Michael Kay
Mitch Stringer | USA TODAY Sports

Michael Kay’s radio sabbatical is almost over. And when he returns, the biggest local sports talk storyline of the fall will begin in earnest.

Kay will return to afternoon drive on ESPN Radio New York on Sept. 6, according to Newsday and The Post. It has been business as usual for Kay on the television side all summer — calling Yankees games on YES Network and “KayRod” broadcasts with Alex Rodriguez for ESPN — but he has been MIA from his radio show. Co-hosts Don La Greca and Peter Rosenberg have stepped up in his absence.

ESPN Radio New York has previously said Kay is taking vacation to recharge his batteries and juggle his other responsibilities. Which is completely fair. He has a family, of course, and there is nothing new about top hosts taking time off in the summer. That’s why the summer ratings book does not really count.

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But Kay’s hiatus has received extra scrutiny for two reasons: Because he’s still clearly working elsewhere. And because his show has been beaten like a drum by WFAN in recent months. Kay’s Fall 2021 book win over Craig Carton and Evan Roberts was the biggest victory of his career. But it has been downhill since. Carton and Roberts rolled in the winter and spring books, winning the latter by a 6.3 to 3.3 margin.

Since then: Kay has whined about Carton being able to do guy talk, thrown out a conspiracy theory about Nielsen meters and ghosted the program that carries his name. Even Mike Francesa didn’t take this much time off at the peak of his power. And there is an argument to be made Carton and Roberts have pulled away even further without Kay around.

Kay’s absence has led to natural speculation about how much longer he plans to do the radio show. That thought seems unfounded for now. If there was a chance Kay’s exit was actually on the table, you would think ESPN would have experimented more with realistic replacement options over the last few weeks. But questions about Kay’s long-term future on the radio are legitimate.

This fall is feels like the last chance for Kay (and ESPN Radio New York) to be a relevant player in the tri-state area’s radio wars. Afternoon drive is the only place the station has ever been competitive with WFAN. And the upcoming sports calendar falls in Kay’s wheelhouse.

Kay prides himself on doing a traditional sports show — something Carton and Roberts don’t do — and there will be a lane for that this fall. The Mets and Yankees will be World Series contenders. The Giants and Jets should be interesting, if not successful. The Nets and Knicks will have buzz. And the Rangers are coming off a big playoff run. People may want to break down the games and hear good interviews rather than do “WAG Wednesday” and bust chops. Kay has a shot to rally.

But if Kay and company get boatraced again by Carton and Roberts on their own turf? It will be goodnight the lights. At that point, WFAN will be ahead for good. And it will be fair to wonder how much longer Kay wants to do the show and ESPN Radio New York wants to have him do it. They gave him 17 years to finally beat Francesa. It’s hard to imagine he’d get — or want — that much runway a second time around.

James Kratch can be reached at james.kratch@xlmedia.com

James Kratch is the managing editor of ESNY. He previously worked as a Rutgers and Giants (and Mike Francesa) beat reporter for NJ Advance Media.