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ESPN’s Norby Replacement Rodeo

norby williamson
As ESPN looks to replace Williamson, the network appears set on pursuing an outsider. Photo: Jemal Countess/WireImage
John Ourand
April 18, 2024

ESPN is famously—almost infamously—the most insular company in sports media, the product of a unique and grinding culture, sure, but also a wee bit of self-aggrandizement. ESPN executives have always displayed a certain smugness, believing that outsiders would surely drown amid the brand’s sheer deluge of obligations—half a dozen TV channels, a streaming service, a website and social, deals with all the biggest leagues, etcetera. The story of George Bodenheimer’s Horatio Alger-esque ascent from the company mailroom to its presidency is still lore in Bristol. And when Bodenheimer decided to retire, Bob Iger only trusted an inside man, John Skipper, to take over. When Skipper had to go, Iger in turn plucked Jimmy Pitaro from his management team. 

The recently departed, Pat McAfee-defenestrated Norby Williamson came from this tradition. Like Bodenheimer, he rose from the mailroom and spent 40 years amassing a portfolio inside the company that included ESPN’s biggest properties: the NFL, college football, MLB, UFC, golf, tennis, and all the studio shows associated with those sports. All of SportsCenter reported up to Williamson, too.