In response to a January ESPN.com piece from Seth Wickersham on the instability and general incompetence of Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, Haslam’s company, Pilot Flying J, is pulling out of their seven-figure sponsorship deal with ESPN.
Wickersham’s piece, which you can read here, goes a long way towards answering why the Browns have managed to be historically bad since Haslam took over, even if this past year and the ascendance of Baker Mayfield have given Cleveland fans hope for the future. It also describes Haslam as a sort of bumbling moron with zero self-awareness, while also hinting that Haslam may have known more about the fraud scheme that embroiled Pilot Flying J in 2013 than the FBI was ever able to prove. It’s a tremendous article.
Haslam, predictably, was not pleased, and according to a report from Michael Smith in Sports Business Daily, he’s behind his company’s decision to back out of extensive college football sponsorship deals with ESPN despite only being halfway through their agreement.
The brand’s multi-platform deal with ESPN included significant advertising around college football, an SEC corporate sponsorship that made it the conference’s official travel center, and agreements for ESPN talent Paul Finebaum and Laura Rutledge to endorse the brand. ESPN owns all of the SEC’s marketing and media rights, which is why it sold the league sponsorship. Pilot Flying J and ESPN are negotiating how to unwind the deals, which are believed to be worth low-to-mid seven figures annually. Neither Pilot Flying J nor ESPN would comment.
This is comically petty, and doesn’t exactly do much to contradict the narrative that Haslam is impulsive and willing to wield his businesses as instruments to satisfy his personal whims. On ESPN’s side, it’s yet another example of how ESPN’s journalism can sometimes run counter to ESPN’s business interests, something that’s only going to happen more and more. (And not just with ESPN, as we saw with the Bob Costas story.) In this case, Wickersham wrote an NFL piece that resulted in a reaction that has an effect on entirely different sector of the company.
The obvious response to that is that it’s always in ESPN’s best business interest to maintain their journalistic integrity, and that “no longer being in business with Jimmy Haslam” is a small price to pay for quality reporting. So far that’s been the line held under new ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro, and it seems unlikely to change based on Jimmy Haslam taking his cash and going home.