Party time: How DAZN, Westwood One got McAfee
Pat McAfee’s journey to launch a sports talk show was nearly a year in the making.
McAfee, who started his two-hour daily show on DAZN and Westwood One radio last week, entertained an offer from at least one other media company. But he eventually chose the flexibility that comes from dealing with DAZN and Westwood One — flexibility that allows the commentator to also call college football games for ESPN and appear on FS1 studio shows.
The 11-month negotiation odyssey shows the importance of relationships and sheds a light on DAZN’s strategy as the streaming service tries to gain a foothold in the U.S. market.
McAfee’s agent, CAA’s Michael Klein, pushed for the former Colts punter to meet with Jamie Horowitz in October 2018. McAfee was looking to build out a personality-driven multimedia platform, and Klein thought Horowitz could help. After all, while at ESPN and Fox Sports, Horowitz helped commentators Colin Cowherd and Skip Bayless use their popularity for big paydays.
At the time, it was a little more than a year since Horowitz was fired by Fox Sports. He was doing consulting work for DAZN (in May 2019 he would join the platform full time as head of content).
The two met in a Los Angeles hotel and Horowitz walked away impressed. From the way McAfee asked and answered questions, Horowitz could see a path to where McAfee could break through.
“You sit with Pat and watch the way he asks you questions, the way he responds, it’s almost like watching improv,” Horowitz said. “No matter what you say to him, he’ll build from there.” Horowitz had little to offer other than advice. At the time, DAZN was best known for producing boxing matches. Its MLB deal still was a month away.
A few months later, Horowitz was planning Super Bowl programming for DAZN, which holds NFL rights in several countries including Canada. Horowitz was asked to come up with some programming stunts for Super Bowl week that could go viral. He immediately thought of McAfee, who quickly agreed. During Super Bowl week, McAfee starred in videos where he played “beer” pong with Tim Tebow (it was actually water) and asked NFL coaches silly questions.
“That was the first time I actually got to work with him,” Horowitz said. “It was a free confirmation that it was exactly what we thought it could be.”
Once the Super Bowl ended, McAfee’s team kept in touch with DAZN, and they engaged other media companies, including ESPN and Westwood One. The latter’s executives flew to Indianapolis for a May 1 meeting with McAfee. Once the group landed, they found out that the scheduled meeting was a day before McAfee’s 32nd birthday.
Kelli Hurley, Westwood One’s senior vice president of digital partnerships, called several local bakeries to order a cake that they could take to the meeting the next day. All of them said it was too late. The owner of the eighth bakery she tried knew who McAfee was. Led by Bruce Gilbert, Westwood One’s senior vice president of sports, the group walked into its first meeting with McAfee carrying a cake and balloons.
“We didn’t know then, but the guy is so show biz, he loved it,” Gilbert said. “I felt like if this was a Tinder date, we just scored major points. We might get a second date after that.”
McAfee and his agent, Klein, spent the next few weeks talking to multiple media companies. Word was that he was especially close to signing a deal with ESPN that would cover multiple platforms: television, radio and podcasts.
Gilbert and Horowitz also were talking about trying to do a deal together that could lure McAfee. The two had been colleagues at ESPN more than a decade earlier. They bonded over Cowherd, a personality whose rise to stardom they believe created a blueprint for McAfee. Gilbert brought Cowherd to ESPN Radio; Horowitz helped him transition to television.
On May 31, a Friday, Horowitz left DAZN’s office in One World Trade in lower Manhattan and took a train north to Hartford to meet with McAfee, who was in town for an NXT wrestling event. The two met for dinner at Max’s Oyster Bar in West Hartford. Over a dinner of crab cakes, Horowitz outlined the proposed deal points to convince McAfee. He would do a radio show for Westwood One and share in the profits. DAZN would produce a video version of the show. Plus he was free to appear on any television show or platform he wanted.
By the time McAfee left the table, he told Horowitz that he wanted to sign with Westwood One and DAZN. Both Horowitz and Gilbert are convinced that their flexibility to allow McAfee to appear on other platforms helped seal their deal.
That flexibility could be seen two months later, during the last week in July, when ESPN announced a smaller deal that has McAfee calling college football games with Matt Hasselbeck. McAfee’s ESPN deal also has him making regular appearances on ESPN’s morning show “Get Up!”
A week later, DAZN and Westwood One announced their deal for a daily show with McAfee via a story in The Hollywood Reporter.