Everybody paying close attention to sports media has noticed that over the last several years the NFL and ESPN’s relationship has deteriorated. Nevertheless, John Ourand wrote a piece in Sports Business Daily that profoundly illustrated the extent to which it has frayed, painting it almost as though this fraying was essentially goaded by former ESPN boss John Skipper, with his successor Jimmy Pitaro scrambling to salvage the wreckage.
ESPN has gotten a crappy slate of Monday Night Football games for at least the last three seasons. In 2015, THR cited sources as saying that people in Bristol believed this was retaliation for journalism and commentary during the Ray Rice fiasco. Ourand’s story indicates that the NFL has continued to be miffed by ESPN’s aggressive journalism:
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.
And Skipper was either unable or unwilling to do damage control:
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.
Pretty clearly, ESPN has cozied up to Adam Silver and the NBA in recent years. They paid about triple the rights fees in the new deal, in part to keep Fox Sports away from the package and in part because the league is chock full of recognizable stars. In the all-hands-on-deck summit where Skipper addressed nearly all of ESPN’s employees shortly before his abrupt resignation, observers recall the NBA being discussed in proportion to the NFL at a ratio of around 15-1.
We knew back in October that Skipper’s ESPN was strongly considering not renewing its Monday Night Football package when Jim Miller broached the topic, noting a) that ESPN had negotiated its cable affiliate fees — which total over $100 a year for subscribers when you combine ESPN and ESPN2, and b) that ESPN would take the $1.9 billion it paid the NFL in annual fees and go on a reinvestment spree that could include a combination of the MLB playoffs, NHL, and Big 12 and SEC football.
Even with the much publicized ratings attrition, the NFL remains by far the most popular sports in America. ESPN would still need to fork over a half-billion dollars or so for the highlights rights, but they would be armed with a war-chest to acquire other sports rights if they no longer had to pay the NFL $1.9 billion.
Could the NFL make up that remaining $1.4 billion? Perhaps FS1 could get involved with MNF, or maybe the ATT/Time Warner merger goes through by that time and Turner Sports would make a bid. But, it’s hard to envision a scenario where the NFL takes MNF and puts it exclusively on a streaming package.
For the time being, it sounds like Jimmy Pitaro is attempting to salvage the relationship, because even in a diminished state MNF is a big factor in cable affiliate fees, and it’s not as though those other live rights won’t have competing bidders.
However, it would be fascinating to see what happens with both ESPN and the NFL if ESPN relinquished the rights. Will we get that opportunity?