Mediaite’s List of the 10 Most Influential People in Sports Media

From a story on by Brandon Contes headlined “Mediaite’s Most Influential in Sports Media 2021”:

The Most Influential in News Media list has been an annual staple for Mediaite since our inception in 2009. This year, 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.

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….

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.

1.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 privilegewhen 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.

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.

2.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.

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.

3.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.

4.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 Cohenand 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.

5.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.

Six through ten on the list are Pat McAfee, Mina Kimes, Dan Le Batard, Jemele Hill, and Skip Bayless.


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