Sports media circles have been buzzing for a couple months about the fact that Katie Nolan is making seven figures at ESPN without content production commensurate with that salary, and that bubbled to the forefront yesterday when Andrew Marchand of the New York Post publicized it.
In no particular order, here are my thoughts about the story and reaction to it:
1. This is more an ESPN story than a Katie Nolan story.
Every story with a negative bent at ESPN includes the part about how they have had three rounds of layoffs in the last several years, but that only captures part of the story about morale at the company. For all but the most elite talents who management is clearly prioritizing to promote, even ESPN talents who stick around get squeezed when their contract comes up.
This is all a matter of perspective and in the grand scheme of things these people are very fortunate to be working for six-figure salaries in sports, at a platform that maximizes their relevance and personal brand. But there are many, many ESPN talents whose job responsibilities include daily television, radio, and/or rigorous travel to cover beats, who have been at ESPN for years and in all fairness should be having their pay and their content elevated, who do not come close to making a million dollars a year.
Even as they must appreciate Katie’s talent and potential, if you don’t think it bothers the heck out of them that she is comparatively unproven and comes in from the outside and doubles or triples their pay while in many circumstances they feel personally stuck, I don’t know what to tell you. It’s human nature.
So far, Katie has not done a ton at ESPN. She is on Snapchat a couple days a week (ESPN touted the Snapchat numbers, but either couldn’t or wouldn’t tell Marchand whether her appearances provide bigger numbers than others), has appeared on Highly Questionable and SVPCenter, has a weekly podcast, and was a coach opposite Rachel Nichols during the NBA Celebrity All-Star Game.
2. Katie should get the most she can.
The issues ESPN has with other employees really aren’t Nolan’s problem. She and her WME-IMG representatives negotiated the best deal they could get, by creating either real or perceived leverage in the marketplace. More power to them for getting seven figures when Garbage Time on FS1 (disclosure: TBL’s editor-in-chief Jason McIntyre is an on-air personality at FS1) was critically lauded but did not move the needle with TV ratings.
It’s totally unknowable whether Katie would be doing more or different work if John Skipper hadn’t resigned in December, after she joined the company in October. There were many talents and initiatives during Skipper’s tenure where the layers of management beneath him disagreed with his chosen strategy. But because it was his vision and he was ultimately in charge they were rammed through.
But there were some things that ESPN knew or should have known. It cannot be denied that Nolan possesses that rare, unteachable talent of being able to connect with viewers as if there weren’t a screen between them. But she is creatively particular. Almost everyone at ESPN who makes seven figures is either on daily television or radio, or has a role directly connected with the games or adjacent studio programming where ESPN has the broadcast rights.
This was not going to be a reality for Katie, who isn’t connected with a singular sport and does not aspire to do a standard daily talk show. She is on-record as not being a morning person, and is more comfortable doing taped programming than live. For example, sitting in with the Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz for an hour in March, she did not get many words in.
But at the end of the day, who would you rather be right now: Katie Nolan making a million dollars a year, or somebody who deserves it more based on past performance (as opposed to the high upside everyone has seen in Katie for the past 5+ years) but is making half that?
3. It was surprising ESPN made a public comment.
ESPN PR was in a “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” situation here. If they commented publicly for the story, they would have had to essentially justify the fact that she is making much more money than a lot of their employees who produce more content. If they declined to comment, they look like they were hanging her out to dry. Here was what Ryan Spoon, who was put in charge of ESPN’s social content last year, said:
“When Katie joined ESPN, we announced that she would bring her perspective, authenticity and sense of humor across multiple platforms in a variety of projects, and that is exactly what is happening,” said Ryan Spoon, ESPN senior vice president of social media, as part of the statement. “Yes, she is most prominent on digital. That’s not a flaw; it’s by design. Building invested fans today requires that you reach them in a variety of ways and not be limited by past conventions.”
If you look at what the logical role for Katie at ESPN is, in my opinion it would be to almost entirely forego linear television and focus on building a digital footprint. That is what ESPN is doing.
With their large social distribution, ESPN could very well create a digital show for Nolan, and sell a presenting sponsorship that brings more back in revenue than the seven figures her salary costs them. While this is true of any number of talents who don’t make that much money at the company — and, again, almost everybody else in sports media who commands that level of compensation must prove they can engage a large audience before receiving it — it actually does make some sense on a level where they could justify her salary in a vacuum.
4. Sports media salaries are newsworthy.
Since its advent in 1979, ESPN has had tens of thousands of, if not over a hundred thousand, segments where athlete salaries were discussed and analyzed. If they are going to talk about these figures ad nauseum, the public can learn and converse about what their people make.
A couple months ago, the salaries of Mike Greenberg, Michelle Beadle, and Jalen Rose were publicized by The Hollywood Reporter, and they are cited in the same breath as Get Up’s disappointing ratings. Skip Bayless, Jon Gruden, and Jason Witten’s numbers are out there, and are magnitudes greater than Katie Nolan’s pay. It’s a fair topic of discussion, that ESPN has perpetuated on its own airwaves on countless occasions.