The power had by some of the most-recognized names in the sports media seemingly grows with every year. Part of that reality has to do with the popularity of those personalities among fans who watch sports-related television, who listen to sports talk radio content and who follow sports media individuals across multiple social media platforms. Those who are able to drive television and radio ratings and who have massive followings on websites such as Twitter are able to work just about anywhere they want in the sports world, and they also make quite a substantial amount of money doing so.
The Big Lead, which is an extension of USA Today Sports, released its yearly list of the most power people in sports media for 2015 in May. It should come as no surprise to anybody who follows North American pro sports that personalities who have associations with ESPN, the television and radio king of sports in the United States, dominate the majority of the list. SportsCenter anchors, talk show hosts and in-game commentators who work for the “Worldwide Leader” have, over the years, become stars all on their own, and some are just as recognizable as are the athletes who take the fields and courts for games.
What is somewhat ironic about that last sentence is that the man atop the list of the most powerful people in sports media no longer works for ESPN. It is perhaps that reality that has made him even powerful in the sports world than he was at the beginning of the year. Now that he is a free agent as of the posting of this piece, that man will be able to pick his next place of employment, and you can be sure that he is going to cash in on a lucrative deal that will probably be worth more than what ESPN was paying him. Not bad work if you can get it.
20. Mike Francesa
Anybody who ever enters the sports talk radio world can only hope to achieve all that Mike Francesa has accomplished during his legendary career. Francesa, the WFAN radio personality who is sometimes featured on national television via FOX Sports 1/2 (all that matters is that the checks clear, right Mike?), is the undisputed Number 1 in his industry, and the host continues to win in the ratings and in pay scales. His popularity among listeners is as strong as ever, so much so that some in the New York City area host an annual “FrancesaCon” in his honor. Francesa even made an appearance at the 2015 edition of the event.
19. Darren Rovell
If you are ever feeling as if the world is against you, hop on over to Twitter and check out Darren Rovell’s mentions and realize that somebody else has it worse. Rovell has riled fans up with certain Tweets that he has made in the past, and ESPN even allegedly reeled him in from off of social media at one point. The ESPN reporter is also responsible for posting interesting tidbits of information that have made for some blog posts – I’m guilty of using Rovell information to produce content for this very site. You may not love him, but you are in denial if you do not see Rovell as being a power person in the sports world.
18. Paul Finebaum
One could argue that Paul Finebaum has become the face of the SEC thanks to ESPN and to the SEC Network. Finebaum is as connected as is just about anybody who covers that conference, and his radio program that is simulcast via ESPN television property the SEC Network is a must-listen show for people who live and breathe SEC 12 months out of the year. Sure, he sometimes shows expected biases toward the conference – anybody in his position would do the same – but there is no question that Finebaum is one of the best in the business at covering the college football world.
17. Jason Whitlock
Many of the people in this list are polarizing among sports fans, none more so than Jason Whitlock. Fans of Whitlock eat up his columns and his appearances on ESPN shows such as Pardon the Interruption, while those who are at the other end of the spectrum seem to literally hate the man at a personal level. It sometimes appears as if Whitlock knows exactly what he is doing and going out of the way to fire up his detractors, but that is simply good business for those who work in sports media. You’re probably doing something right if they’re talking about you.
16. Dan Patrick
Dan Patrick is a unique case in the sports media world in that he is bigger now than he ever was while working for ESPN. Patrick has a national sports talk radio show that is simulcast on NBC Sports Network every weekday that it airs, he hosts in-studio Sunday Night Football broadcasts, and he has also had studio gigs covering the Summer and Winter Olympics. He is now his own sports media brand, and Patrick has proven that one can find great success outside of the ESPN umbrella. Patrick has done just fine branching out on his own.
15. Nick Khan
The first word that probably comes to mind when seeing the name of Nick Khan: Who? Khan is the agent to some of the biggest stars in the sports media world, several of whom are spotlighted in The Big Lead list. Along with having associations with individuals who work for ESPN and for other sports networks, Khan has also represented Nancy Grace. Khan is the only person who is not an on-air personality, reporter or athlete to crack into this list, but is it entirely possible that he is actually the most-powerful person in sports media when you consider what he is able to provide his clients.
14. Kirk Herbstreit
The former quarterback has done well to come into his own and become one of the faces of college football programming for ESPN. Kirk Herbstreit appears on television every week of the college football season via the College Gameday show and also other programs, and Herbstreit also speaks on ESPN radio programs across the United States. He is also a skilled color commentator for games that air on ESPN and on ABC. While Herbstreit has plenty of leverage in future negotiations due to his talent and his abilities, ABC/ESPN would be downright silly to ever let him sign for a competitor.
13. Jay Glazer
Jay Glazer not only does not work for ESPN. He has, at times, loved to feud with that company when pointing out that he out-scooped the four-letter network in reporting breaking National Football League news. Glazer is widely regarded as one of the most-connected NFL reporters out there, and he is also a noted Ultimate Fighting Championship aficionado. Football fans can see Glazer on FOX Sports 1 programming throughout the year, and you can hear him every Friday of a NFL regular season on the Mike Francesa Show that airs on WFAN out of New York and on FOX Sports 1/2.
12. Colin Cowherd
Mike Francesa is far and away the best in the business as it comes to hosing a national sports talk radio program. Some see Colin Cowherd as being next on the list. Cowherd has the luxury of following hit ESPN Radio show Mike & Mike, and he can be heard via the company’s national radio network and also on TV network ESPNU. His ability to rile listeners up with his hot takes has caused Cowherd to shoot up lists such as the one created by The Big Lead, and Cowherd could be on the verge of signing a big contract with either ESPN or with another company by the time 2016 rolls around.
11. Dan LeBatard
Of all of the people who are featured in this piece, it is entirely possible that none may have a brighter long-term future than Dan LeBatard. LeBatard first became a hit among sports fans due to his fantastic columns, and he found even further successes as a sports talk radio host. ESPN wisely gave LeBatard his own 30-minute television program, one that too many fans cannot watch because of when it airs (4:30 pm ET). Catch the Highly Questionable show via DVR or replay if you have not been watching it, as you do not know what you are missing. ESPN has a gem in LeBatard.
10. Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon
ESPN gambled a bit all of those years ago when the company decided to air Around the Horn and Pardon the Interruption, two unique talk shows that, in theory, seem better off on the radio than on television. That decision has paid off for the company, and the two PTI hosts both deserve credit for the success of that program. Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon work as well as any other duo in the sports media world, and the ESPN hosts are “Happy Hour” weekday mainstays on the Worldwide Leader. Editions of PTI can be downloaded via the ESPN Radio app.
9. Mike Florio
Like any reporter or anybody who is able to voice out opinions on the NFL, Mike Florio sometimes irritates pockets of football fans. With that said, the Pro Football Talk czar is a must-follow on Twitter for anybody who wants to know what is happening in the NFL. Florio took a personal football property and made it worthy of being the top NFL presence on the NBC Sports website, and he is also a weekly contributor to Sunday Night Football broadcasts. He also serves as a host of the Pro Football Talk show that airs on NBC Sports Network every day of the midweek, even during NFL offseasons.
8. Skip Bayless & Stephen A. Smith
We all know what is going on with ESPN show First Take. The “Embrace Debate” gimmick is no secret. Heck, ESPN has gone so far to broadcast the mantra. Yes, Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith are, at times, playing roles as sports talk commentators, and yet fans who access the program one way or another during midweek mornings cannot get enough. They may very well be future hosts of Pardon the Interruption if ESPN were to switch things up at some point in the future, and it would also not be a surprise if the company was to give them prime-time programming sooner rather than later.
7. LeBron James
The man who returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers after a four-year stint with the Miami Heat is the only athlete to crack into this list. It is no wonder how he did so. James has been responsible for the biggest National Basketball Association stories of the past five years – “The Decision” and “The Return” – and the hoped-to-be savior of Ohio is bringing all kinds of revenue to regions of northeast Ohio that desperately need the boosts during times of the year when pro football is not being played in Cleveland. There is no pro athlete in North America who means more to his home city than James, an international superstar and still the best basketball player on the planet.
6. Jay Bilas
Once known for being a talented in-game commentator, Jay Bilas has risen to become the in-studio face of college basketball for ESPN. It does not matter if he is speaking about teams during a pregame show, if he is helping to call the action while courtside or if he is doing a segment about upcoming NCAA Tournament contests. Bilas is tremendous at all aspects of his current gig. He has, in recent years, made waves and headlines by speaking out on multiple occasions about top-tier college basketball and college football players deserving to be paid salaries. Bilas may soon get his wish.
5. Jon Gruden
The former NFL head coach should never find himself needing to collect a paycheck from a team. Jon Gruden is doing just fine while working for ESPN. Gruden’s excitement during games has made him the face of Monday Night Football broadcasts, and the Quarterback Camp programs that feature the former coach grilling to-be NFL QBs air every spring leading up to a NFL Draft. It is possible that Gruden may one day feel the need to scratch the itch of once again coaching in the NFL, but ESPN has, in the past, been willing to make it well worth his while to remain with the company. That trend likely isn’t ending.
4. Adrian Wojnarowski
Sports fans and even sports talk radio hosts often ask the same question whenever a hot basketball rumor emerges: “Has Woj reported it yet?” NBA news is not considered news unless Adrian Wojnarowski is able to confirm it, and he has done well to mix his reports with editorials that have not always been hits among fans and among other members of the media. It was his hot takes, most notably about LeBron James, that put him atop the Sports Media Watch “Worst of Sports Media” for 2010, but such criticisms have not stopped Wojnarowski from speaking his mind on a variety of topics.
3. Peter King
The main man responsible for the Monday Morning Quarterback property of Sports Illustrated is widely viewed as one of the top NFL reporters out there. King seemingly never takes significant time off from covering the league, matching in-season analysis with editorial pieces, reporting and even NFL mock drafts. Along with his online presence, King is a frequent guests on multiple nationally syndicated sports talk radio shows. You can also see King every week of the NFL regular season on Sunday Night Football broadcasts.
2. Charles Barkley
You should have no doubt that Turner knows it has television gold in the former NBA player. Along with the contributions he has made during NBA-related programming that airs on TNT, the company and also CBS now uses Charles Barkley for NCAA Tournament coverage. Barkley was one of several television personalities to be featured in national advertising campaigns that aired during the 2015 NCAA Tournament. Barkley has become a legitimate star during his second career, so much so that he may be more remembered for being a TV personality than for being a player when all is said and done.
1. Bill Simmons
Bill Simmons became the hottest free agent in the sports media world after he parted ways with ESPN in 2015. That news was hardly a shock to anybody who has been paying attention, as Simmons and ESPN have had a tumultuous relationship for some time. The former Boston Sports Guy made his way up the ranks at ESPN with his fantastic columns and podcasts, and the company even gave him multiple television segments. Simmons will have his choice of where to work whenever he decides to return to sports media, although we may not learn about his decision until the fall arrives.