How does one define power in sports media? It isn’t the size of your Twitter following, the amount of money you make, the number of awards you’ve won or the ratings for your TV show. It isn’t a popularity contest nor a matter of journalistic heft. It’s not simply having opinions – it’s the ability to shape opinion while stimulating and driving discussion. (A deeper discussion can be found here.) We left network executives off this list, as other outlets regularly rank them.
25. Brian Windhorst, ESPN – LeBron James is, far and away, the most powerful American athlete of our times. Windhorst offers a unique, well-honed perspective, having covered him as a beat writer his entire career.
24. Tom Verducci, Sports Illustrated and Fox Sports. There are many writers turned television personalities. Verducci is the only one coming off a National Sportswriter of the Year Award and calling a World Series from a booth, having never played Major League Baseball.
23. Buster Olney, ESPN. Baseball has become so stat-heavy, the animated debates that take place over the NBA and NFL aren’t happening as often. But even the casual fan devours Olney’s must-read morning collection of links, which shapes opinion daily. And, yes, he’s obviously biased against your team.
22. Josh Pyatt, William Morris Agent. See how Erin Andrews got a crossover deal? In three years she went from sideline reporter to hosting Dancing with the Stars. Check out Michael Strahan’s move, too. Pyatt has that type of influence on networks.
21. Rachel Nichols, Turner Sports – After spending time at the Washington Post and about a decade at ESPN, Nichols landed at Turner. Her CNN show was short-lived due to a less-than-ideal time slot and budget cuts, but her incisive questioning – most notably with Floyd Mayweather – had ripple effect. She’s an essential presence at Roger Goodell press conferences from now until the end of time.
20. Mike Francesa, WFAN. Not just a New York radio presence anymore thanks to his FS1 deal. If you ask sports bloggers which radio host generates the most blog posts, it’s the longtime radio host with zero social media presence (save for a spot-on imitator). If Francesa and Chris “Mad Dog” Russo didn’t invent sports talk radio outright, they were the most prominent figures in making it what it is today.
19. Darren Rovell, ESPN. His prolific Twitter feed probably generates more sports blog posts – often about pithy things such as ballpark food – than anyone else’s in media. His tweets can sometimes lack tactful tone, and once got him suspended. Please reign in your anger; as the opening states, this isn’t a popularity contest.
18. Paul Finebaum, ESPN/SEC Network – He was profiled by the New Yorker, and that was before he became a multimedia presence on ESPN and the SEC Network. His radio show is a focal point for college football fans and media members. He can alter the sport’s national discussion with an interview, a hot bit of gossip, an offhand comment or a tweet.
17. Jason Whitlock, ESPN. Former columnist and radio host is running an ESPN site on race, sports and culture. Polarizing is probably the word that fits him best. Truth is, that’s a good thing in the sports media if the goal is to maximize your exposure. The majority of folks on this list have a love/hate relationship with their audience.
16. Dan Patrick, NBC Sports. One of the few success stories of high-profile media members to leave ESPN and land on his feet. He hosts a daily radio show — of which interviews regularly become ensconced in the news cycle — as well as Sports Jeopardy, and has studio roles for the Olympics and Sunday Night Football.
15. Nick Khan, CAA Agent. The most powerful person in sports media you’ve never heard of. Tight with ESPN President John Skipper. His client list – Kirk Herbstreit, Rachel Nichols, Paul Finebaum, Hannah Storm, Keith Olbermann, Lindsay Czarniak, and Allie LaForce, to name a few – is a Who’s Who in sports media.
14. Kirk Herbstreit, ESPN. His voice is the most powerful of any media member on college football. His opinions angered those in Columbus so much that he had to move. Stars on ESPN’s most important pre-game show. Like Jon Gruden, he has a lot of leverage because he’s on the short list of former jocks, coaches, and/or executives who remains employable in the sport he covers.
13. Jay Glazer, Fox Sports. It’s tough for reporters to crack a list like this because they’re not offering opinion and fans aren’t hanging on their every word. But Glazer isn’t a robotic, strictly-news guy. Of any reporter in major sports, he may have the most direct line to actual athletes, as opposed to merely their constantly-spinning representatives.
12. Colin Cowherd, ESPN. Radio host has crossed over to TV in recent years and though he isn’t the most highly-paid or most listened-to, his opinion – love it or hate it – gets people fired up. Will he branch out beyond sports when his contract expires this year?
11. Dan LeBatard, ESPN. In the span of 10 years went from must-read columnist to must-listen radio host, and is becoming must-see TV. Like Bill Simmons, he can push the boundaries of what ESPN considers to be proper decorum. Short-term punishments have the net effect of increasing his brand.
10. Tony Kornheiser & Mike Wilbon, PTI. Even after stories have run through the ringer all day online and on ESPN studio shows, you’ll tune into PTI to see their takes on the matter because it will be different from the herd’s, and often from each others’. On occasion, this can be unflattering for them, but also there will be something profound that you have never thought of.
9. Mike Florio, Pro Football Talk. Created Ground Zero for NFL fans online. He built a publication from scratch, licensing it to legacy television network NBC, for whom PFT is far and away the most important digital sports property. He’s also a part of their Sunday Night Football telecast. Like Adrian Wojnarowski, Florio can rub some the wrong way sometimes, but he’s essential to follow if you’re in any way connected with the league.
8. Skip Bayless & Stephen A. Smith, First Take. Have built a strong brand based on embracing over-the-top debate about basketball and football. Whether you like it or not, when they speak, a lot of fans listen. The show has become staple programming on ESPN 2. Smith just got paid, and Bayless is up next.
7. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers. The only athlete to make the list – though we quibbled over where to put him – because in two of the biggest NBA stories in the last five years, he has co-opted ESPN and Sports Illustrated to break news. His tweets and Instagram “likes” regularly become their own stories. The line between what constitutes media is constantly blurring. We’ve seen bloggers move into more prominent roles, teams and leagues get into the media business, and athletes take things on themselves. While Derek Jeter’s “Player’s Tribune” hasn’t quite ascended to the top of the media landscape yet, one athlete did break the largest story of the last 12 months: LeBron, on his terms.
6. Jay Bilas, ESPN. Nobody’s opinion carries more weight in college sports coverage. He excels in the studio, on game broadcasts, and has substantial clout on social media. In a few years, everyone may thank him for getting college football and basketball players paid.
5. Jon Gruden, ESPN – The Worldwide Leader pays more than $100 million per game for Monday Night Football. This guy is the face of it. The mere whiff of a coaching rumor can send ESPN scrambling to come up with a contract extension. Only 51, those rumors remain plausible.
4. Adrian Wojnarowski, Yahoo Sports – Many newsbreakers in sports only offer news, but that won’t get you on a list like this. Woj has essentially created the modern column – relentless reporting combined with strong opinion. After Simmons, he’s going to be the 2nd most sought-after media free agent later this year. His persona rubs some NBA specialists the wrong way, but to ignore him would be impossible.
3. Peter King, The MMQB – While many have questioned his relationship with the league office, King has a profound ability to drive traffic, and follow-up, from his own writing and reporting. He has cultivated a great staff at his SI vertical, which consistently produces engaging content, and has a lot of storytelling influence for its size.
2. Charles Barkley, TNT – Outspoken NBA analyst with the ability to offer strong opinion on any topic. Without using social media himself, his thoughts are passed around ad nauseam. His chemistry with co-panelists on Inside the NBA is appointment television. Not surprisingly, Turner locked them all down with multi-year extensions.
1. Bill Simmons, ESPN (?) – Highly influential in nearly everything he does – podcast, columns, his bestselling book – though never quite gained a foothold on television, he’s on the short lists of columnists who can truly shape opinion. His every move will be scrutinized until, and after, he lands a blockbuster deal(s).
The next 5, no order:
Michelle Beadle, ESPN; Adam Schefter ESPN; Dan Wetzel, Yahoo Sports; Jim Rome, Showtime; Matthew Berry, ESPN.