During his hey-hey-hey-day as the “SportsCenter” co-host, Keith Olbermann was prompted by ESPN management to take a slight career turn and help give some credibility to the launch a new spinoff channel called ESPN2 in October of 1993.
Actually, back then they referred to it as “The Deuce.” It was going to be hipper ESPN, playing to the snarky demographic (if “snarky” was even a word then), using urban-inspired graphics that really have not stood the test of time when you look back on it all now.
Sure, Olbermann agreed. Why not? If that’s what the team needs, he’d be a team player.
Media criticism came fast and harsh, especially from those who weren’t in that demographic target of males aged 18-to-18 ½.
With a young Suzy Kolber to his left sitting at the anchor chair, Olbermann lost the sport coat and sported a brown leather jacket in hopes of re-creating a new vibe.
And as a way to diffuse tension in the room, his first words on the first ESPN2 three-hour version of its “SportsCenter” was:
“Welcome to the end of our careers.”
Some who took that literally were probably upset at him, but that’s where his compass guided him. It’s part of the deal, and that’s really the tone that was supposed to be set.
Somehow, it’s 20 years later, and 16 years removed from Olbermann’s final “SportsCenter” where he admits he left on ugly terms. An ESPN vice president at the time had the memorable line in USA Today that Olbermann didn’t just burn bridges at the network, “he napalmed them.”
(Note: The employee still works for the company).
A post-ESPN journey that saw him stay relevant at Fox Sports’ national cable venture, then off to political commentary on “Countdown” at MSNBC and Current TV, and for a couple years s co-host again with Dan Patrick on NBC’s “Football Night in America,” it is against most odds that Olbermann has been allowed to do some bridge building.
ESPN2 has a created spot for a show titled “Olbermann” starting Aug. 28, in the 8 p.m. PDT slot from New York’s Times Square, where he’ll comment on the day’s events from a platform surely to rankle some more ESPN suits in the process, but also generate a needed buzz.
Loathe him or hate him, Olbermann needs ESPN as much as the network needs him back to help give credibly to their channel – again – as there is perceived competition now from the launch next month of Fox Sports 1.
At the same time, this allows Olbermann a chance to right some wrongs he admits happened along the way.
“I’ll let you characterize it any way you’d like, but I think it’s less irony and more symmetry,” Olbermann said of being allowed to circle back. “Maybe that (ESPN2 launch) didn’t work – in big huge letters – but we gave it our best shot. And we’re still kicking as a network.”
Olbermann sounded sincere to “have this chance to put a different ending on the story of my relationship with ESPN . . . I would like to do my best to correct as much of it as I can and I appreciate the fresh start. . . . I’m grateful to friends and bosses – old and new – who have permitted that opportunity to come to pass. I’m not going to waste it.”
He’s already got a foot back into the sports world by working out a deal with TBS do to work during the upcoming MLB post-season, a job that ESPN says he’ll be allowed to keep.
Norby Williamson, the “SportsCenter” producer when Olbermann left KCBS-Channel 2 (by way of KTLA-Channel 5) and headed to ESPN in 1992, played a huge role in creating this Olbermann Version 2.0.
As the current ESPN vice president of programming, Williamson has been trying to create a late-night show for ESPN2 for more than a year, and has been talking to Olbermann about it. He’s also had to sell it to others in the Bristol, Conn., compound.
“It’s an opportunity to create a dynamic choice opposite ESPN’s ‘SportsCenter’, similar to what we have during the day with ESPN’s ‘SportsCenter’ and ESPN2’s other news and information shows,” said Williamson. “Ultimately, having Keith available and having the daypart available gave us the chance to put the two together.”
Ultimately, ESPN president John Skipper had to sign off on it as well, knowing there could be venomous backlash.
“I’m aware of Keith’s previous experience at ESPN where he was an enormous talent and I’m sensitive to some previous issues,” said Skipper. “It was ultimately my decision and I welcome him back.
“What matters to me is that the show will be smart, provocative, informed, fun and funny, and for that I think I have the right host.”
Politics aside – those in the office as well as talking about what goes on in Washington D.C. – Olbermann won’t be restricted in what he wants to address on a nightly basis, but the emphasis will be on sports first.
“The key three or four words about this are ‘it’s a sports show’,” Olbermann said. “If I wanted to go and do politics, I would still be doing politics. . . . If you hold a different political point of view than the one I’ve expressed in the last couple of years, you probably should be very happy that I’m not doing politics anymore.”
The 54-year-old Olbermann could famously fall flat in this comeback attempt – and he will likely be used on other ESPN shows and events as he re-establishes his footing. Many are curious as to what odds will be posted on the over-and-under for his length of tenure, based on his spectacular track record with human resource departments.
He immediately opens himself up to punch lines, such as the one tweeted out by Danny Zuker, the writer and executive producer of ABC’s “Modern Family” that went: “ESPN confirms that Keith Olbermann will return to the network and be fired 12 days later.”
Olbermann, who reportedly has a two-year deal here, offers no insights to which betting lines to take.
“Every time I’ve made a prediction (about my career), even internally to myself, I was completely wrong,” he said. “There is no way to forecast my career path and I have given up trying.”
At least he hasn’t given up trying to be a relevant sports anchor, and one we can thankfully find again on a regular basis when looking for smart, pointed commentary with plenty of context and passion.
Even if he’s not wearing that full leather jacket any more.