With ESPN only three years away from the final year of its Monday Night Football contract, there’s a palpable sense that a relationship dating back to 1987 could be ending.
That’s the takeaway from an article by John Ourand of SportsBusiness Journal, who outlines the issues between the NFL and Bristol.
League executives complained about the atmosphere between the NFL and ESPN. “In particular,” Ourand writes, “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.”
ESPN consistently has complained about the quality of its schedule, which the NFL has regarded as something lesser than a FOX/CBS/NBC package because of the more limited audience on cable.
New ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro will be trying to repair the relationship, but it sounds like ESPN has some leverage as 2020 approaches. As noted by Ourand, ESPN has removed language from affiliate deals that essentially required ESPN to keep the NFL in order to maintain its fee from cable and satellite provides. That dynamic has emboldened ESPN executives, contributing to a current climate that has included ESPN ditching its Super Bowl party.
More recently, ESPN has been miffed by the decision to simulcast NFL Network’s coverage of the draft on FOX and by the looming loss of ESPN’s wild-card playoff game. The bigger question is whether ESPN and NFL can sufficiently repair the fissure in the hopes of laying the foundation for a new deal for Monday Night Football. If not, one of the other cable or broadcast networks could acquire the package, freezing ESPN out for at least 2021 — and possibly for a lot longer than that.