ESPN’s new president realigns company with the NFL

This new vision raises questions on whether it is even possible to be a down-the-middle sports network anymore.

Jason Witten, Joe Tessitore
Former NFL player and now analyst Jason Witten and play-by-play commentator Joe Tessitore are the hosts of "Monday Night Football" under new ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro. –AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Get Patriots game stats and the inside scoop on the season with The Boston Globe's Point After newsletter delivered for free to your inbox.

When football fans tuned in to see the Los Angeles Rams play the Oakland Raiders on ESPN on Monday, they were to be greeted by a new “Monday Night Football” crew. After Jon Gruden left to return to coaching, ESPN executives opted for a radical makeover, selecting Joe Tessitore and Jason Witten as the lead announcers.

This is just one of the many high-visibility changes to take place at ESPN since Jimmy Pitaro was named the company’s president in March. Along with “resetting” (his word) the network’s relationship with the NFL, Pitaro has overseen a rebuilding of ESPN’s daytime lineup and the return of “SportsCenter” to its past prominence.

Advertisement

Pitaro has not remade the executive ranks or outlined a bold new vision for the company, but his plan for ESPN is becoming clearer. His ESPN is a network in lock step with the NFL, still the most popular sports league in the country. It is one that is swiftly retreating from offering commentary on political and social issues, and re-establishing the prominence of bread-and-butter highlights. It is a vision that raises questions about the company’s commitment to hard-hitting investigative journalism, and whether it is even possible to be a down-the-middle sports network anymore.

This probably isn’t how Pitaro would describe his effect on ESPN, of course. He declined to speak on the record for this article, though ESPN made a number of executives and on-air talent available.

These people said what one might expect them to say about their new boss. That he loves sports. That he is a great listener. That he collaborates and is a sponge for information. That he has thrown himself headfirst into work, and that the transition has been seamless. That everybody is already taking to heart Pitaro’s four core pillars: direct to consumer, expanding our audience, quality storytelling and programming, and innovation.

Advertisement

But they also spoke carefully. Abundant praise for Pitaro could be seen as criticism of his predecessor, John Skipper; outlining, or praising, the major changes he has undertaken by definition means admitting major changes were necessary. Connor Schell, an executive in charge of content, described Pitaro as bringing a “fresh set of eyes and new energy” to the company. When asked if energy had been flagging, he paused for a while before saying he did not know.

Last year was an annus horribilis for ESPN. There were the layoffs in April and the seemingly weekly self-inflicted controversies throughout the summer and fall. Just as things were settling down in December, Skipper, the company’s high-profile president, shockingly resigned over what he would later describe as an extortion attempt involving a cocaine purchase.

“Obviously no one saw that curveball coming,” said Scott Van Pelt, a “SportsCenter” anchor.

Immediately after he went to work, Pitaro was greeted with large problems. ESPN, for example, pays hundreds of millions of dollars more annually for the right to show NFL games than do NBC, Fox and CBS, yet it typically gets less attractive matchups. Some ESPN executives believe the unsatisfying bundle of games scheduled for the network’s showcase “Monday Night Football” window has been payback for its reporting on the league; NFL executives frequently complained about criticism of their league on ESPN programs and about the wall-to-wall coverage devoted to stories unfavorable to the NFL, according to SportsBusiness Journal.

Pitaro, along with Burke Magnus, an executive in charge of programming and scheduling, quickly went to work to repair that relationship.

Advertisement

“Depending upon personalities involved, depending upon the business, depending upon how long you have been involved in the relationship, there are ebbs and flows,” Magnus said about ESPN’s relationship with the NFL. “It is interpersonal. It is human nature. I’m not trying to kill John here. It’s not like he didn’t recognize the importance of the NFL.”

But what will really please the NFL is not frequent meetings or social outings with top ESPN executives, but a reduction in criticism of the league. And under Pitaro, ESPN certainly seems to be doing its part.

Jemele Hill, who was suspended by ESPN for suggesting fans boycott sponsors of the Dallas Cowboys last fall, is leaving the company. Michelle Beadle, an outspoken critic of how the NFL handles domestic violence cases, was removed as one of the three hosts of the uneven morning show “Get Up.” The change came one day after Beadle said she didn’t watch football as part of a segment about Urban Meyer.

And as part of a shake-up of daytime programming, “SportsNation” — which was co-hosted by one of ESPN’s most outspoken on-air personalities on social issues, LZ Granderson — was canceled and “High Noon,” a new show hosted by Bomani Jones and Pablo Torre, who delight in discussing issues of race and politics, was reduced from 60 minutes to 30 and had its time slot changed.

All told, that is five of ESPN’s strongest voices on the vexing intersection of sports, politics and race — a conversation that Skipper had encouraged — who won’t be seen speaking about these topics as much, or at all, this football season.

ESPN asserted that the changes were all unique situations, and that lumping them together created a misleading narrative. Hill and ESPN have been negotiating a mutual departure for months. Beadle left “Get Up” to host a new postgame basketball show in addition to her “NBA Countdown” responsibilities. “SportsNation” had run its course, network executives concluded, and they contend “High Noon” will thrive as a tighter show in a block with similar programming.

All of these changes have opened the door for “SportsCenter,” which was often seen as an intractable problem under Skipper, to re-emerge. The distinctive “SportsCenter” that Hill hosted at 6 p.m. along with Michael Smith has taken a turn toward the traditional under its new hosts. (Smith, after going public with his frustrations about the way he and Hill were managed, left the show in March.) In addition to losing Beadle, “Get Up” lost an hour to a 7 a.m. “SportsCenter,” and the cancellation of “SportsNation” and the slimmed-down “High Noon” opened up a spot for a noon “SportsCenter.”

“Highlights, news and information — that’s the fabric of what this company was built on, and we are incredibly proud of the ‘SportsCenter’ offering and the work being done,” Schell said. “SportsCenter” will soon be a part of live game coverage.

Adjusting the daytime mix of programming and changing hosts may be a case of rearranging the deck chairs on a foundering ship, though, if Pitaro cannot come up with solutions to the overarching problems ESPN is facing. The network pays billions annually for the rights to games because that is what viewers tune in to see, at the same time it continues to shed cable subscribers (like practically every cable network), and it is too early to tell whether ESPN+, its 5-month-old streaming service, will succeed and serve as a bulwark against the continued erosion of the cable bundle.

While remaking ESPN and positioning it for a rapidly changing television environment, Pitaro also has to manage outside expectations. Last month, he hosted reporters at the network’s Bristol, Connecticut, headquarters for a football media day. He was asked whether ESPN would air coverage of the national anthem live during NFL games, and gave what he thought was a benign answer.

“In the past there have been some exceptions, but generally we have not broadcast the anthem as a part of ‘Monday Night Football,’ and I don’t think there will be any change this year,” Pitaro said.

But instead of the message he wanted communicated — that ESPN was simply continuing its past practice — the headlines (including at The New York Times) reported that ESPN would not show the national anthem. A few days later President Donald Trump criticized ESPN at a rally; he has even sent out fundraising emails off the company.

Pitaro said something he believed was straightforward, and he got burned. It was a stark example of how many eyes, including Trump’s, are on ESPN, and how every decision the company makes is dissected.

“That’s just the reality of the culture that we live in now,” said Stephanie Druley, an executive in charge of production. “I think for that reason it feels like we are more under a microscope, though we are not any different than we have been.”

Patriots
Josh Gordon is no Randy Moss
September 19, 2018 | 5:00 AM