As a rule of thumb, when you’re on-air talent for a major corporate sports network the way Dan Le Batard is at ESPN, you’re expected not to bite the hand that feeds you.
Le Batard, defying this expectation, decided like an angry goat at a petting zoo to try to bite ESPN’s hand off at the wrist on “The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz” on Friday.
Ariel Helwani, ESPN’s MMA reporter, was on hand, presumably to do the usual corporate hype machine puff interview ahead of “UFC Fight Night 143” on ESPN Saturday night.
It is the first foray into televised MMA for the “Worldwide Leader in Sports,” which previously had assumed the view that mixed martial arts was a brutish spectacle more akin to Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix in “Gladiator” at the movies than to the “sweet science” of boxing.
Boxing, an ESPN programming staple since “Top Rank Boxing” premiered on the network way back in 1980, enjoys far more prestige among older, traditional sports fans than does “cage fighting.”
And this fact was not lost on Le Batard, who treated Helwani with none of the respect you might expect from a colleague.
Before Helwani was even introduced, the radio host was calling MMA “a damn sewer.”
Le Batard elaborated further, saying, “It’s a sewer that ESPN didn’t want before but wants now all of a sudden. It was too violent for Disney but now it’s fine.” He then brusquely told Helwani to “sell your thing real quick.”
The clear implication, of course, was Le Batard telling his listeners, “Whatever this guy’s about to say, ignore it. He’s only here because ESPN said I have to have him on.”
Helwani tried to engage with Le Batard and steer the segment into something resembling an interview rather than a show trial, but the host was having none of it, eventually cutting Helwani’s microphone.
Le Batard then phoned Tony Kornheiser, host of ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption,” and ignored the guest on his show in favor of a little chat to kill as much of Helwani’s scheduled spot as possible.
Helwani, once Le Batard afforded him the privilege of having his mic back on, talked about how he was previously on the same show telling Le Batard all about how the UFC had banned him during Dana White’s previous beef with ESPN over the very subject that Le Batard brought up in the interview — ESPN’s and Disney’s steadfast refusal to work with mixed martial arts as a programming option.
It is here that the producer, perhaps sensibly concluding that his bosses would ask him if he’d done anything to rein in the rogue host, said, “Can we just talk about the fight?”
But Le Batard would not be deterred, and he threw current ESPN boss Jimmy Pitaro under the bus in the process.
“Dana White wanted (former ESPN boss) John Skipper just to be seen at a fight with him, because that sport, as you know, has the reputation of sewage, and that sewage isn’t something that Disney necessarily wanted to get into bed with,” he said. “And so now, what has happened is Disney sees, ‘Oh, there’s money to be made in MMA,’ and Disney’s buying everything, and ESPN’s buying everything, and now we’re telling you that the violence is OK. It wasn’t OK before, but now the violence is OK, and now we sell it to you with ESPN+,” the network’s new paid service.
Which … pardon me, Dan, but what’s your point? A guy got beaten to death on live national television on your network’s watch. Go ask your colleague Max Kellerman, he was there. George Khalid Jones beat Beethavean Scottland in a boxing match on ESPN, and Scottland never left the hospital, dying seven days after the fight.
That was back in 2001. Eighteen years later, ESPN still broadcasts boxing matches; in fact, Kellerman wouldn’t be co-hosting “First Take” on the network today if not for the reputation he built as a boxing broadcaster back in the day.
But MMA is “the violence is OK because there’s money in it even though it’s a sewer.” Sure, Dan. Keep telling yourself that.
Aside from that, Le Batard surely irritated his employer when he told the audience not to buy the product his show was supposed to be selling.
You can do that and get away with it if you’re funny — Charles Barkley roasting NBA League Pass’s one-game option on “Inside the NBA” back in 2017 is one of the funniest moments in that show’s history. It was hilarious, so Barkley and the rest of the crew, who got in on the fun (even the unflappable Ernie Johnson) weren’t penalized; even NBA and TNT executives could see the humor in the situation.
Le Batard, on the other hand, appeared to be purposefully antagonistic. You couldn’t blame the suits in Bristol if they decide to rap his knuckles.
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