The Most Influential in News Media list has been an annual staple for Mediaite since our inception in 2009. This year, thanks to demand from you, our loyal readers, the site expanded its coverage into the world of sports. In that spirit, we decided to present a list of the biggest stars in sports media, just as we have in news.
The early part of 2021 was dominated by leagues attempting to carefully navigate their way through seasons without cancellations. Fans slowly returned to stadiums, masks were removed and sports looked normal by the summer. But the year is ending with teams being ravaged by Covid again with the emergence of the Delta and Omicron variants. The NBA, NFL and NHL have all had their first postponements of the season this month.
That meant careful navigations in sports media too. Continued remote setups for the studio shows. Announcers calling games from their basements when they would usually be courtside. Finding a new normal in sports media has been an ongoing process, as it has been for all industries.
In many cases sports are considered the ultimate unifier, but in 2021 debates about the vaccine saw sports become a divider as athletes who take care of their bodies attempt to juggle what they believe is right for them, with what society wants them to do. That meant further politicization of sports outlets. Some capitulated uncomfortably, others dove in head-first. But the lines between sports and politics have all but disappeared.
Further proof of that was found at the Tokyo Olympics — which dominated the sports cycle in July and August, led by Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from team gymnastics events. Biles’ announcement helped signify the growing era of athlete empowerment as she joined Naomi Osaka, Kyrie Irving and other high-profile sports stars in prioritizing their mental health. Some outlets embraced this movement, others used it to stir up outrage. But everyone had a take.
From a business standpoint, sports media experienced a massive shift in 2021. While networks are still a major player in sports media, many talented personalities are proving they can use the digital space to build their own brands.
Today we recognize the 10 most influential personalities in sports media. We arrived at the final list by reviewing tangible figures such as TV ratings, podcast rankings and social media metrics. But for many sports personalities, their influence can also be determined by the dollars they command, the jobs they hold and the headlines they make.
With that, Mediaite is proud to present our 2021 selections for the Most Influential in Sports Media.
This list was written by Brandon Contes. It was curated by Contes and Mediaite editors Joe DePaolo, Colby Hall, and Aidan McLaughlin.
10. Skip Bayless
Skip Bayless might be the best provocateur in sports media and to prove it, Fox gave him a new $32 million contract in 2021.
With ratings in the 100,000-150,000 range, Undisputed still gets overshadowed by ESPN and First Take, but Bayless keeps the show’s headlines in competition with his former partner Stephen A. Smith. Although the FS1 show is not a ratings juggernaut on TV, Skip and Shannon: Undisputed is highly successful as a digital product, as one of the top-10 sports podcasts in the country. Smith’s First Take sits about 20 spots behind Undisputed in the podcast ranks.
With more than 3 million Twitter followers and an arsenal of hot takes, Bayless is always on the verge of going viral. His response to the Cowboys losing on Thanksgiving Day amassed nearly 5 million views alone. Bayless is widely known for provoking professional athletes, often sparking them to fight back. The most recent example came when Kevin Durant rejected a compliment from Bayless and issued a response on Twitter to prove he was watching Undisputed on a random Thursday morning.
Bayless vehemently hates on LeBron James and Aaron Rodgers, two athletes who are arguably better at their crafts than any other person in the world. But he used them both this year to further his strong pro-vaccine stance, destroying Rodgers for “lying” about his vaccination status and criticizing James for not getting jabbed sooner.
What Bayless lacks in objectivity, he possesses in shock value. Bayless seemingly says ridiculous things to create drama and we all constantly fall in his trap – perhaps the 70-year-old has a future in politics. But if superstar athletes like Durant care enough about his opinions to respond, how can fans not be similarly drawn to his sports takes?
9. Jemele Hill
In 2021, Jemele Hill further cemented herself as a premier voice on the intersection of sports and politics.
This year, Hill partnered with Spotify to launch The Unbothered Network, a podcast space with the goal of creating a platform “where Black women can hopefully see their full selves.” The former SportsCenter anchor hosts her own podcast and contributes to The Atlantic as a weekly columnist, but her ability to create a social media firestorm reaffirms her capacity as an influencer.
Hill had more than 3 billion Twitter impressions in 2021 and found herself trending nationally after she labeled West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin “a clown.” She also amassed more than 140,000 likes for a tweet on Super Bowl Sunday that helped get Colin Kaepernick trending after she criticized the NFL’s Inspire Change commercial for being hypocritical.
Hill never shies away from using her platform to hold organizations or people in power accountable, causing liberal media to often seek her comments, while conservatives are chomping at the bit to counter her opinions. In 2021, she became a frequent guest on Nicolle Wallace’s 4pm MSNBC show to cover the intersection of sports and politics — cementing herself as one of Simone Biles’ biggest supporters over the summer by vehemently challenging the Olympian’s widespread critics after she withdrew from competition for mental health purposes.
8. Dan Le Batard
Dan Le Batard oversees more organized chaos than any prominent personality in sports media and if you can’t appreciate that then you just don’t get the show.
ESPN didn’t get the show, which is why Le Batard sought freedom and parted ways with the Worldwide Leader at the start of 2021, co-founding his own company Meadowlark Media. Le Batard has displayed immediate success since leaving ESPN, with his show sitting as one of the top-3 sports podcasts in the country.
Le Batard was talking about sports and social issues long before it was cool to intersect the two. His unwavering love of freedom factored in the decision to part ways with ESPN earlier this year and it’s also why the son of Cuban exiles spoke so passionately about the series of protests that occurred against the island’s communist government in July. Le Batard is one of the few people willing to speak out against the NFL’s commercialized celebration of Pat Tillman and the league’s hypocritical treatment of Colin Kaepernick.
After co-founding Meadowlark Media, Le Batard also landed a $50 million distribution deal with DraftKings in 2021, setting the standard for sports radio shows wanting to go digital and paving way for Pat McAfee to land his recently announced $30 million per year contract.
One year after leaving ESPN, Le Batard is on the fast track to matching Dan Patrick, Rich Eisen and Skip Bayless as one of the few talents who can achieve success after breaking away from the Worldwide Leader.
7. Mina Kimes
It’s not an overstatement to claim Mina Kimes might be the most versatile sports personality in media. Typically, versatility is proved by the ability to cover multiple sports, but Kimes has proven herself to be a top analyst and an elite investigative reporter, a unique pairing that goes largely unmatched.
One of the biggest sports stories in 2021 occurred shortly after the New Year, a bombshell report featuring sexual harassment allegations against now former Mets general manager Jared Porter. It ended Porter’s brief tenure with the Mets and highlighted the misogynistic nature that still unfortunately exists in American professional sports. It was the culmination of years of work by Kimes, a rare deeply reported piece of journalism that was compiled and released without the use of social media.
In 2021, Kimes shed “rising” from her bio and officially arrived as a star at ESPN. Kimes is a co-host of NFL Live, contributed as a game commentator for ESPN during the football preseason and covered the 2021 NFL Draft for ESPN’s digital platform. Kimes is also featured on two of ESPN’s most popular studio shows, Around the Horn and First Take, joining the latter this year to help fill the void left by Max Kellerman. Since being added to First Take in September, Kimes has been lauded as one of Stephen A. Smith’s most competitive debate partners.
Whether it’s through investigative reporting, game analysis or debate segments, we are routinely reminded of Kimes’ distinctive combination of intelligence, fearlessness and entertainment value.
6. Pat McAfee
Pat McAfee established himself as the future of sports radio in 2021 and he just landed a monster contract from FanDuel to prove it.
McAfee bet on himself when he left the NFL in 2017, becoming a jack-of-all-trades media personality for Barstool, ESPN and WWE. But 2021 felt like Pat McAfee Inc.’s official arrival. Earlier in the year, McAfee slammed ESPN, claiming they banned their talent from appearing on his show. A few months later, FanDuel agreed to pay McAfee $30 million per year just so they can be promoted by his show.
McAfee also gained tremendous exposure for his weekly Aaron Rodgers interviews this year, which drove content to sports and news shows nationwide. Without Pat McAfee we would not know Aaron Rodgers sought Covid counsel from Joe Rogan or that the quarterback believes someone is leaking his medical information to the media.
The comfort level McAfee creates for guests mirrors that of the Howard Stern Show and naturally persuades interviewees to open up. Rodgers became a national news story when he tested positive for Covid and the quarterback fueled the narrative by becoming an open book on McAfee’s show.
5. Nate Burleson
Former NFL star Nate Burleson made one of the most surprising media moves of the year in 2021, showing off his versatility by joining CBS Mornings as a full-time host.
In January, when most football analysts stuck to sports, Burleson showed his propensity to have the uncomfortable conversation, surprising his NFL Network co-hosts by discussing the arrest of former Seahawks offensive lineman Chad Wheeler following disturbing allegations of domestic violence.
Burleson took home the Emmy Award for Outstanding Sports Personality/Studio Analyst for his NFL work in June. Two months later, he announced his departure from weekday sports analysis, attempting a new venture as a co-host of CBS Mornings.
Burleson’s audiences are incredibly wide ranging. On Sundays, he remains an elite football analyst for CBS as part of The NFL Today. On weekdays, the former wide receiver tackles daily news topics for CBS Mornings. Additionally, Burleson is building a new generation of NFL fans by hosting the league’s groundbreaking partnership with Nickelodeon — making him an influencer even among the youngest demographic.
4. Dave Portnoy
Dave Portnoy is the reason Major League Baseball showed interest in a broadcast partnership with Barstool Sports earlier this year. Dave Portnoy is also the reason Major League Baseball quickly shied away from a broadcast partnership with Barstool Sports.
Prospective partners are attracted to Portnoy — who founded Barstool Sports in 2003 — and his massive and loyal audience. But fears about his public history of offensive humor and sexual encounters also push established corporations away.
In 2021, Portnoy jumped on the NCAA’s monumental shift in allowing athletes to benefit from their name, image and likeness by reaching partnerships with thousands of “Barstool Athletes.” Portnoy also purchased broadcast rights to the Arizona Bowl and continued to launch Barstool Sportsbooks across the country.
He raised more than $40 million to help small businesses during the pandemic, and later, the Barstool founder decided he was capable of being a financial influencer, challenging New York Mets owner Steve Cohen and other Wall Street bigwigs after Robinhood restricted trading on meme stocks.
Despite calls from Elon Musk and other supporters to run for office, Portnoy told Tucker Carlson he wouldn’t do it in “a bazillion years,” amid a rant against politicians and biased media networks.
For better or worse, Portnoy is the definition of an influencer, having built a rabid following of supporters over the last two decades. While sports is the backbone of Barstool, the brand’s boisterous founder routinely serves as a bridge between all media circles.
3. Charles Barkley
Charles Barkley was inducted into the Basketball Hall-of-Fame for a third time in 2021, his most recent enshrinement coming for his media success with Turner’s Inside the NBA.
Barkley changed the narrative that studio postgame shows have to stick to sports, driving TNT’s Inside the NBA to have more interesting conversations regardless of who’s playing on the court. That ability was more important than ever in 2021, with sports and political issues so frequently intersecting. Whether it’s ranting against his home state of Alabama for booing Donald Trump or blasting his own bosses at Turner for buying into cancel culture, Barkley’s basketball opinions often became secondary in 2021.
Barkley is a great ambassador for basketball, but he doesn’t hesitate to rip the NBA when warranted, further demonstrating that viewers can count on his unbiased honesty. Earlier this year, the 58-year-old without a Twitter account was trending on social media when he opened the 2021 NBA season by blasting Kyrie Irving on national TV for refusing to get vaccinated. The video received more than 1.5 million views and was quickly picked up by other outlets such as CNN and Fox News. During his summer vacation, Barkley furthered his vaccine stance by headlining a vaccination drive and rally in Birmingham, AL — urging the state to stop being selfish and get jabbed.
Turner seeks to use Barkley as much as possible, featuring him during March Madness and incorporating the media star into their golf coverage of The Match. Not only did Barkley shockingly fix his infamous golf swing in 2021, but he also contributed as an analyst during an event featuring PGA stars Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka.
In addition to his work for Turner, Barkley is the premium basketball guest for all sports podcasts and TV shows. When Bob Costas launched his new HBO Show Back on the Record in August, the iconic sportscaster recruited and promoted Barkley as his very first guest. Barkley is great at pushing boundaries and does so without creating much backlash, a rare ability in 2021.
2. Clay Travis
Outkick founder Clay Travis had a breakout year in 2021, moving past the sports niche to emerge as a news and political media star.
This year, Travis made the unprecedented leap from Fox Sports Radio to conservative news talk, joining Buck Sexton to replace the late Rush Limbaugh’s timeslot. Travis hasn’t escaped sports completely, launching the Outkick college football bus tour and contributing to the network’s highly successful Big Noon Kickoff.
The entrepreneur also sold Outkick to Fox in 2021, making Travis the network’s lead intersection between sports and politics, frequently joining the likes of Tucker Carlson, Greg Gutfeld and others.
Travis branded himself as the conservative answer to ESPN and he still delivers, even serving as the optimal spot whenever former President Donald Trump has a sports take. Throughout the year, Travis stomped on the NBA’s love affair with China, challenged LeBron James and criticized everything “woke.” Travis lashed out at Covid protocols and led a brigade of college football fans back into stadiums, fighting the narrative that major sporting events would be superspreaders.
While most sports pundits lauded Major League Baseball for responding to Georgia voting laws by pulling their All-Star Game from Atlanta, Travis used it as an opportunity to preach his “go woke, go broke” tagline. Conservatives followed his lead during the World Series, when Travis noted the irony of MLB returning to Atlanta for the league’s most important spectacle, further proving his influence where sports and politics meet.
1. Stephen A. Smith
Stephen A. Smith loves a good debate, but this one was put to rest in 2021: He is now, without rival, the face of ESPN.
That became abundantly clear when he rebuilt the network’s morning debate show, First Take entirely in his own image — admitting it was his decision to cut Max Kellerman from the show after five years.
Smith added a ton of gigs to his already full plate in 2021. In addition to being the architect and star of First Take every weekday, Smith was named a featured co-host of ESPN’s revamped weekly pregame show NBA Countdown and launched Stephen A’s World exclusive to the company’s digital platform. The ESPN+ series is available four nights a week and helps drive sports fans to the Worldwide Leader’s growing streaming service.
ESPN continues to feature Smith on their UFC coverage even though he admittedly isn’t an expert in the sport. But Smith’s popularity and stardom has the Worldwide Leader appearing almost desperate to use him at every opening.
Smith brands himself as being unapologetically honest and that was on full display in 2021 when he ripped LeBron James for not speaking about the jab, implored leagues to implement vaccine mandates and slammed Aaron Rodgers as a coward for not being forthright about getting “immunized.” Smith called out the Jacksonville Jaguars for exemplifying White privilege when they signed Tim Tebow as a tight end, but he added the failed quarterback to First Take as a weekly contributor to debate similarly controversial topics.
Since making the drastic change, ratings have continued to thrive for Smith and First Take. In October and November, the show averaged 431,000 and 451,000 viewers respectively, its highest averages since Jan. 2020.
People either love Smith or they love to hate him, but his brash opinions keep audiences seeking what he has to say about every topic on any platform. He not only holds the most sway on his own network, he’s the most influential personality in all of sports media.
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