ESPN’s Biased Reporting Fractured Its Relationship with the NFL

Over the last few seasons, the once close relationship between the National Football League and ESPN has soured, as the network has pursued story after story that tends toward damaging the league.

According to Sports Business Daily’s John Ourand, the NFL is miffed by ESPN’s determination to run stories that paint the NFL in a negative light. For instance, ESPN’s steady drumbeat of stories pertaining to anthem protests, concussions, domestic violence incidents, and other such stories.

As Ourand wrote:

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 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.

Worse, it appears that former ESPN President John Skipper was not at all interested in trying to repair the damage done to the network’s relationship with the league:

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.

Since Skipper’s abrupt departure, his replacement, Jimmy Pitaro, has been left scrambling to try and repair the failing relationship between the two sports powerhouses.

For its part, ESPN has been frustrated by what it considers to be a lackluster slate of Monday Night Football games stretching back over the last three years. ESPN pays nearly $2 billion a year for MNF; however, its contract with the NFL runs out after 2021.

Still, ESPN has not been sitting on its hands and has turned toward greater involvement in the NBA as well as college sports to replace its former focus on pro football. As The Big Lead reminds readers, last year it was even rumored that the network was considering not renewing its Monday Night Football contracts. That may still come to pass what with the network’s dwindling subscriber base and falling revenue.

Follow Warner Todd Huston on Twitter @warnerthuston.

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