ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro.

The relationship between ESPN and the NFL hasn’t exactly been good in recent years, with plenty of speculation that the NFL might take ESPN’s playoff game and that the sides were heading for a split when the Monday Night Football deal expires in 2021. On the NFL’s side, there’s been plenty of criticism expressed of both ESPN’s journalistic coverage of the league and the discussion of it on ESPN studio shows, and on the ESPN side, there have been questions raised about if how much they’re paying is really worth it (and if it will continue to be worth it in a 2021 TV landscape, whatever that looks like).

But things have changed since former ESPN president John Skipper’s sudden December exit, with first interim president George Bodenheimer and then full replacement Jimmy Pitaro indicating that patching things up with the league was a key priority for them. And Pitaro went even further than that at ESPN’s “football media day” Friday, saying that they want a “long-term partnership” with the NFL beyond the existing MNF deal:

“We have four seasons remaining on our current Monday Night Football deal and we’ve made it very clear to the NFL that this relationship is important to us. The relationship is strong with a solid foundation. We want to be in business with the NFL and I believe they want to be in business with us.”

Here’s more on that from reporters in attendance:

Even if that was just talk, it would be notable that Pitaro was saying this, especially as it’s such a shift from the Skipper era. But it sure seems like ESPN is making moves to alleviate some NFL concerns, too. For example, there’s the ongoing issue of NFL player protests during the national anthem, and the league particularly doesn’t like the focus on that.

Well, ESPN showed the anthem three times during their broadcasts last year (even though they hadn’t historically done that, they deemed it newsworthy in those instances), but Pitaro said Friday the plan is not to show it this year:

Of course, that doesn’t mean ESPN won’t ever show the anthem, and it doesn’t mean they completely won’t discuss protests that do happen. But it’s interesting to hear top ESPN execs in particular talking about how they’re not planning to do that (and we can add that to Pitaro’s again-repeated refrain that ESPN is “not a political organization“). And beyond the way they cover protests, it’s worth talking about their personnel moves, such as hiring oft-criticized referee Jeff Triplette (reportedly at the behest of the NFL), talking about returning Chris Berman (known for his advocacy for the NFL’s interests) to a prominent Sunday role, and hiring play-by-play voice Joe Tessitore, who’s said he wants to be a “partner” to the leagues he covers.

In a piece focused on Tessitore this week, The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis had a lot to say about MNF‘s role in the ESPN-NFL relationship, and about how Tessitore’s hire may be a step towards more NFL positivity:

If you watch the various parts of ESPN at work, you see the NFL’s aura being scratched and then re-polished. Vivid reporting from Seth Wickersham and Don Van Natta Jr. has advanced the idea that the league is haunted by snarling owners and Donald Trump’s tweets. Yet in the words of Booger McFarland, who along with Lisa Salters will make up the rest of the new announce team, ESPN wants to make “Monday Night Football fun again.”

Executive Burke Magnus has called for a “reset” in ESPN-NFL relations. Some of this will involve sultry C-suite tangos. But Tessitore’s voice will be the reset’s most public expression. 

…ESPN executives admire Tessitore’s diplomacy with rights-holders. Last December, when Tessitore announced an over-officiated Pac-12 title game, he gently called it “choppy.”

But Tessitore’s biggest asset in the ESPN-NFL reset is his eagerness to vibe with everybody. “My whole thing is, if I work in a sport category, you’re going to know I’m a partner,” Tessitore says. “That I’m not just a guy who comes and does your games.”

In March, before he’d been publicly named the Monday Night host, Tessitore pressed the flesh at the Monday reception at the NFL owners’ meetings.

Beyond that, consider the ESPN fall scheduling changes, where they’ve brought back a noon SportsCenter that’s expected to be heavily NFL-focused (especially on Mondays, where it’s been expanded to 90 minutes and Outside The Lines, probably the ESPN show that’s spotlighted the most critical journalistic coverage of the NFL, has been bumped entirely), where they’ve cut down High Noon (another show that’s had some criticism of the NFL and its approaches) to half an hour, and where every single fall weekday will feature a full 90 minutes of NFL Live on ESPN proper.

Also, in some interesting timing, OTL host Bob Ley (who’s been one of the more notable NFL critics and one of those willing to dive into deeper NFL issues at the network) is taking a six-month sabbatical from October through April. Maybe that has nothing to do with the NFL relationship, but it does mean one high-profile NFL critic won’t be on ESPN’s airwaves during much of this NFL season.

Of course, ESPN still employs plenty of journalists who are likely to cover important NFL issues when necessary, including Mark Fainaru-Wada, Steve Fainaru, Don Van Natta Jr., and Seth Wickersham. And it doesn’t seem likely that the network’s going to go away from hard-hitting NFL coverage altogether, and any sort of firm “do not cover” stance on NFL issues would undoubtedly leak and present a massive black eye for ESPN. That probably would carry even more downside for it with the general public than annoying the NFL.

It’s also notable that Pitaro talked up ESPN’s reporting efforts Friday:

It’s also worth mentioning that many of the NFL concerns over this seem ridiculous. For example, Curtis’ piece mentions an ESPN journalist saying the league’s annoyed that the likes of First Take and PTI dare to talk about ESPN reporting on the NFL, and a NFL source saying “You guys are knee-deep in the NFL business. You guys should be trying to help us rather than hurt us”; that illustrates an incredible misunderstanding of journalism, shows how hard the NFL is looking for things to be annoyed about, and also shows that either the NFL’s other rights partners aren’t covering the league or that executives aren’t paying attention to their coverage, instead just sitting around and watching ESPN studio shows for things to criticize.

But despite that, there’s still this perception from some NFL executives that ESPN has somehow been picking on them (rather than, you know, covering sports news). And there certainly was a strained relationship under Skipper, which was about not just journalism, but also ESPN executives’ behaviors and comments. Under Pitaro, there seems to be an increasing ESPN emphasis on making nice with the NFL and staying in business with them for the foreseeable future, and that’s seen in everything from comments from executives to the network’s personnel and scheduling moves.

And that seems to be paying off, as there’s been plenty of reporting that the NFL-ESPN relationship has improved since Pitaro took the helm. We’ll see how ESPN juggles that relationship with the league going forward, and what future tension points crop up, but they’re definitely showing more interest in keeping the NFL happy than they used to. And it’s also notable to see Pitaro publicly say he wants to stay in business with the NFL beyond 2021. We’ll see if that happens or not, but all this does mark a substantial shift in the ESPN-NFL relationship, which seems much healthier now than it was less than a year ago.

[ESPN Front Row]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.