After ESPN ran a feature that was highly critical of Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, the company he owns, Pilot Flying J Travel Centers, canceled their advertising deal with the network. This story was first reported by Sports Business Daily.
On January 24, 2019, ESPN ran a story titled, “The Clash of the Cleveland Browns: How Hue Jackson, Jimmy Haslam and Baker Mayfield collided.”
The story painted Haslam’s Browns as a dysfunctional organization and made the owner look like the overload of the dysfunction.
So Haslam is canceling his company’s sponsorship and advertising deal with ESPN only two years into a four-year contract.
According to Sports Business Daily, “Pilot Flying J and ESPN are negotiating how to unwind the deals, which are believed to be worth low-to-mid seven figures annually.”
Haslam, a Knoxville-native, is a huge fan of University of Tennessee sports, and a lot of Pilot Flying J’s ESPN advertising buy was going to the SEC (Southeastern Conference) Network, including being named the conferences, “official travel center.” The Tennessee Volunteer sports teams are members of the SEC Conference.
In the ESPN story that besmirched Haslam, writer Seth Wickersham quoted a lot of unnamed sources, including some former Browns employees.
“You think you’re the one he trusts,” a former high-level member of Browns management told Wickersham. “By the time you realize that he confides in everyone, it’s too late. You’re gone.”
Another source claimed that Haslam soured on Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater in the 2014 draft because “something about Bridgewater’s handshake rubbed Haslam the wrong way.”
Also a source claimed that Jimmy’s wife Dee, who co-owns the Browns with her husband, once told team employees, “We just don’t know what we are doing. If we’d known how hard it would be, we never would have bought the team.”
After the story was published, Dee Haslam issued a statement denying ever saying that.
Wickersham wrote that Jimmy Haslam “tightly gripped every aspect of the Cleveland organization, often creating as much chaos as he inherited.”
Clearly this story didn’t portray Jimmy Haslam (or his wife) in the most positive light. So Jimmy Haslam is cutting bait from ESPN and won’t use the network to promote Pilot Flying J, the nation’s largest chain of travel centers with 750 locations across the country.
It’s unclear how they will redirect the ad revenue they are pulling from ESPN.
Haslam bought the Browns in October 2012 for $1 billion from Randy Lerner, but the team has not had much success under Haslam’s ownership.
However, things seem to finally heading in the right direction. Last year Haslam hired highly-regarded former Green Bay and Kansas City executive John Dorsey to run his football operation, and the new GM proceeded to pick Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield in the 2018 draft, who looks like a franchise QB. With Mayfield at QB, they went 5-3 over the second half of last season. The Browns finished the 2018 season 7-8-1, this after going 1-31 the previous two campaigns.
So things might be looking up with Haslam’s Browns.
But not so much for ESPN’s ad budget.