Paul Finebaum moving closer to free-agent status as contract talks with ESPN lag

Will ESPN lose “The Voice of the SEC”?

College football provocateur Paul Finebaum’s contract with the network expires at the end of July, sources tell Sporting News, and there haven’t been many meaningful negotiations on a new deal. Instead, Finebaum’s reps at Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and ESPN appear to be playing a game of chicken.

Finebaum, host of “The Paul Finebaum Show,” a daily four-hour program simulcast on SEC Network and ESPN Radio from 3-7 p.m. ET, signed a five-year deal with the Worldwide Leader in 2013.

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“Finebaum could be a free agent in a month, but there’s been radio silence,” one source told SN. “Usually with a guy this big, these things are wrapped up in advance.”

ESPN declined to comment. Finebaum’s agent, Nick Khan, could not be reached.

ESPN’s new management team — president Jimmy Pitaro, Oscar-winning content chief Connor Schell and studio chief Norby Williamson — appreciates Finebaum’s huge voice, said sources, especially in the South, where SEC football is next to godliness. The network is building out Finebaum’s studio in Charlotte, N.C., with an eye toward signing him to a long-term contract extension.

Finebaum’s TV career has exploded since his arrival at ESPN from a local radio sports talk show in Birmingham, Ala. Besides his popular SEC Network show, he’s a weekly analyst on “SEC Nation” and appears frequently on “College GameDay,” “College Football Live,” “SportsCenter” and other ESPN studio shows.

He is also a best-selling author, with “My Conference Can Beat Your Conference.” 

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With rabid fans like Phyllis from Mulga calling in, Finebaum’s show is a must-watch for many college football fans across the country. The SEC is still the most powerful conference in the nation, and no one is more plugged into Nick Saban and Alabama.

His Southeast base and Crimson Tide connections give Finebaum outsize influence, with some calling him the new Keith Jackson of college football. The Wall Street Journal used a different comparison; it called him the “Oprah Winfrey of college football.”

You could argue that it would be foolish for Finebaum to leave ESPN. When it comes to college football, the network is clearly No. 1, as James Andrew Miller and Richard Sandomir wrote in The New York Times.

When it comes to TV talent, though, you never know. 

The 62-year-old talker could be looking for a megadeal similar to the $6 million-a-year pact Fox Sports gave Skip Bayless to leave ESPN. Maybe he’s looking to branch out into a solo venture, with his own TV/radio deals, to maximize his earnings.

The latter move hasn’t worked out great for ex-ESPN star Bill Simmons, but Simmons had no choice because ESPN dumped him at contract time.

As Reeves Wiedeman wrote in his memorable “King of the South” profile of Finebaum in The New Yorker magazine, there are two types of people: those who admit they listen to Finebaum, and liars. The question now is whether they’ll be able to listen to Finebaum on ESPN in the future.

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