should “go back” to “the crime-infested places from which they came” — comments that even members of Trump’s party condemned as racist.

Le Batard said on his radio show that “we here at ESPN don’t have the stomach for the fight.”

“We don’t talk about what is happening unless there is some sort of weak, cowardly sports angle that we can run it through,” he added. Afterward, he was summoned to New York for a meeting with ESPN’s president, Jimmy Pitaro.

Since he was named president in early 2018, Pitaro has sought to steer the network away from commentary that can be deemed political. He has said survey data shows fans don’t want to hear political discussions on ESPN and has told employees to discuss politics only through the lens of sports.

The strategy worked to quell some of the controversy that surrounded ESPN in 2017, when the “SportsCenter” host Jemele Hill called the president a white supremacist. But it began to seem less viable this summer, after the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis prompted topics of racism and police brutality to dominate the sports landscape. As The New York Times reported in July, some employees said they had been told to tone down their coverage of racial issues in sports.

“It was never explicit, it was just sort of us reading the room,” Elle Duncan, a “SportsCenter” anchor, said in The Times article.

Le Batard’s departure from ESPN somewhat parallels the experiences of Bill Simmons, who also carved out his own empire at the network but eventually split with the company after he antagonized his bosses once too often and the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement when renegotiating his contract.

Still, Le Batard seemed to recognize that he benefited considerably from his ties to the network.

“One of the afflictions that comes with ego is the idea that you are responsible for your success and that ESPN isn’t,” he said on the radio in 2016, after “Any Given Wednesday” — Simmons’s post-ESPN television show on HBO — was canceled. “It is another reminder: ‘Do not leave ESPN, man. ESPN is a monster platform that is responsible for all of our successes.'”

Those comments, however, came before John Skipper, who had a strong relationship with Le Batard, resigned as ESPN’s president and before Simmons sold The Ringer, his website and podcast network, to Spotify for a reported $200 million.

It is not clear what Le Batard might do next, but in the statement announcing his departure, he declared in his typically absurd manner that he was not done.

“To our loyal army of concerned fans, and to everyone who walked along and played an instrument in our Marching Band to Nowhere, know that it is a very exciting time for us, not a sad one,” Le Batard said. “And that you’ll be hearing our laughter again soon enough.”