Kenny Mayne is hungry. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere, considering what’s going on with his career, but in this case, I’m just making an observation. It’s just after 9 o’clock on a sleepy Thursday morning in August, and we’re sitting down for breakfast at his hotel in Santa Monica. He’s in town with his wife, Gretchen, and two of his four daughters—one of whom, Elaina, they’re dropping off at USC. She’s a freshman. I ask whether it’s a Varsity Blues situation and he’s the new Aunt Becky.
“No, she did it all herself,” he says. “Engineering.”
They shipped Elaina’s stuff from their home in Connecticut out to his friend and former ESPN colleague Neil Everett’s house in L.A. They moved her onto campus a couple of days ago, but they’re sticking around for a minute. It’s nice here and he has the time, which isn’t the same thing as not being busy. For someone who’s technically “unemployed”—Mayne’s word, which he makes sure to qualify whenever it comes up—he has a lot going on.
Since leaving the Worldwide Leader, he’s done commercials for EA Sports and Olipop (a low-sugar soda he’s particularly fond of), worked the Olympics for NBCUniversal’s Peacock streaming service—where he hosted a four-and-a-half-hour nightly program alongside fellow ESPN ex-pat Cari Champion—made a series of deadpan Twitter videos with small children playing mini golf (which have more than a million combined views), and popped on, oh, just about every radio show and podcast you can think of. He did one pod with two 17-year-olds. Because why not? In between, he made time to hit St. Barts for vacation, go back home to Seattle to visit family and friends, and play in Andy North’s golf tournament.
Before we even meet up this morning, Mayne made three calls to the East Coast about possible business opportunities. He was up at 6 a.m. That’s new. Back when he worked at ESPN—where he appeared on SportsCenter, on and off, as a host for more than 20 years before announcing on Twitter in May that he was a “salary cap casualty” and was leaving the company, a post that, at last check, has more than 5K comments, 10.6K retweets, and 110K likes—he often didn’t get home until 1 or 2 in the morning. He’d wake up groggy around 11:30 a.m. Maybe eat his first meal somewhere in the noon or 1 o’clock range. Then he’d head back to the studio.
“I got into the grind of working at the building and going back to the building. Like a factory of sports,” Mayne tells me. “I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. It was a great job and it paid well and it was fun. I’m just saying I think I fell into—I just said this to Gretchen last night: Isn’t it true in these last six weeks I’ve had more ideas and more energy? I wake up at 6 in the morning and I’m ready to go.”
When the waiter asks whether we’re ready to order, Kenny replies, “I know everything.” The waiter looks at him sideways.
“You know everything?”
“Well,” Mayne tells him with the familiar smirk he’s used to disarm American sports fans for the better part of the past three decades, “I know what I want to eat.”
Americano. Over-easy eggs. A single waffle. Side of bacon. A fruit plate, which we share. (We fork-fence for the last pieces of pineapple.) Kenny is 62 now, with a wisp of gray spiked hair and a decent tan. He’s a big guy, much bigger than he looks on TV—tall, with broad shoulders and arms he’s been working on now that he has more time and energy to exercise. He played college football at UNLV. He’s thicker around the middle than he was back then, but who isn’t? He’s dressed for the beach, which is yards away from our table: shorts, flip-flops, black (knockoff) Wayfarers, and a well-worn black T-shirt stamped with “#IMPEACHTHEMF —Rashida” on it. The mf being the former president, Rashida being Democratic Representative Rashida Tlaib. He probably couldn’t have gotten away with rocking it publicly back when he worked for Disney. These are different days.
He’s lately filled his Twitter feed with the kinds of thoughts that prompt people on the right to dismissively call him—and here he helpfully paraphrases—a “liberal soy boy.” Fine by him. He says he is “100 percent on the side of the resistance.” There’s no one to tell him don’t say this or don’t do that anymore. He enjoys that.
More so, he enjoys talking to all the people he thinks might tell him yes. Over breakfast, we discuss his plans. He has a white board at the house in Connecticut—Gretchen’s idea; she’s his chief consigliere—where he has various opportunities scribbled out in black marker. He’s handling it all himself. He doesn’t have an agent, just a lawyer who looks over the paperwork. He has at least three other projects that are potentially in the works: one with Marshawn Lynch, another with Dan Le Batard and John Skipper’s new Meadowlark operation, and one with a major American gambling concern that might include a return to his adopted hometown of Las Vegas.
To arrive at this moment of opportunity, he had to leave the company that made him marketable in the first place. Or maybe he had to get pushed out. He’s still fuzzy on what went down. To hear Kenny tell it, ESPN made an offer well below what he was making, and before they even got to what he calls the “used car” negotiation phase, the conversation was over. No haggling. Out went his farewell tweet, out went Mayne.
In a way it was the end of an era, not just for him but for the network. He was one of the last remaining hosts of the big-personality, catchphrase-driven golden era that once defined SportsCenter. Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick’s Big Show changed the format—but they’re long gone. Rich Eisen has been the face of NFL Network since it launched in 2003. Robin Roberts has spent more years hosting Good Morning America than SportsCenter. It’s been more than six years since Stuart Scott passed from cancer, leaving us to watch highlights that aren’t nearly as clever or as cool as the other side of the pillow. Mayne was one of the last remaining links to that period. Steve Levy and Linda Cohn are still at ESPN. So are Scott Van Pelt and John Anderson. Chris Berman makes some occasional appearances, but he’s no longer full time. Apologies if I’m forgetting someone, but that’s about it.
“Me talking about my unemployment—that’s in quotes; I don’t do air quotes very often, but I just did—I’m not like, ‘Oh, ESPN screwed me,’” Mayne says. He orders another side of bacon and keeps going. “Because there were a lot of people on Twitter saying, ‘Fuck him, man. That’s still a lot of money. Most of us would kill for that job.’ And they have a point. But it’s up to me what job I take. I never understood why someone would get to tell me how I get to think or what I get to do. Same thing with the whole ‘stick to sports.’”
The way Mayne sees it, ESPN “essentially set an over/under on me.” He looks at it in betting terms, and he’s decided to play the over. He’s not saying he necessarily made the right decision, but if he can cobble enough things together and make the same amount that ESPN was offering, or close to it, without the restrictions, “that’s still a pretty good life, right?” He figures the freedom is worth the economic tradeoff, though the swap also calls for diligence. He and Gretchen talk about it all the time. All these potential jobs, not to mention the media attention he accepts and seeks out to help promote his fledgling solo act—it’s a lot to manage. It requires effort and energy. Gretchen calls it “the Ken Mayne Ego Tour.” She’s (mostly) kidding. When she and their youngest daughter, Bryn, come down to the hotel café for breakfast, they bust his chops a little more. Kenny says Bryn calls him a “D-list celebrity.” Bryn tells me she used to call him B-list but she recently downgraded him.
Kenny laughs at his own expense. The Ken Mayne Ego Tour rolls on unabated.
It’s mid-July and Kenny Mayne is talking to me from the car. He’s driving south on Route 8 in Connecticut. Bristol and ESPN are in his rearview in every possible sense. The opening ceremony at the Tokyo Olympics is still a few days away, but Mayne is headed to the NBC Sports campus in Stamford to meet his new colleagues and start his part-time gig early. He has some first-day-of-school jitters. He figures he’ll be OK. It’s still talking into a camera, though now he’ll be talking into the camera about canoe racing and rhythmic gymnastics and a bunch of other sports he readily admits he doesn’t know much (or anything) about. He’ll cram each day and tell jokes and try to entertain viewers. That’s the plan, but he’s a bit preoccupied at the moment.
It’s early in the morning, and there’s a car in front of him driving erratically. He thinks maybe the driver is intoxicated or distracted. He’s not sure. Mayne calls 9-1-1. They ask what kind of car it is and where it is. “I have no idea,” he tells them. “The silver one. The one driving shitty.” He also started the morning off with a cut in one of his tires. Gretchen noticed it. He stopped off at the tire store on the way to Stamford and the tire store guy told him it would probably be OK. Good enough for Kenny. So now he’s tailing a shitty driver, the one in the silver car, in a car of his own that may or may not be road-worthy. And oh yeah, the Olympics are barreling toward him with equal speed. He’s talking about it all at once, fast, the verbal version of what I imagine the shitty-silver-car scene looks like. I ask him how he feels presently about his career.
“I’m going to correct you,” Mayne says, “to say ‘at present,’ because presently is what’s about to happen. Right? I just nerded out.”
This is the second time we’ve ever spoken. I learn pretty quickly that conversations with Kenny take all sorts of detours for all sorts of reasons, but grammar and spelling are favorites. He spells every name we discuss. Every. One. Olipop is O-L-I-P-O-P and his friend Jason Jobes—who helped him shoot the kiddie mini golf bit—is J-O-B-E-S and … well, you get it. But he’s not wrong in this case, and besides it reminds me of a conversation I recently had at a party where I was over-served. While talking with someone I’d never met, I mixed up the whole “I” and “me” thing in a sentence, which I never do. But I did. It was my buddy’s 50th birthday and they served the drinks with a firehose. So the guy corrected me, and then his very next question was “What do you do?” and I had to tell him I’m a writer. Then I went off to die in a corner.
Kenny finds all that hilarious. We chop up the English language a little longer before I rephrase the original question and get him back on topic. He previously told me he had been down in San Diego and had dinner with Bill Walton, and Bill Walton did his Bill Walton thing and gave him a long pep talk. If you’re going to have someone throw his arm around you in an hour of uncertainty, Bill Walton has to be pretty high up on your draft board, but I want to know how Mayne is managing on his own. How do you feel at present about life and work and this great tsunami of change that’s washed over you?
“I love Bill Walton, and that was appreciated,” Mayne says. “I didn’t necessarily need him to steer me there. It’s been chaotic, though. I’ll tell you that. The only time I remember it being this chaotic, my ex-wife and I lost twins way back in 1996. That’s the only period I can equate to this where every day is kind of its own movie. Every day is kind of crazy and surreal. It’s just weird. I’m not trying to make too big a deal of myself. It’s just that I’ve never experienced this, except for that. Certainly not in a professional way.”
On the personal front, there’s the house (they’re trying to remodel the kitchen), and there’s some vacation time they built in for the family, and oh yeah one of their daughters, Riley—R-I-L-E-Y—just graduated from Colorado. And another daughter, Annie—A-N-N-I-E—is midway through her time at Boston University. And of course another daughter is about to start USC. And they still have one daughter honing her standup comedy at home. And it’s a lot. As for the job, or rather jobs, he’s getting a lot of calls. Some more promising than others. Some are just from old high school buddies who want to know whether he’s thought about doing a pod because if not he should think about doing a pod with them.
“If you’re asking if I’m OK that way,” he continues, “I am. It sounds like everyone wants to get into the relationship business. That’s a thing people are saying. I’m not sure they do. It’s a thing they say. Who knows? They’ll paint it as though it’s not just a transactional business deal but”—and here he pauses to laugh at the very thought—“‘we’re relationship people.’”
He tells me about the Marshawn idea for the first time. He’s known Lynch since he was a rookie. Mayne was talking to Lynch’s agent the other night, and the agent told Kenny, “‘It’s really fucking refreshing and really fucking crazy that you represent yourself.’” Mayne thinks both things are probably true.
“Oh my God,” Mayne says, stopping in mid-sentence. “There’s a crash here. I’m serious.
“I hope it’s unrelated.
“It’s a silver car. I don’t know if it’s the same car. I don’t think it is. But I don’t know. It looks like everybody is OK.”
“That was a bad pause in this.”
It’s early August. The Olympics are over. Mayne thinks they went well. Or at least OK. It was a grind. He calls it “the hardest TV thing I’ve ever done.” Not the execution. The hours and “the beatdown.” He and Champion were usually in around 4 p.m., then they’d pull an eight-hour shift where most of what they said was “just freestyle.” Then they’d shuffle off to their hotel long after midnight, try to get some rest, and do it again. That went on for two weeks. With nine days still remaining, he thought to himself, “Oh my God, this is never going to end.”
Even so, he enjoyed it. He did some bits. He had fun. He did a hit on MSNBC’s Morning Joe wearing an “I am a voter” shirt. He had Jeff Ament from Pearl Jam on Peacock to talk about skateboarding. He did another appearance with Eisen that was sort of a tongue-in-cheek game show where Rich asked Kenny questions and they goofed off.
It was the first time they’d been on camera together in 18 years. One of the multiple-choice questions Eisen asked Mayne was about the Zambia-Netherlands soccer game. They showed Mayne a clip from the match, stopped the tape, and asked him to predict what happened next. The options included (A) goalkeeper handball, (B) Netherlands scores, and (C) “Somebody from upstate CT gives either one of us our old job back,” Eisen quipped. Later in the segment, Mayne would recall the moment with a laugh: “We had fun. Those were the days. These are the days now.”
Those days made Mayne—and Eisen and Olbermann and Patrick and all the rest—and plotted the lot of them somewhere on Bryn’s ever-shifting media celebrity spectrum. SportsCenter was an invaluable pre-Twitter/Facebook/YouTube news and highlight delivery device that was unmatched as a sports information outlet. But in the process of becoming must-see TV because of the content, the content providers themselves became their own form of essential entertainment. They were shows within the show. The iconic “This is SportsCenter” commercials were successful not simply because they promoted the program but because they marketed the hosts and their personalities.
What made Mayne so good and unique within that environment is that while everyone else was doing his or her own of-the-era shtick and catchphrases, Kenny was doing a send-up of the whole operation—a winking, meta nod to the viewers that he was in on the joke nestled inside the jokes.
The enterprise made them stars, until the business changed and highlights and news were delivered in real time to the palm of our hand. Slowly, SportsCenter’s influence waned, and one by one, most of the stars decamped for other pursuits while any remaining residual fame was transferred to the insiders and reporters who first broke news on social media before eventually appearing on the network.
Through it all, Kenny remained. He kept right on winking and nodding to the ever-decreasing number of viewers until, toward the end, it felt like he was somehow in the shadows, while still remaining in what was left of the much-dimmed SportsCenter spotlight.
The more he thinks about it, Kenny saw the end of those days coming. The week before the failed contract negotiation, ESPN executive vice president Norby Williamson prepped him with a call. Mayne says Williamson told him the company was trying to cut back, ratings were down across the board, they were losing cable subscriptions, and that Kenny should know that if he stays, “‘You’re not going to like the offer. You’re gonna be like, “Damn, I’m worth more than that.”’”
Mayne hadn’t seen the offer at that point, so he said send it over, because he didn’t know how he’d react until he actually had a chance to react. The offer came in and it was a significant cut—what Mayne later told Richard Deitsch from The Athletic amounted to a “14 percent reduction in time worked and a 61 percent reduction in money earned.” It was a blow, but Mayne figured it was merely the opening salvo.
He thought they’d find a middle. “Right?” he asks me rhetorically over the phone. “That’s how it had always been done.” His plan went something like this: He’d take the money they offered and work, say, five days a month. But then the other 25 days he’d get to do whatever he wanted, with/for whomever he wanted, no questions asked. At the time, he still had to ask permission to do a commercial or call a radio station, and he was willing to trade the time and pay cut for some freedom. He never got to his counterproposal. He says ESPN had other ideas.
“Norby was doing the talks,” Mayne tells me, “and he just moved on to ‘OK, so you’re out.’ He didn’t even hesitate. It was almost like, ‘Oh good, he turned it down. How are we going to handle the departure?’ I’m not saying that as a putdown to Norby. Fucking do whatever you want. I have no idea. You’d have to ask him. ‘Did you want him to stay? Or were you trying to get him to leave by giving him a shitty offer?’”
Through several ESPN spokespersons, I asked Williamson those very questions, along with a host of others. They sent along the standard statement on his behalf: “Kenny was a key figure in building ESPN. We’ll always be grateful for his creativity, passion and work ethic. We wish him continued success.”
Mayne has spent a lot of time noodling over how it all unfolded—and how he handled it, particularly revealing to Deitsch the particulars. Thinking it through naturally necessitates more couching and qualifying.
“I never once said, ‘Poor me, I got a bad deal, it’s not very much money,’” Mayne says. “I was just being honest when [Deitsch] asked me the question. I wasn’t even going to say it. I really should have just said it was a significant reduction and I decided to go try something else. Instead I blurted [it] out. I just wasn’t willing to accept it. And I wasn’t saying that to be a dick, either. That was the truth of it.”
After everyone, including Mayne, realized he’d be leaving ESPN, the only thing left to do was actually walk away. For his last show, he had a bunch of guests he’s friends or friendly with: Lynch, Sue Bird, Jamal Crawford, Fred McGriff, Aaron Rodgers. He had a specific idea for the Rodgers interview. A few months earlier, Rodgers told Mayne to purchase Bitcoin. Kenny didn’t know much about it. He describes it to me as taking real money to “buy some pretend money, and I hope other people also do it, and then I’ll have more pretend money, which can be converted back into real money.” Anyway, he bought some. It immediately tanked. Then he lost his job. So he decided to blame it on Rodgers as a gag and throw in a “fuck you,” on camera, for laughs. It killed on the set and online. None of the executives said a word.
“It was my last night,” Mayne says with another smirk. “What the fuck were they going to do to me?”
Mayne is still working through his feelings on all this. More than once he laughs and says our interviews approximate something close to therapy. But he’s sure about one thing. As far as reasons he’s glad he left ESPN—or glad ESPN left him, or however it actually went—“the liberation, that’s right at the top.”
During the Olympics, after the U.S. women’s national soccer team fell to Sweden, former president Donald Trump blamed the loss on “wokeism” and said “Americans were happy about it.” Mayne dove headfirst into the controversy on Peacock. He says NBC Sports didn’t push back.
“It made me sick,” Mayne says. “I got a little choked up. My lead-in was to the effect of, ‘Mental health has been a big topic of these Olympics. Imagine being a woman on the U.S. national soccer team and half the fucking country’—I didn’t say fuck—‘is openly rooting against you, led by the former president. How does that feel for your mental health?’”
He couldn’t figure out why the former president didn’t go after the American women’s basketball team, too, since “those women were really staunch and out there in the forefront of everything and they got rid of [former senator and former WNBA owner Kelly] Loeffler and helped the turnaround in the Senate race for [Raphael] Warnock.”
He admits that since he left ESPN he’s been more “forthright,” which anyone reading his tweets or talking to him would take to mean blunt and even confrontational when it comes to politics. At ESPN, he often held back. He says he called it “shooting from beyond the Jemele line”—referring to his former ESPN colleague Jemele Hill, who left the company after several well-publicized run-ins with management over her frequent, unapologetic, and unsparing criticisms of Trump and the GOP.
Mayne admits that he didn’t have the same courage as Hill. He says he didn’t want to get fired, and besides, “They were clearly threatening some of us, me particularly.” He says he was “definitely on the watch list. They told me so: ‘There’s a group of people that watch your Twitter.’”
“Like when Trump’s stupid physical came out,” Mayne says. “Remember? ‘He’s going to be in great health for 30 more years.’ That’s not what a doctor says. So I made a joke, something like, ‘The president’s doctor just timed me at 4.1 in the 40 wearing Snoop Dogg slippers.’ I think that’s a good joke. It’s making fun of the doctor, not making fun of the president—directly.’”
So how’d that go over?
“Not well,” he says. “I got a Norby call on that one.”
Mayne doesn’t think ESPN wanted to get rid of him because of his percolating political leanings, but he’s pretty sure it didn’t help. He says he remembers Williamson asking him one time, “Why do you have to do the politics?” And he replied, “Because I have four daughters and a wife and I want to look at myself in the mirror.”
Whether that’s expressly how it went down or merely Mayne’s best recollection is uncertain. I sent Williamson questions about all of it through an ESPN spokesperson and asked about the existence of a Twitter watch list, whether he asked Kenny not to “do the politics,” and whether Kenny “doing the politics” made him less attractive when it was time to draw up that last contract that never got signed. The only response was the aforementioned statement.
“I get it,” Mayne says, leaning into the political conversation—perhaps because this has been simmering for a while and it’s all finally boiled over, perhaps because there’s no one to hold him back any longer. “It’s not like everyone who supported [Trump] is out-and-out racist—a lot of them are—but they were willing to abide that racism, for sure. Or look the other way. I have family members who look the other way—pretend it’s just ‘Republicans versus Democrats, and both sides, and you’re so liberal,’ and all this bullshit. No, look at what they did. He basically, I know this triggers people, but to say they use the Nazi playbook is pretty accurate. Fascism for sure. Call it what you want. Attack the media. Attack the immigrants. Attack people of color. Attack truth.”
It’s incendiary language, regardless of whether or how much you agree. He knows as much. It’s also a much different side of someone who used to do silly “Mayne Event” videos played for laughs and recently interviewed a toddler for a Peacock gymnastics gag with the punch line “Do you feel like a corporate sellout?” He knows that much, too.
At a time when Mayne is unaffiliated and holding his tongue might help put money in his pocket, he has chosen to go quite another direction. Or maybe dousing his words in gasoline and spitting fire—about politics or anything else—is a shrewd play that will not only get people to keep paying attention but might also alter the public’s otherwise calcified perception of him. For as long as people have known his name, Kenny has leaned into his niche of delivering sports news and highlights wrapped in laid-back laughs. On a campus that graduated tons of talent over the years, he was the super senior who stuck around and scribbled in everyone’s yearbook that none of it was all that serious. Because most of the time, it was just sports. But while Mayne made a career out of being the comedic relief, the funny thing is he always thought he’d do hard news. He wanted to make documentaries or maybe end up on Frontline. Then one day his old TV station in Seattle added sports to the weekend broadcast. The news director thought Kenny would be good at it. He was right. Mayne never regretted it. He’s had it about as good as anyone in this industry could possibly hope for—which doesn’t mean he abandoned his old interests. He much prefers reading about current affairs and politics to sports. More than once he mentions he’s a fan of Sarah Kendzior and Andrea Chalupa’s podcast Gaslit Nation, and he says he handed out copies of her book The View From Flyover Country to friends and family like he was “Johnny Appleseed.” And now here he is, no longer on a watch list—Twitter or otherwise—free to indulge and express all the loaded thoughts he previously suppressed out of career preservation.
It is a pretty stark example of the economic-stability-for-freedom swap we’ve spoken about. When I ask if this is what he had in mind when he mentioned “liberation,” he nods.
“Oh, 100 percent.”
The first time he went to Vegas, Kenny Mayne was just a kid. Maybe 9 years old. His dad took him down from Seattle. Kenny sat at the pool; dad played craps. When he went back to elementary school, everyone did the thing where they say what happened over the summer and Kenny said he learned how to shoot dice. His parents were mortified. He remembers it fondly.
When he was in college, he and some of the other UNLV football players used to serve as ushers for big fights at Caesars Palace. He worked the famed Muhammad Ali–Larry Holmes fight in 1980. Before I can ask whether he’s admitting to a long-ago NCAA violation, he says they weren’t paid—then adds, “But maybe we got some chips on the side.”
There’s a chance Mayne will work for Caesars again one day. He’s been talking with them and another gambling company about signing on to do various things on their behalf. He likes the idea of going back to Vegas. There’s a nice narrative arc to it. Sports gambling is booming across the country, and everyone is trying to get in on the action—including, he says, ESPN. He predicts his old outfit will have “gambling on its front page within a year. Guarantee it. Maybe two years.” Mayne figures he might as well roll the dice, too.
“For Caesars, I’d do the silly videos plus appearances. Show up at grand openings,” he explains. “Do a joke with—who the fuck’s the singer? Elton John. Me and Elton John doing jokes.”
It’s not quite a Celine Dion residency, but it’s a living, and he thinks “it would be fun to have an association with that town again.” (Although not long before this story came out, he texted me about a “plot twist” that might sour matters—then days later he updated me again when Caesars smartly reversed course, much to his delight.) That’s the potential project he mentions the most, along with the possible Marshawn Lynch collaboration.
The more I think about it, and the more Kenny texts me about his attendant enthusiasm, the more ending up in Vegas feels like a good fit for him. Maybe his separation from ESPN will awaken his long-dormant inner newsman and he can find projects to indulge that side of himself. But that’s independent from the side of him that’s been successful for all these years, and it’s hard to imagine him fully abandoning the style that has defined his career.
If he’s going to keep playing the hits that made him in some form or fashion, what better town to do it in? Mayne’s delivery as a SportsCenter host always had a sort of dry lounge comedian quality to it, tailored for a crowd hip to that kind of humor. And besides, Vegas loves a second act.
Back in Santa Monica, as breakfast with his family is breaking up and they’re about to head out on a leisurely bike ride along the beach, Mayne seems as at ease with his prospects as he’s been since we started talking months ago. Just then, his phone buzzes with a new text message. He shows it to his wife first, then to me. It’s from an executive at one of the main TV networks: “Hey free agent, have time to talk?” The Ken Mayne Ego Tour continues.