Before we start: This is an inherently subjective list, and there’s no chance you’ll agree with all of it. As you’ll discover in reading, power is not about who you like. In fact, if you hate someone but nonetheless watch or read or listen to what he or she has to say, that’s empowering. Last time we did this list, the biggest criterion was ability to drive broader conversation with opinions.
While that is still the most significant characteristic, the following qualities were also considered (in no particular order): 1), buzz when his/her name is in a headline, 2) ability to influence decision-makers at network or publication, 3) ownership of a beat, 4) equity in one’s own content, 5) how scared would someone in charge of a league be about getting ripped by that person?, 6) ability to say things that would get other people at the same company disciplined, with impunity, 7) how fundamental is the talent to his/her network or publication’s lineup? 8) ability to individually draw ratings and/or readership. Here we go!
30. Matthew Berry, ESPN
Daily Fantasy took a big hit between regulatory and media hurdles — many of which were the industry’s own fault — after inundating our consciousness during the 2015 football season. DFS had been a big boon to Berry, both through his partnerships and his ability to discuss the fantasy implications of stars every week, whereas traditional fantasy later in the season is all about finding diamonds in the rough. Nevertheless, Berry remains the most significant fantasy football voice on the biggest sports television platform, as well as a major digital draw.
29. Charissa Thompson, FOX Sports and Extra
Thompson anchors FOX NFL Kickoff, which this season saw ratings increase 15% when all other NFL pregame shows were down, according to the Sports Business Journal (at least through mid-November). There is an unprovable theory out there that the increased lead-in from this show helped FOX’s main pregame program stave off some further attrition. Thompson also crosses over into the entertainment industry, where she co-hosts the syndicated show Extra with Mario Lopez.
28. Clay Travis, FOX Sports and Outkick the Coverage
To put it lightly, Clay is a polarizing provocateur. He stirs up emotions in a way that makes it difficult for his haters to not read or listen to him. His Outkick the Coverage morning radio show launched on FOX Sports Radio in September; he retains the equity in his web site and Facebook Live/Periscope show of the same title, and can drive enough distribution himself to insulate him in the event that he were not to remain affiliated with FOX.
27. Bomani Jones, ESPN
Bomani recently signed a multi-year deal to remain with ESPN, where he will continue to host The Right Time on ESPN Radio in the afternoon. He is also expected to host an hour program, most likely with Pablo Torre, as part of ESPN’s still-revamping television lineup. If you were to draw a venn diagram with his broadcasted opinions and Clay Travis’s, there would be very little overlap. Consequently, they both greatly appeal to and anger mostly opposite groups.
26. David Portnoy (“El Pres”), Dan Katz (“Big Cat”), and PFT Commenter, Barstool Sports
So far, Barstool has grown leaps and bounds since they bet on mainstream viability after being acquired by Peter Chernin’s entertainment conglomerate early last year. Barstool hired former AOL Chief Marketing Officer Erika Nardini as CEO last year. The Rundown – a show starring Pres, Big Cat, and Kevin “KFC” Clancy – will air on Comedy Central next week live from Houston; it would hardly be surprising if Barstool has more television opportunities this year. Big Cat and PFT Commenter host the satire-heavy Pardon My Take podcast, which is consistently number 1 on the iTunes sports and recreation charts, surpassing longtime titans of industry who have far more recognizance as household names.
25. Paul Finebaum, ESPN
Finebaum owns the SEC region, and when he wields his cudgel on a coach or program in scandal it cuts deeper than just about any voice. He has his finger on the pulse of Nick Saban and Alabama, which you might as well write into the CFB playoffs every year in Sharpie.
24. Mike Francesa, WFAN
One of the more intriguing personality-driven questions in 2017 is where Mike Francesa will take his talents when his WFAN contract expires this December. Francesa’s longevity as number 1 in the ratings in America’s largest market is remarkable, and it will be seismic when he is no longer on those airwaves. If you are an owner, coach, or GM in that town, he has the power to bury you with a tirade.
23. Jay Glazer, FOX Sports
Glazer has mostly removed himself from up-to-the-second nuggets on matters like free agency signings or the comings and goings of various coaches. But, he waits in the weeds and will break major stories on television — not Twitter, which he often reminds his followers does not employ him — such as the Giants informing the league of possibly-deflated Steelers footballs.
22. Jemele Hill and Michael Smith, ESPN
The duo, formerly of His and Hers and soon to be hosts of 6 p.m. SportsCenter, have had a meteoric rise through Bristol in recent years. While their new time slot is a challenging spot to draw from — the conversation has cycled through the meat grinder since the night before, and pregame chatter is far less interesting than postgame — they are insulated from immediate pressure; Jemele recently tweeted a response to a detractor that she inked a four-year deal.
21. Jalen Rose, ESPN
Jalen has gravitas digitally (from his association with Grantland), on radio (nightly with Dave Jacoby), and on television. ESPN just announced this week that it will be he and Sage Steele alone on Sunday editions of NBA Countdown, which will be a major showcase for his basketball opinions (he also appears on the Wednesday and Friday night panels hosted by Michelle Beadle).
In December, we discussed his trajectory at the network:
20. Dan Patrick, NBC and FOX Sports Radio
Dan Patrick has been a big star for so long — it’s been over 20 years since his heyday Big Show SportsCenters with Keith Olbermann, and nearly a decade since he left ESPN — that he has the heft such that famous figures open up to him when they’d be more guarded with other interviewers. In addition to his radio show, he appears on NBC’s Sunday Night Football and Olympics telecasts, and hosts Sports Jeopardy on Crackle and NBCSN.
19. Mike Greenberg, ESPN
Greenberg evidently recognized that the long-lasting Mike and Mike battery was running out of juice. However you may feel about the bite or lack thereof of that show’s content, it had a long and successful run. By engineering the split, displacing several other SportsCenter anchors, commanding a reported $6.5 million annual salary that raised eyebrows in every sports media circle, and being the first of the several talents on this list who are seeking to get Bristol to sign off on a move to New York, Greeny’s viewership numbers will be under immediate scrutiny.
18. Michelle Beadle, ESPN
Although her detractors will point to her stint at NBC, which she acknowledged was a “hot mess,” her return to ESPN has been successful. There anecdotally feels like there is an extra bounce in NBA Countdown’s step when she hosts the program.
17. Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth, NBC
While Sunday afternoon games on FOX and CBS had less attrition in the ratings than Sunday Night Football and other primetime games this season, SNF is still widely regarded to be the premier NFL broadcast. It is not known how many years Al Michaels has left before Mike Tirico takes over, but the NFL was publicly insistent on Michaels calling the network’s Thursday night package before the season. In addition to broadcasting, Collinsworth also owns Pro Football Focus, whose stats are cited in a vast majority of football arguments where the stats coincide with one’s initial premise.
16. Jay Bilas, ESPN
Bilas is the preeminent voice in college basketball conversations. He can handle the analyst role in both game and studio broadcasts. He moves the needle when he weighs in on topics on social media. Bilas is one of the few broadcasters whose work is directly related to college athletics to use his platform to hammer the NCAA for corruption and hypocrisies.
15. Kirk Herbstreit, ESPN
Herbstreit, who was the slam dunk first overall pick in our site’s CFB media draft, has a seat at the table on College Gameday, and is the analyst on ESPN’s premier college football broadcast, which includes the national semifinals and championship game. When he does choose to go hard with his opinion, it makes waves.
14. Bill Simmons, The Ringer
There is no sugarcoating that 2016 was a very bad year for Simmons. He was given his own television show and a major promotional push that included an onslaught of commercials and billboards by HBO, and Any Given Wednesday did not last to a second season. He has since retreated into The Ringer, which launched with a massive staff but did not initially meet lofty content or traffic expectations. On the more positive side: his podcast metrics, which are impossible for third parties to really gauge, do indeed seem by all indications to continue to be strong. If you put his name in a headline, it still draws big clicks. The questions for 2017: Will The Ringer be successful, and might he attempt to rehabilitate his television career on FS1 with Katie Nolan?
13. Dan Le Batard, ESPN
Dan has a level of freedom of speech, which he personally values far more than money and fame, that is nearly unheard of at ESPN. Could anyone else have called out the network for giving John Calipari a spin in the Bristol carwash? While his radio show was removed from the Los Angeles and New York affiliates, his podcast is the best-performing at ESPN. On his radio show and on Highly Questionable, he takes bold creative risks. Le Batard’s sensibilities resonate with the top decision-makers at ESPN, including President John Skipper, and he uses his clout to help get young talent over and elevated through the network.
12. Peter King, MMQB
Week in and week out, Peter King still gets the biggest names in the NFL on the record for his MMQB column. Because he can be reticent to criticize the league, it becomes a major deal when he does. His vertical on SI.com empowers young writers to go everywhere and meet everyone in the league, and to write original stories that focus on depth and reporting as opposed to just headline takes.
11. Mike Florio, ProFootballTalk
Florio’s website is essential reading for anybody involved with or interested in the NFL, and he has also maintained equity in PFT through a licensing agreement with NBC. For the amount of content the site produces, it is truly staggering that in addition to him there are just four other full-time writers, and one part-timer. Beyond the web site, Florio hosts daily radio and television shows, and appears on NBC’s SNF postgame show.
10. Charles Barkley, TNT
There are times now where Barkley can sound like a broken record. Analytics are made up so owners can employ their son-in-law. The Warriors are wimpy jump shooters. He has an animus towards super teams and opponent chumminess and 3-point shots that is revisionist history based on his own career. But, Inside the NBA remains the hallmark studio show in sports, and his personality is the main driver of that. Two years ago, Turner Sports made it a major priority to keep him around.
9. Jon Gruden, ESPN
Gruden’s biggest source of power is that year in and year out NFL teams kick his tires to see if they can woo him back to the league. Whatever the Colts or Gruden want to say about it, he could’ve been coaching Andrew Luck next year if he wanted to be. Gruden is a huge personality on the most expensive sports rights platform there is, and his quarterback camps before the Draft drive annual conversation. But, ask yourself this question: If Gruden had taken the Colts job and ESPN had replaced him with Rex Ryan on MNF, how much would that really negatively impact ratings?
8. Adam Schefter, ESPN
We haven’t kept a scoreboard or anything, but it sure seems like Schefter gets like 80% of the NFL scoops there are to be had. He is relentless. In recent years, his television spots have shifted from being nearly exclusively news and information based to include his opinions on the games. He’s set to begin dabbling in the NBA.
7. Scott Van Pelt, ESPN
As of early this past December, SVP’s midnight SportsCenter was up 6% in the ratings year-over-year in the ratings versus SC the previous year (i.e. a comparison of a year he hosted the whole time, up against a year where he only hosted about a quarter of the shows). This is impressive, given some of the ratings attrition of other sports studio programming in 2016. The success of SVP’s platform led ESPN to strive to create personality-driven SC programs around Mike Greenberg and Michael Smith and Jemele Hill.
6. Joe Buck, FOX
Buck was on the call for the biggest sports story of 2016 — the Cubs winning the World Series — as well as the top-rated NFL package and this upcoming Super Bowl. His name was in headlines and trended on Facebook coinciding with his book release, and the news that he almost lost his career due to complications from hair plug replacement. With play-by-play people you can make the argument that fans are viewing to see the players and not the announcers, Buck is powerful enough that tens of thousands of people will sign a petition hoping he doesn’t call their games, and get summarily ignored.
5. Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser, ESPN
While PTI is generally self-contained and you don’t see many headlines about what is said on the show, it remains a dynamo in the ratings. If one of Wilbon or Kornheiser is gone or Wilbon is out of studio, it’s noticeable. The show, created in 2001 by Erik Rydholm and Jim Cohen, really brought the debate format to the forefront of sports television, and you can see its influence up and down this list.
4. Adrian Wojnarowski, Yahoo Sports
Woj still breaks a vast majority of NBA stories, and his Vertical site is humming along. His podcast is a platform where players, coaches, and executives open up to speak more candidly than you’ll hear anywhere else. While he has been less likely in recent years to drop a scathing nuclear bomb column, ask yourself this: If you’re an NBA owner or executive, who would you less rather be harshly criticized by, Woj or Barkley? It’s Woj in a landslide.
3. Skip Bayless, FS1
You can make the argument, as Richard Deitsch often points out, that Undisputed consistently gets crushed by something called Bubble Guppies in the ratings. But, it’s clear just based on the ongoing war between the ESPN and FOX Sports PR departments that Skip has the power to make those of us ensconced in the sports media cocoon talk about him. He reportedly signed a four-year deal with FS1 worth a total of $26 million, and the dent that his absence (and a confluence of other factors, including most significantly the election) put in First Take ratings undoubtedly contributed to the decision to move it from ESPN2 to ESPN. When Aaron Rodgers or LeBron James succeeds, Skip’s verbal gymnastics to discredit the performances are must-see TV.
2. Colin Cowherd, FS1
Many reading this are aware of the relationship that Colin has with our founding editor, Jason McIntyre. But, Colin took a big risk in leaving ESPN, which did try to keep him, for FS1 to form the foundation of the fledgling network’s daytime studio lineup. Colin is on-air for 20 hours a week on FS1 between The Herd and SFY, appears on the aforementioned FOX NFL Kickoff show hosted by Charissa Thompson, has influence in strategic decisions at the network level, and owns the rights to his secondary content. And this was all before he got called out by Dabo Swinney in the immediate aftermath of Clemson’s national championship.
1. Stephen A. Smith, ESPN
Stephen A., as much as this may be to your chagrin, is the most visible personality on ESPN, which remains far and away the most significant sports media platform. Part of power is how you wield it: When First Take ratings were in decline, the program got moved to ESPN. It was given a platform during halftime of Monday Night Football. His recent return to ESPN Radio displaced Dan Le Batard from the terrestrial New York market, and Russillo & Kanell from ESPN’s primary Sirius XM channel. You can make an argument that all of this, in addition to his omnipotence during the NBA playoffs, will leave Stephen A. overexposed. Heavy is the head that wears the crown?
Could make a valid argument for including:
Jim Nantz, Todd McShay, Ramona Shelburne, Katie Nolan, Shannon Sharpe, Darren Rovell, Joe Rogan, Louis Riddick, Rachel Nichols, Dave Meltzer, Ken Rosenthal, Mike Pereira, Alex Rodriguez, Mel Kiper, Suzy Kolber, Buster Olney, Jason Whitlock, Erin Andrews, Doris Burke, Bob Costas
Why are there only three women out of 30+ people on the main list?
Nearly two years ago, when our site did a similar version of this list, there was only one woman on it: Rachel Nichols. As my colleague Ty Duffy wrote at the time, this was not an indictment of the quality of work that women do in sports media, but an unfortunate reality of advancement opportunities that had been largely unavailable to them since the advent of the industry. Ty elaborated:
There is a significant number of women in sports media. Many women do wonderful work. Our list of Top 25 most professional and competent people in sports media would have been populated with them. “Power” is a different matter.
Sports is a discussion industry. Power is shaping that discussion. Few women are offered a prominent platform. Those that are often feature as peripheral reporters or traffic cops. Men are offered their own shows, their own websites and project their thoughts over multiple media. Women tend to be tasked with asking the questions, rather than riffing on them.
NFL Football is king. There are more male comedians working in a non-sideline reporter capacity on NFL pregame shows than women.
Women face challenges everywhere. But, the sports media trails other journalism genres and much of the rest of society for inclusion. It’s easier to find powerful women heads of state and CEOs. One could even make a case there are more powerful women within the sports industry, working in executive roles or ownership. Moving to the periphery of radio and, yes, sports blogging, the gender disparity only gets worse.
Getting women more prominent billing and higher level opportunities in sports media is a complex problem across multiple media. There won’t be an effortless solution.
There are a large number of women who are making their rise through sports media, and we are both hopeful and of the belief that their proportion in positions of power — in punditry, and otherwise — will increase dramatically in the coming years.
Disclosure: The Big Lead’s founding editor Jason McIntyre is an on-air personality for FS1 and FOX Sports Radio.
[Display image by Michael Shamburger]