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All Fired Up To Be Back

In a clear challenge to upstart Fox Sports 1, ESPN is giving Keith Olbermann—who left the network smoldering in 1997—a new show

There are professional breakups, and then there are professional breakups involving Keith Olbermann. His peripatetic journey across the cable universe—ESPN, Fox, Fox Sports Net, MSNBC, Current TV—has consistently produced two elements: compelling, dramatic and sometimes acerbic television; followed by compelling, dramatic and sometimes acerbic exits.

The discord at ESPN, where he worked from 1992 to '97, memorably coanchoring SportsCenter with current SI columnist Dan Patrick, produced one of the most famous quotes ever uttered on the network's Bristol, Conn., campus. When asked by USA Today about Olbermann's legacy at the sports network a few years after his departure, ESPN vice president of corporate communications Mike Soltys spoke for hundreds of his colleagues. "He didn't burn bridges here," Soltys said. "He napalmed them."

But it turns out Thomas Wolfe was wrong. You can go home again.

Last week ESPN announced that Olbermann, 54, who left the network because of acrimony between the anchor and management, would return to host a one-hour late-night program, to air weeknights at 11 p.m. on ESPN2. The show, Olbermann, will debut on Aug. 26 and be broadcast live from New York City. The move is a clear shot across the bow at Fox Sports 1, which launches on Aug. 17 and has deep backing from Fox (which also fired Olbermann, in 2001). Fox Sports 1 is debuting its own SportsCenter--like show (Fox Sports Live) in the 11 p.m. time slot, and ESPN management wants to broadcast as many alternatives as possible (SportsCenter airs on ESPN at 11) to keep viewers from sampling the new Fox channel.

Olbermann was contrite last week about his previous difficulties at ESPN. "We are indelibly intertwined, and I know we can't go back and undo everything that happened many years ago in those environs, but I would like to do my best to correct as much of it as I can," Olbermann told a handful of reporters on a conference call. "I appreciate the fresh start. I could apologize a thousand times, and we could get everybody who ever took offense to something I did and bring them all to one place. We would probably need Yankee Stadium."

These days viewers are more likely to recognize the high-profile talents of CBS Sports, ESPN, Fox Sports or NBC Sports than they are the fourth starter on most MLB rosters. Olbermann's hire was dissected across the Web as if it were a major sports transaction. But what makes Olbermann unlike most other sports broadcasters is his prodigious talent. He's a eloquent writer and a quick thinker, and he is comfortable addressing issues of substance. If he were not a gifted broadcaster, networks would have lost interest in him long ago. The bottom line is, it's not a high-risk move for the network. In 2013, ESPN2 has averaged a paltry 341,000 viewers between 11 p.m. and midnight, a slot it has filled with a mishmash of SportsNation, drag racing and other assorted fare.

It is possible that bringing in a polarizing broadcaster will alienate ESPN viewers, who generally want the network to be apolitical. Olbermann has spent much of the last decade on a political jeremiad, treating all things Republican as his personal piñata. When asked about this prospect, ESPN president John Skipper said, "Politics and governance and elections are not going to be the subject of the show. Now, there is no prohibition against speaking about it when sports rubs against anything else in our culture. If politics happens to intersect with sports, we would expect Keith to have some point of view there."

Both ESPN executives and Olbermann say there is no content clause in his contract—he is signed for two years and no doubt at a dramatically lower rate than his reported five-year, $50 million deal with Current TV. "They are not restraining me; they don't have to," Olbermann says. "I don't intend to be political in the sense of my previous jobs."

ESPN has been light on the show's details but says it will feature commentary, guests, highlights and recurring features. The show will often follow live events on ESPN2, starting with the U.S. Open tennis tournament in late August. Like Manchester United and the New York Yankees, ESPN has a seemingly endless supply of capital to bid on free agents. On Monday the network announced that it had pried noted political forecaster and sometime sports prognosticator Nate Silver away from The New York Times. Silver is likely to appear on Olbermann as a future guest, creating a dream two-fer for the sports-nerd set.

"What matters to me is that the show will be smart, provocative, informed, fun and funny," says Skipper, "and for that I think I have the right host."

Of course we've heard this before. Enjoy the honeymoon, ESPN.


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