Feature

Can Keith Olbermann finally succeed (again) with sports?

The SportsCenter host turned liberal pundit is reportedly returning to ESPN. Can he, and ESPN, handle it?

By pretty much all accounts, Keith Olbermann is not an easy TV personality to work with. His long, successful stint as a liberal firebrand at MSNBC ended in acrimony, and his follow-up gig at Al Gore's Current TV lasted less than a year and ended in a (now-settled) lawsuit. Now, Olbermann reportedly has a new job at his old network, ESPN.

It was as host of ESPN's SportsCenter in the 1990s that Olbermann first came to prominence. His pairing with co-host Dan Patrick was arguably the high point of ESPN's marquee show. But Olbermann had a famously tumultuous relationship with ESPN, too, and he left in 1997 under less-than-friendly circumstances. One ESPN official was quoted at the time as saying of Olbermann, "He didn't burn the bridges here, he napalmed them."

This ESPN commercial from 1997 playfully hints at the bruised feelings (via BuzzFeed):

ESPN didn't exactly rush to embrace Olbermann back into the fold. The new show — reportedly an hour-long late-night program on ESPN2 — is the result of 14 months of negotiations. Along with the toxic past, ESPN executives and their bosses at Walt Disney Co. were concerned that Olbermann has become too divisive because of his decade-long detour into political commentary.

To alleviate that concern, says James Andrew Miller in The New York Times, "on his new show, Olbermann will be free to discuss matters other than sports, including pop culture and current events, but not politics, the two-year pact specifies." Will a Keith Olbermann show without politics still draw an audience? ESPN executives are optimistic.

Obermann has had his share of professional and political firestorms, but "controversy has always been part of his public persona," says The New York Times' Miller. And while he's developed something of a reputation for being difficult, "his sports knowledge and on-air charisma have never been questioned."

Still, network executives have to be a little nervous. Olbermann reportedly lobbied hard to get back on ESPN, but his history makes this joke from New York's Dan Amira almost seem plausible:

Olbermann seems willing to take the ribbing. At a June 5 news conference to announce a short-term deal with Turner Sports to host that network's coverage of Major League Baseball's postseason, he joked that this contract's "safety valve" was that it only lasted about four weeks. "And if you go through the 37 pages of my resume," he added, "you will notice that every one of my jobs has lasted at least one month."

Maybe sports will provide a mellower Olbermann with a third chance at broadcasting glory. It's not lost on anyone that his hiring will give ESPN some buzz as it faces down the launch of a rival all-sports cable network, Fox Sports 1. And perhaps Olbermann's difficult reputation will even help boost the show: The 54-year-old's anointed main rival at Fox Sports 1 is the genial, 82-year-old Regis Philbin. Who would you rather watch talk sports?

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