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Norby or Not to Be

Norby Williamson espn
Norby Williamson, who is considered inside Bristol as a linear guy, is viewed as insufficiently embracing ESPN's quest for new audiences and platforms.
John Ourand
April 8, 2024

Even before Pat McAfee elevated ESPN executive Norby Williamson to the heights of national criticism some weeks ago on his show—uncharitably labeling him a leaker, portraying him as a disloyal corporate stooge, calling him a rat, etcetera—the knives were out for the once-revered Bristol executive. In fact, ESPN’s decision to defenestrate Williamson last week was merely the latest iteration of a time-worn corporate tale of competing philosophies and personalities. And at the end of the day, modern ESPN was only big enough for one of them. 

For all the rhetoric about the disparate content visions between Williamson and his old boss Burke Magnus—and there are some differences—the two executives simply deployed different management styles and eventually found it impossible to work together. Magnus, known for his collaborative approach, became Williamson’s boss about a year ago, when he was named ESPN’s president of content. No one would accuse him of being a micromanager, but the guy likes to be involved. Meanwhile, Williamson always operated like a field general: Over the past several decades, he’s been one of the most powerful behind-the-scenes executives in Bristol, and was used to making his own decisions and dealing with the fallout. He was trusted by ESPN’s corner offices, operated with independence, and was supported by a lot of people who work behind the scenes on studio shows. Williamson, they believed, had their back.