Conservative media stalwart Matt Drudge tweeted Monday that ESPN executives are considering dropping NFL football, which is almost certain to fuel speculation that Monday Night Football analyst Jon Gruden is on the verge of becoming Tennessee’s next head coach.
Drudge, who rose to fame after breaking the Monika Lewinsky scandal during Bill Clinton’s latter years in the White House, tweeted:
ESPN execs considering once-unthinkable: Dropping NFL football…
— DRUDGE REPORT (@DRUDGE_REPORT) October 30, 2017
The Drudge Report — the old-school aggregator site published by Drudge — is among the internet’s most popular news websites. It typically links to stories from both mainstream news media sources and popular conservative bloggers. But, occasionally, Drudge throws back to the days when he broke the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal by offering original reporting.
The conservative Drudge is a political junkie who rarely strays into the realm of sports, except to show the occasional love for the New England Patriots. However, as one of Donald Trump’s earliest and most ardent supporters, it would stand to reason that he will side with the president in Trump’s rift with the NFL over national anthem protests.
Still, Monday’s tweet by Drudge isn’t the first time that the NFL’s future on ESPN has been questioned. The Disney corporation shifted Monday Night Football from ABC to ESPN in 2005, but the move from broadcast network to cable has been problematic for ESPN from a bloat standpoint. Broadcast rights for Monday Night Football costs ESPN a staggering $1.9 billion annually. And the cable sports giant is struggling from decreased viewership as a growing number of cable subscribers “cut the cord” because they’re fed up with expensive cable bills — bills that are made expensive in no small part due to ESPN’s fees to cable providers that are necessitated by the billions of dollars the company pays out for broadcast rights, production and on-air talent.
So how does all of that apply to Gruden? As optimists have speculated — again — that Gruden will be targeted by Tennessee to replace Butch Jones, critics have argued that there is little incentive for Gruden to leave the broadcast booth, where his base salary approaches $7 million per year. As the Gruden rumors, or “Grumors”, have heated up in recent weeks, the optimists have countered with speculation that Gruden might leave the network and return to coaching because his future at ESPN is in jeopardy.
Drudge’s tweet, while not backed by anything substantive, is likely to fuel the Grumors, especially as chatter increases that Jones has already been terminated by Tennessee, even though he’ll apparently coach Saturday’s game against Southern Miss.
Gruden said in a 2015 interview that Tennessee is “a dream job for a lot of people, including myself.” More recently, he has said that he is “always preparing” for a potential return to coaching, though he joked this past summer that he cannot coach college football because of the complex rules and regulations that govern recruiting.
Most of the recent chatter surrounding Gruden’s future at ESPN has been fueled by the sports giant’s recent layoffs. One hundred were axed last spring, and the Sporting News reported two days ago that another round of layoffs is looming for the end of the year — with perhaps as many as 60 positions eliminated.
So far, though, ESPN has not cut any of its top on-air talent, and Gruden certainly ranks at the top in terms of popularity. Could that change? “This time it won’t matter if you’re ‘liked’ or not. It’s not going to be pretty,” the Sporting News’ source warned, without mentioning any specific on-air personality. Whether ESPN made a change to its Monday Night Football broadcast team might depend on how serious the company is about reducing its operating expenses. But it seems incredibly unlikely. Amid an NFL ratings crisis, Monday Night Football was the league’s only time slot that featured increased ratings through the first seven weeks of the 2017 season. And Gruden is the face of Monday Night Football; a constant since 2009, even as play-by-play personalities have changed.
And even if ESPN opts not to extend its hold on Monday Night Football broadcast rights, its current contract does not expire until 2021.