After a 16-year exodus spent as a cable news political talking head, the former Sportscenter host is finally coming back to the network that made him famous. On Wednesday, ESPN executives will announce an hour-long, nightly ESPN2 show hosted by none other than Keith Olbermann. Variety's Jon Weisman first reported the news late Tuesday evening.
In Wednesday's New York Times, James Andrew Miller reports Olbermann and ESPN repaired their relationship with "intense discussions" that played out over the last 14 months. They had much to discuss: Olbermann left ESPN in 1997 "under emotionally charged circumstances" and when on to become a liberal firebrand on MSNBC, which some thought made him "too politicized" for the sports network. But the buzz surrounding his name eventually won the day; he's still a legend in sports circles, and ESPN is about to face its biggest rival in years.
So there are two caveats to the reunion: Olbermann will broadcast from an ABC studio in New York instead of ESPN's Bristol, Conn., campus, keeping him away from the former co-workers who may still want to inflict physical pain on him; and Olbermann's allowed to talk about anything but politics.
The first whiff of an eventual reunion came from Miller, again in The Times, after Olbermann had lunch with ESPN President John Skipper to talk about maybe coming back to the Worldwide Leader earlier this year. At the time, Skipper wasn't ready to open the door all the way for the former golden boy. "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," Skipper told Miller, but that didn't mean Olbermann would never return: "We don’t have a policy that says we won’t bring somebody back. We’re running a great business, and when we think we can get quality content, there’s no such thing as a condemned list," he said. Last Friday, the New York Daily News' Bob Raissman reported Olbermann and ESPN were seriously close to a deal for a late night talk show on ESPN2. Then, on Tuesday evening, Weisman and Miller both confirmed the rocky relationship was completely patched up.
Olbermann became a star calling plays on Sportscenter opposite Dan Patrick in the early 90s. They proved two smart, funny guys could talk about sports and make it appointment television. To this very day, Olbermann and Patrick are the guys every Sportscenter anchor are measured against. But the decision to bring Olbermann back into the ESPN fold was certainly not an easy one. When Olbermann made a fiery exit from Bristol 18 years ago, the perception was that the bounty on his head was too high to ever facilitate a return. Olbermann had burned too many bridges, and in too spectacular a fashion, to ever be welcomed back. (Note: this would become a recurring pattern in Olbermann's professional life.) The strianed relationship was one of the best plots in Miller's 2011 book with Tom Shales, These Guys Have All the Fun, about the early days of ESPN. Longtime Sportscenter anchor Bob Ley described the feeling after Olbermann left: "We felt not so much relief when Keith left as unrestrained fucking joy." And anchor Rece Davis (still in Bristol) summed up the kind of welcome Olbermann were he return to Bristol:
"There was a rumor a few years ago that maybe Keith would come back, and one of our coordinating producers said, "I think it would be a good idea but with one caveat. He first has to stand in the reception area, and everybody who wants to gets to come up and punch him in the stomach."
So it's a damn good thing he's working out of New York instead of Connecticut. But, yeah, that's how Olbermann is generally viewed by those lucky people who got to work with him at ESPN.
Olbermann's return is being seen as a direct response to Fox launching Fox Sports 1, the first national sports network to expected to rival ESPN in recent memory, on August 17. Though time slots haven't been confirmed, Olbermann's show is expected to compete with Fox Sports 1's nightly talk show Crowd Goes Wild, hosted by Regis Philbin. It should also be noted that ESPN is bringing Olbermann back on the heels of Fox Sports 1 poaching Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole, the former hosts of TSN's Sportscentre in Canada who are often referred to as the heirs to Olbermann and Patrick's old schtick, to anchor Fox Sports Live, their sports highlight show.
Olbermann spent his 16 years away from ESPN working on political cable news, while also doing some occasional work for Fox Sports and Turner Broadcasting on the side. Olbermann hosted his own political talk show on MSNBC until he was fired in 2011. He did basically the same thing on Current TV immediately after that, only to be fired, again, in 2012. Like we said: burning bridges became a pattern in Olbermann's career and that's why bringing him back to ESPN after all these years, with his history, is especially risky. (Olbermann only had to suffer through 15 months of unemployment before ESPN stepped in.)
And this isn't Olbermann's first time on ESPN2, either. There was a brief hiatus from SportsCenter in 1993 while he helped launch the secondary network by hosting SportsNight with Suzy Kolber. Olbermann was not so secretly pissed he got pulled from "the big show," SportsCenter, on the big network, to a smaller show on the smaller network. So on SportsNight's inaugural broadcast, on the new network's very first night on air, the lights came up and Olbermann immediately went off script: "Welcome to the end of my career," he said.