In an era of high-priced free agents across the sports landscape, one media free agent is creating a stir at ESPN and the SEC — Paul Finebaum remains unsigned as his contract nears expiration next month. Due to what multiple sources have described as incompetence bordering on malfeasance, ESPN has so bungled its negotiations with the SEC Network and ESPN commentator that Finebaum is seriously contemplating offers elsewhere and has let ESPN know that if his deal is not completed in short order he will not be present at SEC Media Days in Atlanta when they begin on July 16th.
According to sources Finebaum, who declined comment to Outkick, was told in October of last year by then-president of ESPN John Skipper not to worry about his soon to expire contract. Nine months later, with limited contact from ESPN executives, Finebaum has now reached the limits of his patience with the network and is preparing to depart. That’s despite substantial efforts by an increasingly frustrated SEC office over ESPN’s inability to get the deal done.
In fact, Outkick has been told that the SEC told ESPN in no uncertain terms to get the Finebaum contract done and ESPN has still been unable or unwilling to follow through. This exacerbates recent tension in the SEC-ESPN relationship that has threatened to explode into public view over ESPN’s decision to launch the ACC Network, a move undertaken despite what sources say was a promise made by former ESPN president John Skipper to former SEC commissioner Mike Slive that ESPN would never partner with another conference to create a network.
In an effort to repair the relationship new ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro traveled to the SEC spring meetings in Destin, Florida and told everyone there that the SEC was one of his top priorities. So, many wonder, how is it that Finebaum’s contract is close to expiring?
Finebaum, who hosts a daily radio show simulcast on TV on the SEC Network as well as appearing on the SEC Nation pregame show and as a commentator on ESPN’s SportsCenter, has explored a syndicated radio opportunity and a move back home to Alabama which would provide more creative freedom for his show. In addition to that opportunity, another conference is also willing to hire away Finebaum to do his show on their channel, broadening the show’s appeal from just the SEC to all of college football. Finebaum, whose radio show on JOX in Birmingham prior to his departure for the SEC Network, was a rollicking carnival of excess which received a glowing six thousand word profile in “The New Yorker,” has sometimes bristled over the heavy-handed management exerted by ESPN on his show’s content. (Full disclosure: among that heavy-handed management by ESPN was a banning of me appearing as a guest on his show.)
In addition to slow-playing his negotiation ESPN, which has given tens of millions in guarantees to on-air talent who do virtually nothing for the network, has refused to provide Finebaum assurances about his future role at the network. While it’s a delicate topic to broach, Lee Corso will eventually depart College Gameday. Does ESPN foresee Finebaum as a potential successor there? If so, they’ve said nothing about the possibility.
Furthermore, ESPN has done virtually nothing to broaden his appeal beyond southern sports. That’s particularly disappointing to Finebaum and his camp who saw, for instance, a recent sit-down interview with Apple CEO Tim Cook — which took forever to be scheduled on the SEC Network much to the consternation of the league office and Finebaum — as an opportunity to reach new audiences and broaden the horizon of Finebaum’s appeal.
At the recent upfront ESPN put on for advertisers, Finebaum was not present, but prominent executives sought out on-air talent at ESPN to express their appreciation for Finebaum and his show. Among those who expressed love for Finebaum’s show? The CEO of Hearst, which owns 20% of ESPN, and was heard by several people expressing how much he enjoyed listening and watching Finebaum every day on the SEC Network.
SEC Media Days commence on July 16th. While the schism between the SEC and ESPN, notwithstanding this article, has mostly remained private so far, if Finebaum isn’t present then, look out, that breach will have officially gone public for all to see.