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Volume 25 No. 134
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Pilot Flying J Pulls ESPN Deal After Story On Browns' Culture

Pilot Flying J’s deal with ESPN included advertising around college football
Photo: PILOT FLYING J

Pilot Flying J is pulling its extensive advertising and sponsorship agreement with ESPN two years into a four-year deal, sources say, after ESPN.com ran a critical story on the inner workings of the Browns. Jimmy Haslam, who owns the Browns with his wife, Dee, also is Pilot Flying J’s CEO. The brand’s multi-platform deal with ESPN included significant advertising around college football, an SEC corporate sponsorship that made it the conference’s official travel center, and agreements for ESPN talent Paul Finebaum and Laura Rutledge to endorse the brand. ESPN owns all of the SEC’s marketing and media rights, which is why it sold the league sponsorship. Pilot Flying J and ESPN are negotiating how to unwind the deals, which are believed to be worth low-to-mid seven figures annually. Neither Pilot Flying J nor ESPN would comment. It remains to be seen how or if Pilot will redeploy those marketing dollars. Before the ESPN.com story ran on Jan. 24, Pilot officials publicly had been effusive in their praise of the ESPN arrangement and even used the college football platform to launch a new “Welcome To” ad campaign last year. But sources said that the relationship was irretrievably damaged by a lengthy insider-style story on ESPN.com entitled “The Clash of the Cleveland Browns: How Hue Jackson, Jimmy Haslam and Baker Mayfield collided.” The story went behind the scenes to look at the Browns organization during the '18 season, including a detailed look at how Haslam handled the midseason coaching change. The story’s author, Seth Wickersham, wrote that Haslam “tightly gripped every aspect of the Cleveland organization, often creating as much chaos as he inherited.”

MOVING ON: Pilot Flying J, the nation’s largest chain of travel centers with 750 locations across the country, first entered the college space with a major splash in '16 by title-sponsoring the Battle at Bristol football game between Tennessee and Virginia Tech. It marked the company’s first significant sports marketing play. Headquartered in Knoxville, a little more than 100 miles away from Bristol, Pilot officials were enthralled by the crowd of 156,990, which set a college football attendance record. Working with its Charlotte-based agency, Bespoke Sports & Entertainment, Pilot doubled down on its college football presence in '17 with a comprehensive four-year sponsorship deal. Included in the ESPN package was presenting sponsorship of “SEC Nation,” the SEC Network’s Saturday morning gameday show, on three occasions per season.