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Matt Calkins: Enjoy Kenny Mayne while you can, as he closes out his ESPN career

UPDATED: Fri., May 14, 2021

By Matt Calkins Seattle Times

SEATTLE – There was only one worry Kenny Mayne had after opting to walk away from ESPN after 27 years.

It wasn’t the thought of being rudderless. It wasn’t anxiety over what he’d do next. It was that maybe, just maybe people wouldn’t care that he was gone.

“My only fear was, ‘What if I put out the statement on Twitter and like five people respond?’ You know, like nobody,” said the 61-year-old Mayne, the longtime SportsCenter anchor who was born in Kent, Washington, and has a house in nearby Kirkland. “But I was seriously overwhelmed by the response.”

An outpouring of admiration and acclaim followed Mayne’s announcement Monday, when he characterized his departure as a “salary cap casualty” (he told The Athletic he was asked to take a 61% pay cut). Some tweets nearly brought the famously stone-faced Mayne to tears. But come on – how else would people to respond to the funniest and most offbeat personality to come through the Worldwide Leader in Sports?

Take 2½ minutes to watch Mayne’s recap of Jean Van de Velde’s collapse at the 1999 British Open (Mayne, as Van de Velde removes his shoes to hit out of the water: “He decides he’s going to play the rest of the round naked.”)

Take 30 seconds to watch the SportsCenter commercial of Mayne rehearsing home-run calls for Ken Griffey Jr.:

“It must be a homer Simpson, ’cause the pitcher just went ‘D’oh!’ ”

Take 2 more minutes to watch the “Mayne Event” featuring Marshawn Lynch living large at Applebee’s and Dave and Busters (Lynch: “I love the ambience. I love the decor. I spend a lot of time trying to figure out which one I like more, the ambience or the decor.”)

Mayne developed a bond with Beast Mode distinct from almost anyone else in his field. This was apparent in the locker room after Seahawks games, when he and Lynch would yuk it up while the rest of the media steered clear of the notoriously reticent running back.

That relationship led to Lynch acting in a second “Mayne Event,” as well as a Progressive Insurance commercial that Mayne pitched. How the pair grew so close?

“I think we just got each other,” said Mayne, adding that he was often frustrated by how Lynch was portrayed as standoffish by the media. “He’s different, but maybe I am, too.”

Few will dispute that. Forget the fictitious stories he would produce featuring David Duval resurrecting his game via miniature golf rounds, or Jerry Rice dominating a local flag-football league.

Mayne, it turns out, is about as prevalent writing commercials as he is highlights. And not just for ESPN.

Whether it’s the Progressive ad, a spot for Johnson and Johnson, or an idea for Oberto beef jerky (he called the CEO of the company but hasn’t heard back) – Kenny, as he puts it has “a knack for making a good 30 seconds.”

“If you asked, ‘What are you going to do to make a dollar tomorrow?’ Or June 1, I should say, because I work until May 31, I might say that I’d put my emphasis into that (advertising),” said Mayne, who has already pitched Michael Jordan with an undisclosed commercial idea.

“But so far, to my good fortune, I’ve had incoming calls on other opportunities. I don’t quite know what they might turn out to be, but it’s good to know that some folks seem to like me out there.”

So what are those opportunities? A podcast maybe? Seems to be a strong possibility.

“I mean, who the hell doesn’t have a podcast? You need an iPhone and a podcast these days to get by. So I’ll probably venture into something, if not that, something very much like that,” Mayne said. “I feel like I have a bunch of ideas that weren’t fully heard at ESPN, and now it’s my shot to go put them into effect.”

Point of emphasis: Mayne does not have any antagonism toward ESPN. The company gave him a life-changing opportunity in 1994 after he wrote a cover letter to executive John Walsh, asking him to check one of the following boxes as Mayne was “in the process of planning my future.”

  • It just hit us – we love your work. Contract is on the way. Stand by the mailbox.
  • Keep up the field producing. We’ll call you when we need you.
  • We’ll consider hiring you about the time ESPN5 hits the air.

That’s Kenny.

Of course, there’s another Kenny: the ardent military supporter who founded the organization Run Freely, which provides devices that help soldiers who suffered catastrophic injuries walk and run with reduced pain.

Mayne also gave an address at the I Corps Army Birthday Ball at the Tacoma Convention Center five years ago, which he called the most nerve-wracking speech of his life because “I didn’t want to let down the generals.”

He doesn’t seem to want to let down his viewers, either.

Mayne had the option of stepping away once he passed on his latest contract offer, but decided to play out his deal through the end of the month. He doesn’t know when his final show will be, as ESPN could chuck him at any time, but he is prepared to work as long as they’ll have him.

So enjoy Mayne while you can. He’s as original a broadcaster as you’re going to find – a guy who regularly cracked up his fans, producers and co-anchors, even if he occasionally rankled the higher-ups.

“There were some in management that thought I was too absurd or esoteric for the SportsCenter-loving audience,” Mayne said. “Whatever. I fooled them for 27 years.”

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