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Erin Andrews the lastest example of ESPN losing a star to a rival

The news prompted an outpouring on Twitter and good wishes delivered by everyone from Brooklyn Decker to Dancing with the Stars hoofer Maksim Chmerkovskiy.           

But the real impact of Erin Andrews’ move from ESPN to Fox Sports may be more than a change of scenery for the Worldwide Leader’s most visible female personality. It may also be the ultimate test of ESPN’s anti-star system.

“It’s been bittersweet,” Andrews, who worked at ESPN since 2004, told USA Today. “There’ve been a lot of tears.”           

It is ironic that news of Andrews’ departure would be revealed less than two months after NBC snatched up Michelle Beadle, given that both women were depicted as rivals in sports blogs which dissected Beadle’s comments about the infamous peephole video recorded of Andrews in a hotel without her knowledge back in 2009.           

Both women were rising stars at the channel – arguably the two most-visible female personalities at ESPN. And both clearly had ambitions beyond sports media, well-aware their popularity with the channel’s advertiser-friendly male demographic could bring lots of opportunities.           

But, as several writers skilled at sussing the rhythms of ESPN’s Bristol, Conn., headquarters can attest, the channel’s culture doesn’t necessarily value building personalities who might grow bigger than the platform’s brand.           

Everyone from Keith Olbermann to his partner in building the historic SportsCenter, Dan Patrick, has told stories about how executives in Bristol seemed to keep noted stars there from getting too big.           

Such quotes are woven throughout the book Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN, and the book’s co-author, James Andrew Miller, noted on Twitter that Andrews would likely get more support building her brand as a star at Fox Sports.           

“Bristol doesn’t want to be (sic) star factory,” he tweeted this morning. “It wants loyal workers” such as Sage Steele and Bob Ley. Miller also noted the channel didn’t seem to value Andrews’ appearances on Good Morning America and Dancing with the Stars after the horrific peephole video turned her into a national symbol for women struggling to prosecute stalkers.           

Andrews actually joins a tradition of anchors hired from ESPN by Fox, including Suzy Kolber and Olbermann. So its only makes sense that Fox and NBC, seeking to challenge ESPN with their own sports media juggernauts, would hire two of the most visible women at the Worldwide Leader.           

Andrews is expected to host a new primetime college football show on Saturdays which will challenge both ESPN and its corporate sibling, ABC, which shows such games on Saturdays in prime time. She also reportedly gets to join the network’s coverage of professional football and baseball, expanding her portfolio.           

In addition to appearing on Access Hollywood, Beadle will be featured in NBC’s coverage of the London Olympics, which is itself expected to fuel a marked increase of viewers to its new NBC Sports Network.           

In both these moves is an unspoken question: Can a sports network gain much-needed traction with viewers by giving a rival’s stars the kind of brand-building opportunities every ambitious broadcaster desires?           

Or will they find, like Fox did in Olbermann, that hiring signature personalities from the competition can make you look a little too much like your rival to really stand out?           

Will Fox and NBC discover stars matter less than building the channel brand? Or will ESPN learn that sometimes its better to give signature personalities the opportunities they need to grow and build their popularity – making your channel more popular in the bargain?           

And as much as this seems about stars wanting expanded opportunities, you also have to ask what this means for ESPN’s track record with women on air personalities. Is the reward for an ace female anchor or reporter to be told they need to look elsewhere, at a time when the channel needs better representation of women covering major sports?             

I’m not sure what’s going to happen – too much depends on how each woman performs in a new corporate culture with new responsibilities in new settings.           

But the eventual answers just might tell the tale of how two of the biggest companies in broadcasting took on the biggest brand in sports media, using its own former stars as its weapons. 

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the Tampa Bay (Fla.) Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. He also provides regular commentary for National Public Radio and has been published by the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed.

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