Keith Olbermann very badly wants to work for ESPN again. And today's New York Times story—written by Those Guys Have All the Fun co-author Jim Miller, who along with Richard Sandomir is working on a feature about ESPN for the paper—suggests that Olbermann is going to have a hell of a hard time finding a job there.
Throughout his career, Olbermann has been a serial burner of bridges. He torched one at ESPN in spectacular fashion. Then he went to Fox and alienated people over there. Then MSNBC. Then Al Gore and Current TV.
He's been quiet ever since, hosting a show for the MLB Network last year and making the occasional cameo in the Citi Field press box. Yesterday found him in Scottsdale, craning his neck just so to get a tweetable photo of Cody Ross (video below courtesy a tipster).
ESPN seems like a natural fit at this point, to the extent that one exists for a guy with both Olbermann's credentials and his self-regard. Problem is, if there's one thing ESPN has long hated, it's stars. Bristol executives look warily upon anyone who sees himself or herself as bigger than the network; they've done so since half-past Olbermann, really. John Skipper, ESPN's president, went on the record with the Times today and spoke about the guy who helped put the network on the map. And not in a very friendly way.
He confirmed, on the record, that Olbermann, "both personally and through a couple people I know, reached out to say, ‘Gee, I would love to have dinner.'" Subtext: Not only did he did reach out to me, he reached out to a whole lot of people saying he desperately wants back in. Skipper confirmed that a dinner took place at a very fancy midtown Manhattan restaurant and that Olbermann was "provocative and witty and fun" and "very interesting" and—here's the fuck-you part—he "clearly" wants back at ESPN.
He might as well have stabbed Olbermann in the eye with his lobster fork. What else, Skip?
"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 said.
"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. That said, this is not an easy place to get back into. There are not that many successful examples of people who have come back, in part because it's like water filling a vacuum. When somebody leaves, somebody else fills their place."
Subtext: He's not coming back, but I'll leave the door cracked open thismuch. Why would Skipper be so open about this? Well, it's the opposite of how everyone has dealt with Olbermann before. Each network that's brought him in was both charmed and desperate. It needed a star. It needed ratings. Skipper is saying no thank you. If Olbermann really wants back in, then he won't mind being humiliated by me in public. And if he doesn't mind that, maybe he'll be chastened just enough to prevent him from running amok once again.
This is what it looks like when ESPN decides to swing its dick around. Anyone else in the market for Olbermann's services—maybe NBC Sports (which Skipper bitchily insists on calling OLN), maybe Fox's new sports network, maybe CBS Sports—will now appear to be scurrying after ESPN's leftovers. And there was an indirect message for current ESPNers embedded in Skipper's quotes, too. Rachel Nichols's recent move from ESPN to CNN proved something to a lot of talent up in Bristol: ESPN isn't necessarily the endgame. There are lots of nice places to work—other reputable outfits with nice salaries and opportunities and offices that aren't located in the dreary middle of nowhere. But with this Times story, Skipper gets to remind his talent: If you leave, we'll still be bigger than you and, oh by the way, "this is not an easy place to get back into." Who cares if you were once a legend here?