Amid the groundswell of nostalgia and good feelings that have enveloped the return of Keith Olbermann into the ESPN family this week, it’s hard to believe he was only at the network (which included a brief detour to launch ESPN2) for five years. By 1997, he and the network had parted ways, after Olbermann became frustrated with internal politics and his irascible persona had burned every bridge inside Bristol save for the one leading to the exits. Given that acrimony, when his new late-night ESPN2 talk show, set to debut in late August, was formally announced this week, it was somewhat odd that his return felt like a celebratory homecoming.
But that was because the original Olbermann fans never really cared about the internal politics of ESPN. And they were never all that invested in Olbermann’s incarnation as an indignant liberal commentator on MSNBC or as a subject of inside-the-media gossip. No, to sports fans of a certain age, his Special Comments and feuds with Bill O’Reilly felt like a bad facsimile of the man who peppered SportsCenter highlight packages with an array of amusing catchphrases. There was no grandiosity in those days, just wry humor to complement an exhaustive sports knowledge and improv skills that could brighten the dullest program.
And so now that Olbermann has returned to ESPN 16 years later, people are rightfully wondering if we’ll get The Big Personality, the one on full show during his the MSNBC years — and a subsequent run at Current TV from which he was fired — or the understated wiseass who charmed us all during his first tour of duty. The safe bet is some hybrid of the two, with the occasional big statement and gesture, since the battle to make noise and keep the upstart Fox Sports 1 network at bay will be a priority from the moment the channel hits the airwaves. Olbermann’s debut on ESPN2 comes a week after FS1 goes live, but there are rumblings that Olbermann may be asked to host SportsCenter in the week running up to his show’s first episode. (Although guest-hosting would presumably require going to Bristol, Olbermann’s show will based in Manhattan, away from his old colleagues at HQ in Connecticut.)
Olbermann will show up five nights a week for an hour a pop, but the grind should be no issue for him. The New Republic’s Marc Tracy writes this week about Olberman’s triumphant cobbling-together of a Mickey Mantle obit under immense time constraints back in the day. Ideally, what we can expect is some more mature, seasoned version of the Olbermann who left in 1997 — one that combines the less ostentatious personality of his previous ESPN stint with the reporting and storytelling skills he’s no doubt improved in his time as a news anchor. He’ll also have more talent to work with, and more mediums in which to work, at ESPN, which has added countless reporters and online platforms like Grantland since he left. (Olbermann’s recent baseball blogging has been a joy unto itself.) It’s been a long road back to ESPN for Olbermann, but for old-time fans who can remember the days before political punditry wore down his public image, there’s hope that the guy we used to meet for a few laughs every night at 11 is still in there somewhere.