ESPN’s tricky NFL problem
George Bodenheimer had only been on the job as ESPN’s acting chairman for a couple of weeks when he got word that Fox and the NFL would partner on the NFL draft, jointly producing a show that would directly compete against ESPN.
ESPN executives were angry. ESPN created the NFL draft as a TV show 38 years ago and popularized it to unprecedented heights over the years. It was one thing when the NFL Network started covering it. But when the NFL brought in a competitive broadcast network, it was seen as a slap in the face.
Soon after, Bodenheimer heard rumblings that the NFL was going to put ESPN’s wild card playoff game on Fox. The move, which still hasn’t been completed, potentially leaves ESPN with a $1.9 billion per year deal that features no NFL playoff games — a scenario that miffs several executives in Bristol.
ESPN’s relationship with the country’s most powerful sports league never has been totally in sync. Bodenheimer, after all, was ESPN’s president in 2004 when his network produced the “Playmakers” series that infuriated the league. ESPN wound up canceling the series after just one season because of pressure from NFL executives.
Still, Bodenheimer was struck by these latest events. Insiders say that Bodenheimer had never seen the NFL’s relationship turn this sour.
ESPN is dealing with a declining subscriber base and paying higher rights fees. A host of digital competitors are waiting in the wings to get some of its rights. It’s launching a direct-to-consumer service later this spring.
But multiple sources pointed to ESPN’s fraying relationship with the NFL as the top priority for new ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro. Pitaro considers the NFL relationship a priority and already has met with league executives in his first few days on the job.
During his three-month stint in charge of ESPN, Bodenheimer made an effort to start getting that relationship back on track. He visited with the league’s top officials and offered various olive branches to curry favor.
In one meeting, Bodenheimer committed to have ABC carry the third day of the NFL draft (rounds 4-7), a simulcast of the show that will be on ESPN. Bodenheimer made this deal despite some anger in Bristol that the NFL was working with Fox on a competing telecast, sources said.
The fact that Bodenheimer had to make such a concession on the NFL draft offers an illustration of just how bad the relationship between the two powerhouses had become. During Super Bowl week in Minneapolis, NFL executives privately described the relationship as the worst they’ve ever seen. In particular, they pointed to stories on ESPN.com and “Outside the Lines” that they felt went out of their way to portray the NFL in a bad light.
Their complaints ranged from the number of times ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” covered the concussion issue to the number of stories from feature writers Don Van Natta and Seth Wickersham about Commissioner Roger Goodell’s salary, the league’s handling of the player protests, palace intrigue at the Patriots and the ongoing dispute between Goodell and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
Plus, there were all the negative headlines surrounding the NFL this season that made their way onto “SportsCenter” or the home page of ESPN.com.
The NFL always has had a hard time differentiating between ESPN the promotion arm and ESPN the media outlet. It’s not a new development. In 2013, Goodell and then NFL executive Steve Bornstein met with former ESPN President John Skipper at a Manhattan restaurant to pressure him to back out of its affiliation with PBS’s “Frontline,” which was producing a documentary on concussions. ESPN wound up pulling out of the partnership.
In the past, ESPN had executives in place who could mollify the NFL. Over the past two years, though, ESPN did not. Skipper did not engage with the people who matter at the NFL, like Goodell and Brian Rolapp, executive vice president of media, sources said. Skipper, who was known to favor basketball and his relationship with Adam Silver over the NFL and its leaders, never fully engaged in the partnership. He did not socialize with or develop close ties to influential owners, like Patriots owner Robert Kraft and the Cowboys’ Jones. It seemed like the folksy Southerner had little in common with the people at the top of the NFL.
When he was ESPN’s president, Bodenheimer would check in with league officials regularly to establish open lines of communication, often having private dinners. Skipper eschewed all of those types of meetings with Goodell, Rolapp or any of the owners, sources said.
“All of those issues just festered, leaving us where we find ourselves now,” said one ESPN executive.
Skipper, and many others at ESPN, always chafed at how poor the “Monday Night Football” schedule was every season. When ESPN cut its rights deal, it paid for what the NFL called the “cable” package, a characterization that always irked ESPN executives who felt the difference between “cable” and “broadcast” was negligible. To the NFL, however, a “cable” package equated to the least competitive media package.
ESPN executives believe that for the rights fee it pays — $1.9 billion per year — it should have a stronger package. ESPN executives were particularly angry in 2014 when CBS bought the “Thursday Night Football” package and wound up with a better schedule than ESPN.
ESPN executives felt handcuffed because its deals with cable and satellite providers carried a provision that its rate would be cut if ESPN ever lost the NFL.
Over a five-year period ending around 2015, ESPN methodically stripped that clause out of its affiliate deals, meaning that the rates cable and satellite distributors pay are not tied to ESPN having the NFL. That benefited ESPN’s long-term business. It also helped its executives get some swagger back, as insiders say it emboldened them to push back more at the NFL when they feel aggrieved.
Other cracks surfaced. There was Bob Iger’s ill-fated pursuit of the Carson, Calif., NFL stadium project. There was also ESPN’s decision to scrap its popular Friday night Super Bowl party. ESPN opted to take a lot of its hospitality money out of the Super Bowl and put it in the CFP championship, which was held in Atlanta this year.
This is the environment that Pitaro inherits. Pitaro is known as a smooth relationship builder and excellent negotiator. He will put both of those skills to the test as he looks to fix one of ESPN’s most important partnerships.