Mission Accomplished: ESPN’s Jimmy Pitaro Healing Fractured NFL Relationship

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Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro vowed to improve the network’s formerly frayed relationship with the NFL. As ESPN prepares to kick off Monday Night Football’s 50th season, Pitaro can cautiously say, mission accomplished.

Brian Rolapp, the league’s chief media and business officer, told Front Office Sports the league’s once-troubled relationship with ESPN is on much more solid ground entering the 2019 season. Rolapp cited Pitaro’s personal involvement as well as Disney’s comprehensive coverage of the 2019 NFL Draft on ESPN and sister ABC Network.

“Like good siblings, we always have our issues. We don’t always agree. But I think Disney and ESPN have been great generally – and Jimmy has been great specifically,” Rolapp said during an event previewing the NFL’s 100th season.

ESPN might be returning to the league’s good graces in the nick of time. The network’s annual $1.9 billion Monday Night Football rights deal expires after the 2021 season. That means Monday Night Football will be the first live game rights property to come up for bid at a time when TV players like Turner Sports and tech giants such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook are expected to throw billions at the league. The NFL’s deals with NBC Sports, Fox Sports, and CBS Sports extend through the 2022 season.

Things change quickly in sports TV. It was only a few years ago that former ESPN president John Skipper was weighing whether to drop out of the live NFL game business in favor of a cheaper package of highlights, according to author James Andrew Miller.

And why not, asked some TV insiders? Despite paying more than any NFL TV partner, ESPN/ABC was left out of the Super Bowl rotation, where CBS, NBC, and Fox make a killing in advertising sales. Instead, it gets one Wild Card playoff and the Pro Bowl under its one-sided current deal.

While NBC was able to “flex” out of lesser game matchups on Sunday Night Football, ESPN was annually saddled with the weakest game schedule of the league’s main TV partners. The once ground-breaking MNF drew the smallest average audiences of the league’s five TV packages.

To top it off, ESPN’s rookie TV analyst Jason Witten was roasted on social media last season for his robotic, gaffe-ridden performance in the Monday Night Football broadcast booth made famous by Howard Cosell, Don Meredith, and Frank Gifford. ESPN’s decision to put analyst Booger McFarland on a moving “BoogerMobile” crane was widely panned. Especially by fans inside stadiums whose field views were blocked by the contraption.

Still, things improved last season. With Pitaro making the NFL his No. 1 priority, ESPN got its strongest game schedule in years. Monday Night Football showed it can still pop a big number with the right game matchup. The Los Angeles Rams’ 54-51 shootout win over the Kansas City Chiefs last fall drew 16.6 million viewers, Monday Night Football’s biggest audience in three years. ESPN’s overall Monday Night Football audience grew 8%, the best increase among all NFL TV partners.

This season, ESPN got another strong Monday Night Football schedule from the league’s previously stingy matchmakers. Monday Night Football viewers will see nine divisional rivalry games, all 12 playoff teams from the 2018 season and appearances by both Super Bowl teams.

Tom Brady’s Super Bowl champion New England Patriots take on the New York Jets Oct. 21 while Jared Goff’s Rams play the Baltimore Ravens Nov. 25. The network’s regular-season Monday Night Football coverage kicks off September 9, with a doubleheader featuring the Houston Texans vs. New Orleans Saints and the Oakland Raiders vs. Denver Broncos.

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With McFarland, Joe Tessitore and Lisa Salters forming the new MNF team, ESPN is hoping for some stability in the broadcast booth, according to producer Jay Rothman. The trio will be joined by ex-referee John Parry, who comes aboard as rules analyst. Witten will end his brief retirement to return to the field with the Dallas Cowboys.

“I know Jason took a lot of heat, and that was unfortunate. I think there was a ton of good that Jason brought to the table, and we’re happy for him and hope he has a great season with the Cowboys,” said Rothman on a press call. “At the same time, we’re thrilled with Booger. Booger is super talented. What we learned last year with Booger is he has an incredible likability, incredible work ethic. His network within the league is awesome, and how he sees the game and the nuances of the game is awesome.”

Another indicator of ESPN’s improving NFL fortunes is the way it out-maneuvered rival Fox Sports for the TV rights to this year’s NFL Draft.

Back in 1980, a fledgling ESPN discovered the draft as a TV property. With anchor Chris Berman and draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. leading the charge, ESPN turned the once-sleepy draft into a prime time event. Only ESPN was allowed to televise the event until the league’s own NFL Network joined the coverage in 2006.

But in 2018, Fox got its foot in the door, televising its own coverage of the draft with Troy Aikman as the headliner. ESPN was mortified.

But the network fought back by proposing sister Disney network ABC produce a complimentary draft telecast this year featuring host Robin Roberts of Good Morning America and the cast of “College GameDay.”

This broadcast version would be aimed more at college football and casual fans, while the traditional ESPN coverage focused on Xs and Os for hard-core NFL fans. The strategy worked. The NFL bought the idea and handed the whole draft back to Disney and its own NFL Network.

This year, a frustrated Fox was left on the outside looking in. With ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Deportes and the NFL Network providing their own telecasts, this year’s draft was the most-watched ever.

Coverage from Nashville averaged 6.1 million viewers over three days, up 11% from 5.5 million the year before. ABC became the first broadcast network to air all three days of the draft. It was also the most attended draft in person, with 600,000 fans descending on the Music City compared to 250,000 in Philadelphia two years before.

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Rolapp confirmed it was Disney’s pitch to inject ABC, Roberts and the College GameDay crew into the mix that helped ESPN fend off Fox. At least for this year.

“They just made a very compelling case about how they could make the event bigger. We always felt the draft could be as big as anything we do on television with the exception of the championship games, playoff games, and Super Bowl,” said Rolapp. “It’s getting pretty close.”