Following months of speculation and a recent report that Katie Nolan had asked to be released early from her contract with Fox Sports, ESPN announced what everyone already expected: Nolan is joining the Worldwide Leader.
The announcement is the latest blow for a limping Fox Sports (which was unable or unwilling to use Nolan, a popular homegrown talent, yet somehow manages to find a place for flopsweating conspiracy enthusiast Jason Whitlock) and a boon to ESPN, a network desperately trying to stay relevant as sports fans increasingly get their sports news and highlights from social media. In its announcement, ESPN said Nolan would be a “prominent digital presence while also making appearances across ESPN studio programming.”
Nolan—whose late night-styled monologues on her FS1 show Garbage Time addressed everything from chugging six beers to former NFL player Greg Hardy’s domestic violence—has a reputation as being funny, fearless, casual, quick-witted, and caustic. She thrived in that role, winning an Emmy for Outstanding Social TV Experience last year and gaining hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers along the way. She used her show to rag on The Players’ Tribune, call out a colleague’s rampant misogyny, and speak frankly about being a woman in the sports industry. Since February, though, when her show was cancelled, she’s been mostly MIA. There were reports that former Fox Sports president Jamie Horowitz wasn’t invested in shows that predated his time at the network, possibly explaining the difficulty in finding a niche for Nolan.
But even after Horowitz was fired amid a sexual harassment probe in July, Nolan remained primarily off the air.
Now that she’s back in business at ESPN, there are more questions. What will be be doing in the digital sphere for ESPN? A web show? A podcast? Either or both options are possible, as ESPN is starting to create more digital videos and already has a whole roster of podcasts, some more popular than others. Both would be good ways for her to gain traction at ESPN while the network finds a more permanent spot for her. It’s long been rumored that Nolan might wind up with a show produced by Pardon the Interruption and Around the Horn producer Erik Rydholm, and maybe she will. The more important unknown, though, is who will she be. Will ESPN let her continue her biting commentary and barbed sendups of the absurdities of the sports world? Or is the idea to position Nolan as a generic Bristol android?
Of Nolan’s future, ESPN’s statement said, “Announcements regarding her specific assignments are forthcoming.”
Nolan’s professional personality is different from ESPN’s traditionally polished and straight-laced pundits, who tend to have made their bones as sideline reporters or columnists. Bringing Nolan to ESPN could be read as part of the network’s recent effort to loosen up its image by integrating popular social-media personalities into its programming. From Barstoolers like living parody PFT Commenter and his sidekick making fun of Darren Rovell on an ESPN radio show to college football blogger Spencer Hall turning up on SportsCenter, inviting sports-media types with huge Twitter followings on its shows is part of how the network is shifting to meet its audience. Hiring Nolan is, among other things, an extension of that trend. In ESPN’s statement, Nolan said:
“I could not be more excited to have a prominent digital presence while also making appearances across ESPN studio programming. When I was a little girl, I always dreamed that one day announcements regarding my specific assignments would be forthcoming.”
ESPN let Nolan sneak a joke in the press release, but will they let her call out her colleagues? Will they let her tear into sexism in sports? Will they let her drink beer on screen? Will they let her attempt to adopt a bench for David Ortiz? Will they let her be herself?