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Sports ESPN's relationship with the NFL looks like it's never been worse, and it boils down to a simple problem

At the heart of ESPN's strained relationship with the NFL is how ESPN covers the league while also broadcasting games.

  • Published:
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(Bruce Kluckhohn/AP)

  • A new report has cited sources as saying the relationship between ESPN and the NFL is the worst it's ever been.
  • At the heart of the issue is the difference between how ESPN promotes its partnership with the NFL and how ESPN covers the NFL.
  • The NFL thinks ESPN devotes too much time to negative coverage of the league.
  • ESPN's new president, James Pitaro, is reportedly trying to repair the relationship after his predecessor, John Skipper, had a largely hands-off relationship with NFL executives.

ESPN's new president, James Pitaro, is trying to repair the increasingly strained relationship between the sports network and the NFL, according to a report from John Ourand of the Sports Business Journal.

According to the report, some have described the relationship between the NFL and ESPN as the worst it's ever been. At the heart of the issue is a basic problem that has long plagued the two sides: ESPN's role as both NFL partner and journalism company.

According to Ourand, the NFL was upset this past season over what it felt was ESPN promoting several negative stories, particularly explosive reports from "Outside the Lines" and the investigative journalists Don Van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham. The stories included reports about the NFL's concussion crisis; infighting between the league's commissioner, Roger Goodell, and the Dallas Cowboys' owner, Jerry Jones; player protests during the national anthem; and fracturing relationships within the New England Patriots organization.

ESPN's business relationship with the NFL has certainly come up before in relation to its sports news and analysis operation. ESPN notably suspended Bill Simmons, its longtime personality who left the company and is now CEO of the website The Ringer, over critical comments he made about Goodell, ESPN, and the NFL's handling of domestic abuse and Deflategate.

ESPN also made headlines in 2013 for dropping its affiliation with a PBS "Frontline" documentary about concussions.

But there are other issues plaguing the relationship, according to Ourand's report, including the NFL's agreement to jointly produce an NFL draft broadcast with Fox, an ESPN competitor, despite ESPN's major contributions toward popularizing the draft as entertainment.

ESPN executives, according to Ourand, have also been bothered by the slate of games they get for "Monday Night Football," feeling the contests don't live up to the $1.9 billion their company pays for rights.

Skipper apparently did not maintain particularly close relationships with the NFL's leaders, something ESPN's new management has been trying to be more proactive about. As indicated by Ourand, Pitaro seems likely to have his hands full trying to mend the relationship.