Hell Freezes Over, Olbermann Rejoins ESPN

Pariah sports anchor to helm late-night chat show

Sixteen years after blowing up the sports world’s version of the Bridge on the River Kwai, Keith Olbermann has made nice with ESPN.

Sources on Tuesday night said that the 54-year-old Olbermann is on board to host a late-night talk show on ESPN 2, the spinoff network that reaches some 98.7 million U.S. households.

UPDATE: ESPN on Wednesday afternoon confirmed the hire, saying that Olbermann’s show will launch on Monday, Aug. 26—just nine days after Fox Sports takes the wraps off its new 24/7 cable net, FS1. Titled Olbermann, the show will air live Mondays-Fridays at 11 p.m. ET from ABC’s Times Square studios in New York City.

“I’m overwhelmed by the chance to begin anew with ESPN,” Olbermann said. “I’ve been gone for 16 years and not one day in that time has passed without someone connecting me to the network. Our histories are indelibly intertwined and frankly I have long wished that I had the chance to make sure the totality of that story would be a completely positive one. I’m grateful to friends and bosses—old and new—who have permitted that opportunity to come to pass. I’m not going to waste it.”

In reaching an accord with the cable sports titan, Olbermann has a chance to effectively put to rest the often puzzling, if not to say quixotic, behavior that has characterized a broadcast career that has been, in equal measures, brilliant and erratic.

As co-hosts of ESPN’s SportsCenter from 1992-97, Olbermann and Dan Patrick redefined the sports highlights game. For a generation that found itself stultified by the wide-eyed boosterism of local sports anchors, The Big Show was truly a departure. Funny, irreverent and endlessly inventive, SportsCenter put the lie to the idea that TV sports coverage was meant to hover over the intersection of hagiography and cliché.

But then, as has been the case so very often in the course of Olbermann’s career, everything went sideways. Bad behavior became the norm, so much so that ESPN standout Bob Ley later would characterize Olbermann’s demeanor as “intolerable.” As Ley told the authors of Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN, when Olbermann eventually parted ways with the Bristol, Conn.-based net, “we felt not so much relief … as unrestrained fucking joy.”

Or as ESPN studio host Rece Davis recounted in TGHATF, so unwelcome was Olbermann by the time he left Bristol that staffers would only consider welcoming him back if they were given the opportunity to line up and punch him in the stomach first.

While Olbermann would in due time write a mea culpa for Salon.com (five-and-a-half years later, for anyone keeping track), his erratic behavior eventually became more of a defining characteristic than his indisputable on-camera savoir faire. After leaving the Disney-owned ESPN, the newsman has been employed and dismissed by the likes of Fox, MSNBC and Current TV.

While there’s no guarantee that ESPN will be able to proceed without the usual roundelay of slammed doors, operatic hissy fits and early exits, Olbermann has agreed to keep any political advocacy out of his sports chat show.  

The deal comes on the heels of Turner Sports’ announcement that it had hired Olbermann to host a Major League Baseball postseason studio show on TBS. In a conference call last month, TBS sports president David Levy said he believed that Olbermann would work out for TBS.

“He has a history of a success in the sports genre, and we think he will be an incredible asset to our company,” Levy said. “It’s a no-lose move.”