The Media Column: Expect ESPN to go softer on NFL as it looks to fix damaged relationship

Alex Reimer
August 22, 2018 - 6:26 pm

Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

One of the more embarrassing moments in recent ESPN history came four years ago when Chris Berman whitewashed the NFL’s repugnant handling of the Ray Rice scandal in the middle of a “Monday Night Football” broadcast. Berman and partner Trent Dilfer bumbled through an excruciating summary of the episode –– they praised the NFL and Ravens for their “decisive” response –– and then the punt was blocked.

Get ready for more of those Sarah Sanders-esque sell jobs this season. ESPN has indicated it will back away from polarizing issues during game coverage, as the NFL attempts to navigate continued attacks from the White House and new rule initiatives that look absolutely disastrous. 

The NFL has tried to meddle in its broadcast partners’ affairs for years, most notably pressuring ESPN to cancel the reality series “Playmakers” for depicting professional football in a negative light. The NFL also pushed for the WorldWide Leader to pull out of PBS’ “Frontline” concussion expose in 2014. 

Recently, however, some of the harshest reporting about the NFL has emanated from Bristol. ESPN’s band of investigative reporters, including Don Van Natta Jr., Mark Fainaru-Wada and Seth Wickersham, have published scores of unflattering stories about the NFL’s handling of its concussion crisis, domestic violence and social justice protests. Last season, Van Natta and Wickersham chronicled Jerry Jones’ failed attempts to sabotage commissioner Roger Goodell’s contract extension, and Wickersham wrote two extensive feature stories on the palace intrigue at Patriot Place. 

The relationship between ESPN and the NFL is full of contradictions. On one hand, ESPN pays the league $1.9 billion annually to broadcast MNF.  ESPN is in a partnership with the NFL, and thus has a vested interest in promoting its success. 

But on the other hand, ESPN is also the largest sports journalism outfit in the world. It features world-class investigative work, and few entities are more ripe for scrutiny than the NFL. 

Earlier this year, Sports Business Journal’s John Ourand reported that NFL executives categorized the state of affairs between ESPN and the league as the “worst” they’ve ever seen. New ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro has reportedly prioritized mending the relationship between the network and its largest broadcast partner, a stark change from his predecessor, John Skipper, who didn’t schedule regular meetings with league representatives. 

Pitaro’s apparent peacemaking has already resulted in changes to the network’s MNF coverage. Sean McDonough was jettisoned from the booth in March, and acknowledged on “Kirk & Callahan” the league wasn’t thrilled with his habit of criticizing officials. “I know there are people within the NFL who probably wish I talked less about the officiating, or whatever it was that rankled them,” he said.

ESPN hired college football play-by-play voice Joe Tessitore to take McDonough’s place, teaming the NFL newbie with broadcasting novices Jason Witten and Booger MacFarland. It’s easy to see why Tessitore was the choice to replace the blunt McDonough. In the Ringer’s laughable recent profile of Tessitore, MNF coordinating producer Jay Rothman says the broadcast with McDonough and Jon Gruden became “kind of a downer.” Tessitore, meanwhile, makes his objective clear: he wants to celebrate the game.

“I understand there are elements of journalism that come with my job,” Tessitore told reporter Bryan Curtis. “But we’re far more capitalists than we are journalists.”

There it is right there. Tessitore believes he’s a promoter, not objective bystander. Don’t expect him to declare any night to be “terrible” for the NFL, which McDonough did during the brutal Steelers-Bengals showdown on MNF last December. 

One of Pitaro’s other reported goals is to shift ESPN away from politics. At the network’s media day last Friday, ESPN’s new boss said MNF won’t air the national anthem at all this season prior to kick-off. 

“If you ask me is there a false narrative out there, I will tell you ESPN being a political organization is false,” he said, per the Washington Post. “I will tell you I have been very, very clear with employees here that it is not our jobs to cover politics, purely.”

The national anthem issue is tricky. While it's beyond tired –– we've been having the same debate for two years –– President Trump seems destined to keep hammering the issue from all angles. At his rally Tuesday night, for example, he lambasted ESPN for its decision to not air the anthem, and is now circling a petition urging the network to change course. Perhaps not coincidently, his personal fixer, Michael Cohen, and ex-campaign manager, Paul Manafort, were charged with federal crimes this week.  

As Trump told Jones in a phone call last year, he doesn’t intend to back off protesting players. Ripping outspoken black athletes is a winning issue for him, and serves as the perfect distraction. 

Yet, even if Trump’s incessant NFL bashing continues to lead newscasts, it seems like Pitaro is prepared to ignore the story –– or at least downplay it. NFL owners, who desperately want the issue to disappear, will almost certainly be thankful. Forbes SportsMoney's Maury Brown says he expects other rights-holders to follow suit.

"The larger sense from a television perspective is, it's starting to wear on fans," Brown told me in a phone conversation. "I completely understand the players' perspective. I fully support that. But I do think what happens, psychologically, a lot of fans turn on sports to move away from politics, which consume our every waking second under this Administration. Sports used to be our way to get away from it, and now it isn't. I think networks are just going, 'Well, let's all walk away from it.' It's not just ESPN. If you look at CBS, NBC, Fox, I think they're largely going to move away from it. I think that's just where they're at." 

There’s a business argument to be made when it comes to placating the NFL. Despite a nine percent downturn in ratings last season, it’s still the most valuable commodity on TV. In 2017, NFL games accounted for 71 of the year’s 100 most-watched telecasts among men 18-49, per sports media reporter Michael Mulvihill. In 2007, that figure was 22 of 100. 

Those numbers explain why the NFL continues to swim in TV money. This January, Fox Sports paid the league $3.3 billion to broadcast "Thursday Night Football" for the next five years, even though TNF is the lowest-rated of the NFL's primetime packages. 

Still, TNF routinely outdraws other events on television. The same can be said for MNF, which despite seeing its ratings drop to a new low last season, was the highest-rated show on cable in 2017. 

"No sports league wants to see its ratings drop. But the NFL, in terms of percentage of drop, is a little bit different than some others. If you were to go back through and look, the number of most-watched games have increased," Brown explained. "So their ratings have gone down, but their competition has largely seen a drop as well. The networks that pay for the rights, of course, are sitting on top of a sea of content. Nobody seems to ask those people. Everybody seems to look at the Nielsen numbers, but if you were to talk to the networks that buy that content, they continue to be satisfied with what they're getting."

The NFL makes ESPN way more money than cutting journalism and commentary. It’s the classic push-pull that every media executive faces. Pitaro won’t be able to appease the NFL and support unfettered journalism. He’ll be forced to make a choice, and it appears he's already decided which direction he wants to go. 

In case you missed it, Berman is in talks to return to ESPN in an expanded role this NFL season. 

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Strange Boston sports fan survey: For the last seven years, a polling company called Channel Media and Marker Research has conducted an annual summer survey of Boston sports fans. And every year, I wonder who they're actually polling. 

The sports media section is especially odd. Mike Felger wins "favorite local radio sports personality," which make sense, given his ratings and omnipresence. But there are three "Sports Hub" guys after him, including Marc Betrand, who's tied for second with Scott Zolak with 15 percent of the vote. Lou Merloni is the first WEEI personality (10 percent), followed by Glenn Ordway and Kirk Minihane (7 percent). 

Those numbers don't correlate with the ratings one bit, considering "Kirk & Callahan" is the highest-rated morning show in the market among men 25-54, and OMF was neck-and-neck with "Beetle & Zo" in middays. Also, neither Fred Toucher nor Rich Shertenlieb are on the list. Perhaps even more curiously, Gerry Callahan is absent as well. Say what you want about Gerry, but he's been at the top of the morning ratings for 20 years. Surely, more than seven percent of sports talk listeners in Boston would list him as their favorite host. (I would know: they're in my Twitter mentions every morning screaming about Hillary and Rev. Jeremiah Wright.) 

The "favorite local sports show" list is just as senseless. "Toucher & Rich" is left off entirely, whereas K&C clocks in at fifth with 12 percent of the vote. Since more people listen to the radio during the morning commute than any other portion of the day, the order is puzzling.

Plus, do 13 percent of people really consider "Behind the B" to be their favorite sports TV show in the market? It's a seasonal program that's on, like, in the middle of the night. 

We all fuel the Brady hate: Max Kellerman is sticking by his asinine proclamation that Tom Brady is about to "fall off a cliff." And we have nobody to blame but ourselves. Every time Kellerman, Rob Parker or another histrionic talking head fires off an outrageous Tom Brady take, we dedicate the next day to slamming that person on our airwaves. 

We're giving them the attention they crave. 

If Kellerman ceased getting reaction for his anti-Brady takes, then he would stop saying them. But we can’t help ourselves: the interest in Kellerman’s stupidity is too high. Almost every blog post about Kellerman’s Brady hate becomes one of the most-read pieces on our website that day. 

Of course, if our articles and radio segments about faux Brady outrage failed to gain traction, we would stop doing them. The consumer is responsible, too. We all feed into the culture of hysteria that we simultaneously bemoan. It’s an odd psychological condition.

An actual take from "Get Up": I spend lots of time mocking ESPN’s “Get Up” for its lack of takes, so let’s give credit where credit is due. Co-host Michelle Beadle said Thursday she doesn’t intend to watch any college or professional football this season in the wake of the Urban Meyer scandal. It’s a clip that will go viral, which should be the goal of these pricey studio shows.

"There’s a reason why this will be the second season I don’t watch NFL and I don’t spend my Saturdays watching college football either," Beadle said, per the Big Lead. "I believe that the sport of football has set itself up to be in a position where it shows itself in the bigger picture to not really care about women — they don’t really care about people of color, but we won’t get into that for NFL either — but as a woman I feel like a person who has been marginalized.”

That's a bold stand from Beadle, especially considered the aforementioned NFL-ESPN partnership. Of course, Mike Greenberg did not follow up. Why harp on something interesting?

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