Ariel Helwani pay-cut offer symbolizes ESPN’s new reality

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ESPN executive vice president Norby Williamson is a die-hard Mets fan. When the Wilpons owned the team, they made a habit of finishing second for big time free agents. While it was transparent to anyone paying attention, it allowed them to say:

We tried.

Williamson, with his Mets cap squarely pulled down tight, appears to have done just that in trying just hard enough not to retain Dana White’s nemesis, MMA insider Ariel Helwani.

On UFC, Helwani may be something akin to what Adrian Wojnarowski is on the NBA. Helwani has more than 2 million followers on social media. He is just 38 and popular with his co-workers. He would seem to be a keeper.

But, where ESPN’s business is in relation to retaining many of its on-air personalities, Helwani was worth enough to offer a pay cut. Helwani, who was in the final year of his three-year rookie contract with ESPN, made a salary that approached $500,000.

ESPN initially offered a 10-percent reduction in pay and followed up with a five-percent cut, according to sources. ESPN and Helwani said he could have stayed, but really, how could he in the prime of his career with gambling companies doling out money left and right?

Helwani should do just fine outside of ESPN’s universe and may even top a million. He has had significant talks with the gambling site Action Network. There is an obvious link with Meadowlark, from his relationship with Dan Le Batard and company, dating back to both formerly receiving checks with Mickey Mouse on it.

Helwani will likely end up with a few deals that are with or supported by sports betting platforms.

For ESPN, Helwani’s exit is just as telling regarding the state of its business as Kenny Mayne’s departure. Mayne had been at ESPN for 27 years. Beloved by many for his quirky humor, he was making in the $1.7 million neighborhood to work half the year and ESPN wanted to cut him to around $800,000. With Disney looking over ESPN’s shoulder and after all the recent layoffs, there is still something of a salary cap for the network that once billed itself as the Worldwide Leader.

Meanwhile, White wanted Helwani off ESPN. White has called Helwani a variety of names over the years and has complained to ESPN executives about him. White has made no secret he would like to hurt Helwani’s career.

ESPN definitely does not want it to appear that White has a hand in its decision making, and there is no actual proof that they listened to him. That said, it is weird that an up-and-comer like Helwani wouldn’t be more prioritized, even in ESPN’s current cost-cutting environment where 50 percent cuts, give or take, are being asked of some of the highest earners.

Ultimately, ESPN’s relationship with UFC is transactional. It has been the biggest driver so far for ESPN+, which Disney, ESPN’s parent company, hopes is the future of the network after all the cable cords are cut.

Ariel Helwani accepts his Journalist of the Year award during the ninth annual Fighters Only World Mixed Martial Arts Awards.
Ariel Helwani accepts his Journalist of the Year award during the ninth annual Fighters Only World Mixed Martial Arts Awards.

ESPN still has the fights. Helwani will still be talking about MMA all the time on other platforms. In theory, he will still be driving viewers to pay for ESPN+. He just won’t do it on their dime.

There is another baseball analogy for where it all stands. ESPN used to be the Steinbrenner Yankees when it came to signing and retaining sports media’s biggest stars. It got what it wanted.

Now, Helwani was given a Wilpon offer, not a Steinbrenner one. He will likely make much more as a free agent, maybe seven figures, with all the money infused in platforms by sports gambling’s emergence.

This is just the start.

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