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ESPN-NFL relationship looks to be on the mend

Things between ESPN and the NFL weren’t going well. That seemed to continue once the NFL gave NFL Draft broadcast rights to FOX after the company’s bid was accepted for Thursday Night Football. There were even rumors that the NFL was going to take away ESPN’s lone NFL playoff game during Wild Card Weekend and the league was going to give it to FOX. Basically, FOX seemed like the favored son and ESPN was the lowly stepchild. But, there’s some good news on the horizon for ESPN as it seems like the worldwide leader’s relationship with the most popular and profitable league in the United States. The NFL will be keeping a wildcard game on ESPN — and simulcasting it on ABC — for at least the 2018 season.

The NFL understands how to leverage its partners. It does so very well. Cross the NFL and you end up like Papa John’s — the NFL and Papa John’s severed their relationship “mutually” and the NFL went directly to Pizza Hut as their official pizza partner. ESPN wasn’t in the good graces of the NFL. It could be because of their critical coverage of the NFL’s response to domestic violence and CTE. It could have been because ESPN’s subscriber base was slipping and was, therefore, less important to the NFL. It could have been that the NFL felt that ESPN was playing favorites with the NBA. Whatever the reason, the NFL and ESPN have had an icy relationship that was culminating in some type of action. These two weren’t playing nice with each other.

ESPN has made it a priority to mend that relationship. Interim president George Bodenheimer and new president Jimmy Pitaro made the NFL a priority. The worldwide leader has essentially done whatever has been asked including increasing draft programming on ABC. It’s the start, but it’s something and the new regime has salvaged ESPN’s only NFL playoff game in the process.

The truth is ESPN and the NFL need each other. This is a symbiotic relationship. Even with ESPN’s subscriber numbers falling, it is still far and away the leader in sports media. The NFL, even with its ratings numbers dipping, is still far and away the most popular sports in the United States. These two powerhouses were playing a game of chicken where it was possible that both could come out losers.

Maybe we will see ESPN take a softer tone with the NFL. Maybe the NFL will throw some higher profile games to Monday Night Football. Everything is moving in the right direction and that’s good for both parties involved.

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