ESPN's Star Deals Blurring Lines Between Bottom Line and Journalism

Illustration by: Daniel Downey

As the network makes production pacts with A-list athletes like Kevin Durant, insiders question whether an anchor will be moved to curry favor with LeBron James.

ESPN, Disney's $10 billion sports media empire, has always had cozy relationships with the stars it covers. ESPN Books has published tomes penned by athletes, like John Amaechi's Man in the Middle. Myriad others have appeared on the network's SportsCenter commercials. In 2006, ESPN even took an ownership interest in the Arena Football League that included airing its games. Around the same time, unscripted shows featuring Barry Bonds and Bobby Knight caused hand-wringing. The network's ombudsman, George Solomon, wrote then that the partnerships are "dismaying" and "[boggle] the mind."

It has only accelerated its partnerships with stars. ESPN+ — the direct-to-consumer service launched in 2018 — has more than 2 million subscribers, in large part because of exclusive live rights to UFC and Top Rank boxing matches. And a key programming leg of the service is athlete-driven content.

ESPN also is making deals with such household names as LeBron James and Kevin Durant, who have their own production entities. More Than an Athlete, an eight-episode series from James and Maverick Carter's SpringHill Entertainment, ran in 2018 on ESPN+. Durant and business partner Rich Kleiman's The Boardroom bowed this year, and ESPN has ordered a second season. "We're going out to some of the biggest athletes in the world and saying, 'We want to be the platform where we help you bring your story to life,'" ESPN executive vp Connor Schell told THR in early May.

But observers say these partnerships increasingly blur the lines between commerce and journalism. ESPN.com writer Ramona Shelburne penned a profile about Durant's evolution as a business mogul as The Boardroom was launching. "Ramona Shelburne is a wonderful reporter," says Will Leitch, a contributing editor at New York magazine and national correspondent for MLB.com. "She's almost like an NBA whisperer; she gets all of these players to tell her things. It's not fair to Ramona Shelburne to assign her to write that story. It shows a fundamental misunderstanding of her [role as a journalist] by the people at the top of the organization."

This year, ESPN exec vp production Stephanie Druley broached the possibility of taking Michelle Beadle off NBA Countdown because of the perception that James has declined to appear on the show since Beadle has been critical of him, according to a senior exec with direct knowledge of the conversations. A source close to James says that's false, and reps for Beadle declined comment. An ESPN spokesperson tells THR: "Any talent decisions we make are based solely on what is best for the particular show and serving our fans. That is the only prism we view these decisions through."

There's no question it is a new era at ESPN. Jimmy Pitaro, who took over in April 2018, made it clear that managing relationships with ESPN's league partners is a top priority. ESPN pays the NBA $1.4 billion annually to broadcast the regular season, three playoff rounds and the NBA Finals, the last of which airs on ABC; and $1.9 billion annually to the NFL for Monday Night Football and extensive use of highlights across several platforms. At the same time, the political divide in the country has made ESPN a lightning rod for partisans, and the NFL has voiced its displeasure with some coverage.

Last year, ESPN eliminated its public editor position, reasoning that feedback from social media has "created a horde of watchdogs." Says Jim Brady, ESPN's final public editor: "They have a tricky web of arrangements; that's why I think they should have kept the position. Anybody can stand outside of ESPN and say this stinks. I always felt the social media one was especially weak, because we all know how representative of the world at large social media is."

The network still does stellar investigative work, including Don Van Natta and Seth Wickersham's reporting on the so-called Deflategate and Spygate controversies involving the New England Patriots. But the company said April 30 that ESPN the Magazine, home to investigative journalism, would end publication this fall. And ESPN veteran Bob Ley, who has anchored the investigative program Outside the Lines since its 1990 inception, has been on an extended sabbatical with no indication of when, or if, he'll return.

For many, the absence of Ley is symbolic of the new era. "There are people who are doing strong investigative reporting, but they're not as foregrounded as they were," says Leitch. "I would say it's not a coincidence that Stephen A. Smith is getting more airtime than Don Van Natta."

A version of this story first appeared in the May 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.