…and why that’s not a good thing:
In 2003, ESPN debuted Playmakers, a scripted drama about a fictional pro football league that was clearly a stand-in for the NFL. Among its plotlines were a linebacker’s inability to move past his recent hit that paralyzed an opponent, a quarterback’s dependence on painkillers to take the field each week, and a closeted wide receiver struggling with when (and whether) to come out to his teammates. The pilot opens with the linebacker, who, wracked by guilt, brings a couple of movies to the hospital as a sort of apology. The paralyzed player, unable to do anything but stare at the ceiling, replies, “I can’t even feel my dick.”
Playmakers was a ratings success, particularly for a network known mostly for SportsCenter highlights. Yet, it was canceled after just one season because the powers that be at the NFL absolutely despised it. Then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue blasted the show as a “gross mischaracterization of our sport” and brought his complaints directly to Mike Eisner, then the CEO of Disney, ESPN’s parent company. One ESPN executive was remarkably frank about what motivated the decision to cancel, framing it as a short-term sacrifice to strengthen a more lucrative long-term relationship. “We’re not in the business of antagonizing our partner,” said executive vice president Mark Shapiro, per the New York Times, adding, “ESPN is intoxicating for the NFL. We need to live with each other.”
Soon, they may be doing a lot more than that. According to Andrew Marchand at the New York Post, the NFL and ESPN are in “advanced talks” to turn over control of NFL Media—the league’s in-house studio that includes the NFL Network, NFL Films, and NFL RedZone in all its octobox glory—to ESPN. In return, the league would reportedly take an equity stake in ESPN, which currently pays the NFL some $2.7 billion annually for the broadcast rights to the Monday Night Football franchise and a handful of playoff games.