How does Adnan Virk's firing from ESPN affect his next career move? And what does it say about ESPN's president Jimmy Pitaro?
Less than a week after ESPN fired anchor Adnan Virk for allegedly leaking information to the media, questions remain. What will come of his potential lawsuit? Why would Virk share the information in the first place? Then there’s the larger uncertainty around what this most recent news tells us about ESPN’s new leadership.
President Jimmy Pitaro is a few weeks away from his one-year anniversary overseeing the network. So far, he’s delivered. Facing new digital competitors, ESPN has added live game rights. 2018’s highest profile departure, Jemele Hill, reportedly left on amicable terms. Tuesday, Disney CEO Bob Iger is expected to laud ESPN+’s growth during a quarterly earnings call. The closest thing to a crisis was a new Monday Night Football announcer with a predisposition for misspeaking—and even then, the NFL seems comfortable giving Jason Witten, along with Booger McFarland and Joe Tessitore, another shot in a redesigned setup.
But Virk’s firing could change the narrative, if only slightly, highlighting how little we still know about ESPN’s leader. According to a source familiar with the Virk investigation, Pitaro has put more emphasis on the company’s confidentiality policy than did his predecessor. One media agent used to working with ESPN called the punishment “crazy harsh.” The ESPN source suggested that this was not a situation where the league partner demanded justice, adding that Virk’s reported noncooperation with the investigation was not a deciding factor in the judgment.
Pitaro is the organization’s first president not to rise up through Bristol since the network was founded. Iger reportedly tried to send the former Disney deputy to Bristol during previous president John Skipper’s tenure, but Skipper protested. Still, Iger tapped Pitaro for the job last March, with reports citing his digital acumen, business-like approach, and level-headed decision making, among other factors. Those were on display last summer, when Pitaro cited “data” three times in explaining his employees’ retreat from political discussion, particularly online.
Despite his dramatic departure, Virk is expected to land on his feet. A former host of MLB Tonight, Virk could join other ex-ESPNers at MLB Network. There’s also digital upstart DAZN, where talent decisions for a soon-to-launch baseball show are not finalized, the company said. Worth noting: DAZN has a sizable footprint in Virk’s native Canada and is run by former ESPN president John Skipper. Outside of baseball, Virk has anchored college football coverage, was reportedly set to host a college basketball show Tuesday, and built up a movie-focused podcast. Well-liked in the industry, he should have options.
On Monday, Virk told USA TODAY sports, "Unfortunately at this time I can’t say anything ... on the advice of legal counsel.” Given the threat of a lawsuit, ESPN has also said little on the record. Virk’s representatives at CAA, meanwhile, did not respond to a request for comment, nor to a follow-up regarding how Virk’s situation would affect the agency’s other ongoing discussions with the network.
Now, we’ll see what happens next. How consistent will ESPN be in punishing known leakers, and in firing rule-breakers generally? What type of relationship will Pitaro have with his company’s biggest faces going forward? Is a leak-proof organization a high priority for him? “If on air talent is going to be fired for speaking [with] journalists,” reporter James Andrew Miller tweeted on Monday, “better start building a whole army of good looking robots.”
For the moment, Virk’s stands as an isolated incident, in which he allegedly violated policy in an inexcusable, “premeditated” manner. In response, ESPN quickly dismissed a popular on-air performer for sharing sensitive, but not particularly volatile, information. The Awful Announcing story that started the investigation—reporting that ESPN would stick with its weekly Baseball Tonight schedule—came and went last week. Discussion concerning Pitaro and ESPN’s reaction to it, in contrast, seems bound to linger.