SBD/April 21, 2011/Marketing and Sponsorship

Poynter Faculty Think ESPN Endorsement Guidelines Fall Short

Former coach Vitale gets to keep Hooters endorsement deal under ESPN guidelines
In the latest entry for ESPN as part of the Poynter Review Project, Poynter Institute Ethics Group Leader Kelly McBride wrote ESPN's new endorsement policy for its commentators is an "important step forward and will go a long way toward bolstering the network's image as an organization concerned with integrity and credibility," but it "won't be enough." There is "too much wiggle room carved out to accommodate big stars," since the guidelines do not extend to former athletes and coaches. As a result, ESPN critics "will continue to question the loyalties of the most famous folks at the network." ESPN's analysts, the "men and women who typically played or coached a sport," make up "more than half of the 1,000-plus public-facing individuals ESPN refers to as 'talent.'" That means "most of the talent it employs can enter into the very type of contract that prompted the outcry in the first place." But McBride wonders, "Why would the network create a two-tiered system, in which some people are allowed conflicts of interest and others aren't?" ESPN execs contend that it is a "matter of practicality, rooted in both the culture of sports and finances." ESPN Exec VP/Production Norby Williamson: "Ultimately our goal is to serve sports fans with the best commentators available. These (endorsement) relationships are an established part of the environment that the analysts exist in. It's standard operating procedure. It's clearly beyond our control. We believe we'd put ourselves at a competitive disadvantage (if the network didn't allow the outside deals)." Still, in the coming months, ESPN execs "may need to further tighten the boundaries in order to combat the persistent public perception that ESPN is compromised." McBride: "Short of preventing all talent -- including former coaches and players -- from signing contracts that pose a conflict, the ESPN policy could place term limits on making such endorsement deals. After a fixed time, say five years of ESPN work, analysts would have to make a choice -- sports celebrity or journalism" (, 4/20).

ON YOUR OWN: CBS, NBC, Turner and Fox all reiterated that they will not "consider publishing a commentators-endorsement list." CBS Sports VP/Communications Jennifer Sabatelle said, "We handle these deals on a case by case basis." NBC Sports & Olympics VP/Communications Chris McCloskey: "Contracts with our talent require endorsement opportunities to be disclosed and provide us with approval rights." Turner Broadcasting Senior VP/PR Sal Petruzzi: "We continue to have an open dialogue with our announcers on their endorsement opportunities." Fox Senior VP/Media Relations Lou D'Ermilio: "Contractually, all endorsement deals contemplated by our commentators need to be approved by FOX Sports in advance" (, 4/20).
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