Less than two months before the start of the NBA season, ESPN is overhauling its basketball coverage, beginning with taking Rachel Nichols off the air.
Nichols, probably the network’s most recognizable NBA personality, has been removed from all programming on ESPN and her show, The Jump, has been canceled. The Sports Business Journal was first to report the news.
“We mutually agreed that this approach regarding our NBA coverage was best for all concerned,” ESPN senior vice president of production David Roberts said in a statement. “Rachel is an excellent reporter, host and journalist, and we thank her for her many contributions to our NBA content.”
Nichols, who reportedly has another year remaining on her contract, could not be reached for comment. On Twitter, the longtime ESPN star wrote that she was thankful she got to spend the past five years talking basketball “with some of my favorite people” and that The Jump “was never built to last forever but it sure was fun.”
ESPN is expected to air a few more episodes of The Jump with another host, presumably Malika Andrews (who filled in for Nichols last week), before launching a new afternoon NBA show leading up to next season.
The move comes a little under two months after the New York Times published a leaked audio recording of Nichols complaining about losing her NBA Countdown hosting job to her former colleague, Maria Taylor. Nichols, who is white, complained that ESPN replaced her with Taylor, who is Black, to satisfy diversity issues at the network.
Multiple Black ESPN employees told the New York Times that Nichols’s conversation confirmed suspicions about white colleagues who speak differently in person they do in private.
Nichols wasn’t aware her phone conversation was being recorded, and ESPN did little to suggest it had a problem with her comments until they became public, when she was removed from NBA finals coverage. She continued to host The Jump through this year’s NBA Finals and the offseason, with her most recent episode airing on Aug. 16. The only move ESPN made was not allowing Nichols and Taylor to appear on air together, a situation that became untenable leading up to the NBA finals.
Making matters more difficult for ESPN is Taylor’s departure to NBC Sports, meaning the network will also need to overhaul its NBA pregame and halftime show. Sports Business Journal also reported that NBA analyst Jalen Rose’s role on its studio show is in question.
Changes are also coming earlier in the day on First Take, the often-mocked but popular sports debate show hosted by former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter-turned-columnist Stephen A. Smith.
ESPN is replacing cohost Max Kellerman with a series of rotating guests to spar with Smith, who recently expanded his entertainment footprint with a guest hosting stint on Jimmy Kimmel Live! Among the guests could be NFL Network analyst and Cowboys Hall of Famer Michael Irvin, who has made several notable, sweat-soaked appearances on the show over the years.
“The question becomes what does Stephen A. really want,” James Andrew Miller, author of Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN, said on the newest episode of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast. “If he wants a layup there, then I think that’s kind-of s-----, and that’s not great for the viewers.”
Meanwhile, Kellerman will get his own ESPN show, which could replace Jalen & Jacoby and the Highly Questionable (which has continued following Dan Le Batard’s departure from the network) in the lineup. According to the New York Post’s Andrew Marchand, those shows could end up sliding over to ESPN2.