Unless you went to one of the two schools, odds are you had no plans to watch Pitt’s season opener against Youngstown State. Despite this, you are probably aware that ESPN will send Robert Lee to Heinz Field to call the game.
Lee is a part-time college football and basketball announcer for the Worldwide Leader in Sports™ who was supposed to do the play-by-play for the game between Virginia and William & Mary. It takes place in Charlottesville, the location of the white supremacist march earlier this month. ESPN thought it would be a good idea to move Lee off of this game. It might have been, and no one would have ever known about this, but unfortunately for them, Clay Travis found out about it.
Travis runs the site Outkick the Coverage. According to The Daily Beast, he no longer is compensated by Fox Sports — which used to have a licensing agreement with the site — although he appears on Fox Sports Radio. He is known for being a provocateur in the world of sports, and someone leaked the little tidbit about Lee to him.
The thing to understand about Travis is that he knows exactly what he needs to do to get people on his site. His bread and butter has been the “ESPN is becoming objectively more liberal” thing that has evolved into general criticisms of the way ESPN operates. This quote comes from the aforementioned story written by The Daily Beast, which Travis describes as a “far left site.” He additionally alleges that the story was “bought and paid for” by ESPN.
According to Mike Soltys, ESPN’s vice president of corporate communications, there’s a clear business reason why he might have been inclined to hammer away at this issue.
“We looked at one point, and over a two-month period, half of his top 10 most trafficked stories were critical of ESPN and most of them talked about our alleged liberal bias,” he said. Travis did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding the popularity of these stories prior to publication.
Travis knows what works for him and his audience. It is very hard to read that line from Soltys and, if it is true, not take it as “Travis knows he can make the most money possible by criticizing ESPN, especially its perceived political leanings.”
So when someone leaked a story about ESPN pulling someone off of a game because their name may offend people, it was like throwing him a fastball down the middle and daring him not to swing for the fences. He wrote a post titled “MSESPN Pulls Asian Announcer Named Robert Lee Off UVa Game To Avoid Offending Idiots” on Outkick the Coverage — MSESPN is his way of saying ESPN is becoming sports MSNBC, which of course, leans left — and went onto Fox News and CNN to discuss the “controversy.”
ESPN replied with a pretty decent statement, saying both the network and Lee had some concerns and mutually decided that moving him to the Pitt game was a good idea. But by that point, it was too late. The story had become, in the eyes of Travis (or, well, the eyes of Travis the businessman) the perfect way to go after ESPN.
Two days after this story first dropped, Travis wrote a story on Outkick the Coverage called “Outkick Crushes MSESPN On Fox News; MSESPN Fires Back,” he addressed ESPN in a mailbag post a day later before spending the entire mailbag discussing one question ESPN and PC culture, and has spent a ton of time tweeting about ESPN in various forms since.
The latest chapter in the saga between these two came on Monday, when Travis tweeted this.
The tweet that Travis quoted was deleted, but the site boxden.com has a thread which houses what the tweet said. It read “Gotta love ESPN’s new segment Africans Abroad, can’t wait for Asia Abroad or Europe Abroad….. @ClayTravis” and included a picture.
SportsCenter’s Phil Murphy provided context as to what this was in relation to.
But Travis kept his tweet up even after the original tweet was deleted. This led to Travis receiving an angry email from ESPN’s Senior Vice President for Corporate Communications Chris LaPlaca about his conduct. We know this happened because Travis tweeted it out.
(“Keri” is ESPN Senior Director of Communications Keri Potts.)
Travis replied with an email of his own in which he repeated his main talking points about the network and why it is failing in his eyes, but before he posted that to Twitter, LaPlaca replied with a tweet about sticking up for his colleagues.
Travis quote tweeted this and took a shot at LaPlaca’s intelligence/ESPN’s decision to pull Lee from the aforementioned broadcast before taking a break from posting for a few hours.
Travis’ objective here is to punch up at ESPN because, well, people like it when folks punch up at ESPN. The last decade or so of the network has seen a massive rise in embracing debate, and while this was a move based on what got the network the best possible ratings, it was a radical shift from the much-ballyhooed days of Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann sitting behind a desk and making fun observations while a highlight of Ken Griffey Jr. hitting a baseball to the North Pole played.
Basically, a lot of people disliked this move, even if they tuned in a few times a week to (hate)watch Skip Bayless (now at FS1) and Stephen A. Smith scream at each other about Tim Tebow. Or if, more likely, ESPN just happened to be on and they were subjected to a never-ending stream of takes about god knows what. (Ok, about Tebow. I do not have any facts to back this up but I would wager that a whole bunch of people started getting really annoyed with ESPN when Tebowmania was a thing.)
This resentment towards the network led to people wanting an alternative, with the issue being that there is no major alternative to ESPN. Places like Fox Sports and NBC Sports have tried, but they just haven’t been able to make a meaningful run at ESPN, even though Fox Sports has tried to replicate a few of ESPN’s tentpoles — first with the highlight show featuring a pair of big personalities in Dan O’Toole and Jay Onrait (who are no longer with the network), then by embracing debate with shows featuring former ESPNers in Bayless, Colin Cowherd, and Jason Whitlock.
Because none of this has even come close to working — if you follow Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated on Twitter, you know that Bayless’ show Undisputed consistently pulls in low ratings — this has made people even angrier. Travis, who wasn’t toiling in obscurity or anything before his railing against ESPN really took off, has found a way to channel that anger towards the network into a role on the internet as one of the network’s most prominent critics.