Can ESPN Satisfy the NFL’s Desire to Be Their Biggest Priority Over the NBA?


Chris Berman is slowly but surely returning to the ESPN fold. Andrew Marchand first wrote that this was in the works and Jimmy Traina added specifics that for the time being it will take the form of some SportsCenter features on NFL rivalries; he will also continue his Monday Countdown features that he was doing last season. Berman, who could very well expand his role more going forward, is yet another example that under the leadership of Jimmy Pitaro, ESPN is seeking to get back in the good graces of the NFL and (and its most hardcore fans) in a trend that has been very conspicuous for several months. What level of concessions would appease the NFL, whose leadership has been dismayed about ESPN’s journalism, commentary, and recent uptick in NBA discussion?

In March, John Ourand reported that fixing ESPN’s relationship with the NFL was a “top priority” for Pitaro, and lots of things have happened since that have been indicative of this ambition:

  • ESPN expanded its coverage of the draft to include broadcasting part of it on ABC.
  • Speaking with reporters in August, Pitaro spoke about ESPN being “good partners” with the league in proactively telling them Monday Night Football would not air the national anthem (though this caused a stir, this is actually what they were already doing) and spoke optimistically about being long-term partners with the NFL past the expiration of the MNF deal in 2021. When ESPN was led by John Skipper, Jim Miller openly wondered whether ESPN might let the deal expire and go on a feeding frenzy of other live rights.
  • ESPN has revamped its daily lineup; SportsCenter will air at noon eastern in place of High Noon (which will move later in the afternoon) and even pre-empt Outside the Lines (a show that the NFL has repeatedly been said to be unhappy with) on Mondays. 6PM SportsCenter features Sage Steele and Kevin Negandhi in place of Jemele Hill and Michael Smith, and every month ESPN PR touts its year-over-year gains.

When reading Pitaro’s line about being “good partners,” it was hard not to think of FOX Sports, which has a longstanding reputation in the industry of having strong relationship with their rights partners. In the last year with the NFL, FOX went out and far outbid NBC and CBS for the Thursday Night Football package, and also added coverage of the draft on its broadcast network.

FS1 has a decidedly football theme up and down their lineup. They have Cris CarterShannon Sharpe, and now Marcellus Wiley as daily fixtures on their shows; Colin Cowherd is known to be football first. Their new daily gambling show that features Clay Travis and Cousin Sal also figures to be football heavy. (Disclosure: The Big Lead’s editor-in-chief Jason McIntyre is an on-air personality at FS1.)

While these shows may never catch ESPN in the ratings, you can bet that the NFL office took notice of the football theme, and that it’s been a factor in how Park Avenue doles out the most compelling game matchups. (Yes, the FS1 shows also have a ton of NBA talk, and it’s hard for ESPN and FS1 not to go to overdraw that well given how much more interest there’s been especially online about the NBA’s discussion topics over the past two years.)

There has been a sense for several years that the NFL has retaliated against ESPN over its aggressive journalism in the form of sub-par Monday Night Football games, and that as much as anything is the underlying reason Pitaro wants to repair the relationship that deteriorated under John Skipper. You can bet NFL leadership will be watching closely not just to see if ESPN’s journalism unit lays off of them, but also where they perceive they stand in the pecking order versus NBA talk.

(At this point, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention two things: 1) The NFL has for whatever reason not seemed to care that FOX News has relentlessly stirred up emotions on the national anthem debate, and my only guess about that is that the most powerful owners agree deep down with how the players have been portrayed there, and 2) John Skipper also kowtowed to the NFL plenty in his day, as was evidenced by ESPN’s pulling out of the PBS Frontline concussion documentary, and everything that went down with Bill Simmons and Roger Goodell, but eventually he had enough and was prepared to go scorched Earth.)

It’s not as though ESPN will be shedding the NBA. They are expanding the pre- and postgame shows. They just announced a 20-hour basketball documentary. In October through January, still in the heart of football season, there will be a lot of discussion time spent on how LeBron and the Lakers are gelling, if the Warriors are vulnerable, and if anyone from the East can emerge as a legitimate threat. After all, ESPN will be airing heavy inventory of these games. That being said, from morning SportsCenter and Get Up until The Jump airs in mid-afternoon, it would be reasonable to expect that there will be more football talk than in those time slots a year ago.

Anyways, we’ll have to see down the road whether and to what extent this new embracement of the NFL from ESPN will manifest itself in better games on Monday Night Football and in the long run a renewal of the package. At the end of the day, ESPN pays $1.9 billion to the league, and even with bad games has made a mint from the NFL in the form of cable affiliate fees. Nevertheless, in the short run what you are going to see from ESPN is a studio lineup that is more palatable to the NFL league office.