Given all the negative publicity regarding the National Football League and their lack of standing up to their employees when they insult the audience, it was inevitable some of the fault lines inside the world of professional sports would surface at some point. It just so happens that one of the main broadcasters of live NFL games, a media practice that is seeing audiences flee for other viewing options anyway, is seeing enough of an impact on the bottom line that the actual relationship is in trouble and the network is looking to replicate the success of another network.
ESPN holds the contract for broadcasting Thursday night football games. (Coincidentally, the same time slot a lot of campaign rallies featuring President Trump are scheduled.)
Due to the “take a knee during the National Anthem” situation, and other pressures, the ratings, and thus advertising revenue are down. Big time.
ESPN also is a sports journalism business. They report on the matters pertaining to the world of professional sports. In the last year, the news about the NFL has not been good. The reporting of that reality was noticed.
And then there’s the politics.
ESPN and the NFL have a lot in common in 2018: both, for varying reasons, have become political lightning rods amidst the ongoing player protests started by Colin Kaepernick and angry tweets from President Donald Trump. The NFL was already facing serious macro shifts in live sports viewership habits before Kaepernick kneeled and before Trump tweeted. ESPN executives and employees are sick to death of a pervasive narrative among conservatives that the network has a liberal agenda. The network and the league would both like to move on and get football fans to focus on football.
On the other hand, the relationship between the two is reportedly the worst it has ever been, due to a conflict that was always there, but has grown louder. ESPN is a broadcast partner of the NFL and pays $2 billion per year to show its games; it is also a journalistic enterprise that has recently reported some of the most negative scoops about the league. NFL executives, according to Sports Business Journal, felt that a slew of ESPN stories last football season “went out of their way to portray the NFL in a bad light.”
So, what is the proposed solution? Make ESPN’s Thursday night NFL live show more like the original NFL night game vehicle, and shows that talk about other sports in a streetwise kind of way.
“When you’re channel-surfing, and you come across Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith on Inside The NBA,” Tessitore asks, “don’t you stop and at least give them a moment? Do you know what NBA game is actually on that night? No, because it doesn’t friggin’ matter. It’s those personalities being authentically themselves that you’re attracted to and want to watch. On a Saturday when College GameDay is at James Madison [University], you don’t care about James Madison, but you stop and watch because you want to see what Coach Corso is going to do, and you want to hear Herbie and Rece and the banter, right? That’s my vision for Monday Night Football, because that’s what Monday Night Football was built on in the 1970s. It was Cosell and Meredith and Gifford and they beat each other over the head with pots and pans. It had that edge to it.”
Which makes the show about the personalities doing the commentary and not the product on the field.
Good luck with that ESPN.