Former NFL punter and YouTube sensation Pat McAfee joins ESPN this week as an on-air personality, with the debut of his self-titled, “The Pat McAfee Show.” There’s nothing particularly unusual about a former football player joining the all-sports all-the-time cable network as an analyst. But McAfee’s digital media pedigree and his creator-coded personal style nonetheless reinforce the central importance of online platforms to developing an audience in 2023, particularly if you’re aiming for Gen Z viewers born post-Macarena.
ESPN’s parent company Disney is hard at work reinventing the sports cable network for the streaming era. There’s the ESPN+ streaming service, which launched in April 2018, of course. But the new service feels more like a supplement to the main channel—it’s essentially ESPN Abridged—and its approach is already a bit outdated. (Its newsy doppelganger, CNN+, only lasted weeks before shutting down after its 2022 launch.)
Disney’s new plans focus on making the online ESPN less a final destination than a hub, pointing viewers to all the live sports and analysis content that’s happening across every broadcaster and streaming service.
But just linking out to Golf Network streams alone isn’t going to maintain ESPN’s brand as the must-stop shop for all things sports. They’re going to need their own line-up of personalities and analysis, people you can only hear from by watching ESPN originals.
Hence making new hires like McAfee, who has built an audience of more than 2 million YouTube subscribers through his unfiltered commentary. It’s the kind of style that’s familiar to anyone who watches a lot of sports content on the internet, which immediately brings to mind the aggressive and occasionally even trollish tone of something like social media blog titan Barstool Sports. …