Thursday morning, amidst a flurry of last-minute NFL previews, Derek Jeter Hall of Fame gossip, and a New Orleans Saints trade, another ESPN programming bombshell was dropped. After ten years in syndication, Highly Questionable was dropped. Friday, September 10th was the last live episode on ESPN airwaves. The time slot will be filled by a new show called This Just In, hosted by Max Kellerman. Yes, the same Max Kellerman that has been on more than a half-a-dozen different ESPN projects in the nearly 20 years with the company. Kellerman has notably been a guest on Around the Horn, SportsNation, hosted Friday Night Fights, and most recently been an integral half of First Take. Kellerman has always been good for a hot take and it appears he is going to now give the world an hour of them, every day.
But aside from coverage like a late-night comeback for the US Men’s National Soccer team last Wednesday night, ESPN is missing something. As shows like Highly Questionable, High Noon, The Six, and others vanish from the Worldwide Leader in Sports, so is the personality of the network.
It’s not that Max Kellerman is “plain” by any stretch. Nor is it that he won’t be professional; Max Kellerman will undoubtedly bring as much energy and effort as he has to any program before. But Kellerman’s energy, effort, and voice had a space. The energy, efforts, and voices of Highly Questionable? Now they don’t.
This is nothing new for ESPN. The Worldwide Leader in Sports has made been cutting personality for years. ESPN cut their ties with Michael Smith, Jemele Hill, and The Six in 2018. They dropped Mike Golic Sr., of Golic and Wingo, in August of 2020. Sports Reporters underwent giant changes, SportsNation got the ax, Bomani Jones and Pablo Torre’s High Noon got pushed to a time that wasn’t noon before it was canned, the network divorced with The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz, and The Jump was just canceled last month. Each of those shows, much like Highly Questionable, was different. They featured interesting analysis that was off the beaten path. They weren’t a pair of men shouting at each other over whe
ESPN used to be a sports opinion aggregate. It had, across the family of networks, some amount of everything. You had Mike Golic’s midwest flavor, Le Batard’s Miami twist, the Harvard educated and highfalutin Pablo Torre contrasted with Bomani Jones’s Southern genius… and now? You’ve got a lot of Mike Greenberg, Max Kellerman, and Steven A.Smith. New York, New York, New York. Over and over and over again. Being the “worldwide” leader in sports from all over the five boroughs is certainly an interesting interpretation.
The real shame in losing Highly Questionable, or other shows with a personality like it, is not just the geographic diversity. HQ was a show about the goofiness of sports. It was a show that combined sports analysis from the likes of Mina Kimes and Izzy Guttierez with the silliness of a fake handshake from Papi Le Batard. Even after the exodus of Dan Le Batard and co., the numerous personalities the show offered were authentically themselves. HQ gave fans of sports a look into the kinds of things that made their favorite reporters, journalists, and analysts laugh in a way current shows don’t.
Highly Questionable showed us Mike Golic Jr. can talk about Russell Wilson and the Fan Controlled Football league. Katie Nolan talked about Damian Lillard for MVP and her act out the stereotypical reaction of Gronkowski signing in Tampa Bay. Mina Kimes talked about the Dallas Cowboys and her dreams of Dan Le Batard. Elle Duncan, Bomani Jones, Pablo Torre… the list goes on. The originality of each host and guest, in conjuncture with the laid-back nature of the show, gave the most unique look at the world of sports of any show on ESPN.
Sure, we as an audience more or less know Max Kellerman. We know Mike Greenberg. Everyone has multiple opinions on Stephen A. Smith. But what about whoever is next? Where’s the playground for us to learn about those characters? Slowly, those outlets are all disappearing.
In all likelihood, there will be some other show that new folks get their reps on. Perhaps ESPN will choose the new alternative, Debatable.
A Highly Questionable Farewell 💛 pic.twitter.com/vg2jyntfa1— Highly Questionable (@HQonESPN) September 10, 2021
Debatable is the new property ESPN expects to replace Highly Questionable with. It will feature a similar rotating cast. Debatable will be streamed to ESPN services, but will not be featured on any cable TV channel. It aims to be humorous and light-hearted, much like the vast majority of the HQ episodes over the years.
But is it enough just for ESPN to make that? What made Highly Questionable special was how it broke up the day. Serious, hard-hitting news and SportsCenter was followed with strong debate in First Take… eventually, the network had to lighten up. And Highly Questionable was that light.
Perhaps Bomani Jones (the longest-tenured Highly Questionable member, non-Le Batard division) said it best… At its core, the show is “a whole lot of fun.” ESPN seems to be tabling “fun” and favoring whatever else they have.
It’s unclear what to expect out of Debatable; it’s not like they can just pick up the Highly Questionable pieces, put them under a different logo, and call it good. Highly Questionable was a “fun” show that never stopped evolving over a decade. The faces were fun and different. The opinions were fun and fresh. Highly Questionable’s voices were fun and authentic. And while all of that was perfectly intentional, fun is not something that you can just “do.”
Debatable will take time to develop, and hopefully, it maintains a similar fun space to Highly Questionable because that space at ESPN is dwindling with each contract negotiation. Less and less “fun” people get to stick around, and less and less “fun” shows get to stay, regardless of how successful they were. The “fun” is leaving the Worldwide Leader in Sports. That’s a game we all lose, that’s not debatable.