SBJ/April 25 - May 1, 2011/Media

ESPN’s endorsement rules put small dent in a big problem

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John Ourand
I hate the fact that ESPN allows Chris Berman to be a pitchman for Applebee’s. It bugs me that Dick Vitale gets paid by Hooters. I find the fascination a lot of ESPN talent has with home fitness plan P90X disconcerting.

Personally, I think TV networks should follow the print model and ban its full-time reporters and hosts from being paid cash for any endorsement.

But that’s not going to happen. Not on ESPN. Not on NBC. Not on Fox. Not anywhere. That ship has sailed. On-air talent will continue to act as pitchmen for a variety of products.

But that doesn’t make it right, and these examples show how difficult it would be to rein those endorsement contracts back.

ESPN is trying to regain control over its endorsements. Earlier this month, it developed guidelines for announcers who accept endorsements. In short, reporters and hosts can’t sign endorsement deals with apparel, footwear or athletic equipment companies they may cover.

It’s a no-brainer that sideline reporter Erin Andrews should not be getting paid by Reebok or lead golf anchor Scott Van Pelt should not be on Titleist’s payroll. These financial entanglements open them up to charges of conflict of interest, especially when they report about competitors. ESPN correctly put an end to these types of deals.

“Even though we made that tweak, I don’t believe our coverage has been compromised one bit,” said ESPN’s executive vice president of production Norby Williamson, who was part of the group that came up with the rules. “Clearly, a perception of conflict of interest is there, and we wanted to address that.”

Though I wish the guidelines would go further, it’s commendable that ESPN is taking this step — one that none of the other TV networks are taking. I also have problems with CBS announcer Jim Nantz doing a Sony commercial with Peyton Manning — a quarterback whose games he’s supposed to call impartially. I think viewers can have legitimate questions when Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer reports on NFL players — or their rivals — in light of the fact that he trains them in the offseason. Talk about conflicts of interest!

CBS, Fox and NBC all said they deal with these issues on a case-by-case basis. “Our talent contracts require endorsement opportunities to be disclosed and provide us with approval rights,” said NBC’s Chris McCloskey.

Look, I know this is sports. It’s entertainment, not life or death. Sports are supposed to be fun, and a lot of these deals highlight that. Nantz, Berman and Vitale aren’t journalists and shouldn’t be confined by journalistic conventions.

But you can’t convince me that it makes good business sense to have people that you want the public to trust on the payroll of companies they talk about on-air. Forget journalism. It’s a core business conduct issue.

“More than 50 percent of the fans probably don’t care,” Williamson said. “But there’s a section of fans that do. If we can improve our product for them, why don’t we do that?”

Under ESPN’s new guidelines, analysts — former athletes and coaches — can continue to have endorsements. Williamson said it would be too difficult to attract top-flight talent to Bristol if they banned those deals. I understand that distinction. I don’t like it, but I don’t have a big problem with it.

Even with ESPN’s changes, though, Berman still will have his Applebee’s and Vitale will not have to give up his Hooters.

“Chris Berman doing Applebee’s doesn’t impact our brand negatively at all,” Williamson said. “I reject the concept that Chris Berman on Applebee’s negatively impacts our ability to report on concussions in the NFL.”

But I think it slowly has been affecting ESPN’s brand. It’s notable that ESPN’s best reporters have no such endorsement deals, like Tom Rinaldi, Rachel Nichols and Jeremy Schaap.

The implicit message is that Rinaldi, Nichols and Schaap are the ones to be taken seriously. Berman? He’s an entertainer, more of a carnival barker for the NFL — even when he talks about concussions. Last year, Berman infuriated NASCAR when he ended ESPN’s NFL pregame show by telling viewers to watch the league on other networks, rather than giving a promo for a coming NASCAR race on ESPN.

Williamson said the distinction between hard news and entertainment occurs frequently within the same show. He referenced a “SportsCenter” from earlier this month that dealt with a lot of hard news, from the Barry Bonds trial to fallout from the gay slur Kobe Bryant uttered to an official.

“In that same show, we did top-10 highlights,” Williamson said. “That’s not hard news. ESPN is not a one-note network.”

By posting new endorsement guidelines and putting all of its announcers’ deals online, ESPN is taking real steps to avoid conflicts of interest. ESPN should do more. But it is a start, and far more than other networks have done.

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.

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