In a statement, ESPN executive Norby Williamson said, “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.”
Le Batard said in the release: “Gracias to ESPN for unleashing [co-stars] Papi and Stugotz upon an unsuspecting America, and for lending its substantive credibility to our careening clown car … [T]hank you, Disney and ESPN, for a quarter century of absurd blessings.”
Le Batard’s radio show stretched the bounds of a sports show, often sounding more like a comedy hour only tangentially related to sports, and featured a regular cast of co-hosts around Le Batard. In a 2018 Slate piece about the show, TV writer Mike Schur called it “the weirdest and funniest non-sports-focused sports radio show in America.” Le Batard’s TV show, “Highly Questionable,” also has featured a motley crew of co-hosts over the years, including his father. It also gave opportunities to a diverse group of up and comers at ESPN, including several prominent women at the network.
Le Batard joined ESPN The Magazine’s staff as a contributor in 1998 and has contributed to the network in some capacity ever since. Despite the long relationship, ESPN and Le Batard had been increasingly at odds since the company’s previous president, John Skipper, left the network in 2017. During the summer of 2019, Le Batard, the son of Cuban immigrants, questioned on his radio show the company’s prohibitions on political conversations after a crowd at a rally for President Trump chanted, “Send her back! Send her back!” mimicking racist comments by Trump in reference to Somali-born Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.)
“We here at ESPN don’t have the stomach for the fight,” Le Batard said then. “We don’t talk about what is happening unless there is some sort of weak, cowardly sports angle that we can run it through.”
That led to a face-to-face meeting with current president Jimmy Pitaro to discuss the incident and his future at ESPN. Pitaro has spent much of his tenure attempting to steer ESPN away from controversy — political and otherwise — and back toward a traditional sports network, though the political guardrails were mostly removed in the wake of nationwide protests after the killing of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police.
Last month, Le Batard took aim again at ESPN when it laid off one of his producers, one of 300 positions eliminated across the company. Le Batard called it “the greatest disrespect of my professional career that I got no notice, no collaboration,” and announced he would pay the producer out of his own salary.
Moving on from Le Batard — his last day on the network is Jan. 4 — and his contract is the latest shake-up at ESPN in a difficult year when the network went without live sports for several months and parent company Disney saw its theme park and cruise businesses shut down because of the coronavirus. In addition to the layoffs, the largest in the company’s history, ESPN announced recently that two of its leading creative executives, Connor Schell and Libby Geist, will leave the network.
ESPN will initially move host Mike Greenberg to the 10 a.m.-to-noon radio slot now filled by Le Batard. The network has interest in former punter-turned-commentator Pat McAfee as a long-term radio replacement for Le Batard, though there are some complications because he is under contract with Sirius. “Highly Questionable,” meanwhile, will continue with a rotating cast of hosts.
Le Batard, a former columnist at the Miami Herald, will now find out what life is like without the benefit of ESPN’s enormous platform. He could find a home at Spotify or Sirius, companies that have made recent investments in audio programming.
In the statement, Le Batard said he would have an announcement about plans: “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. And that you’ll be hearing our laughter again soon enough.”