ESPN's Pitaro talks up Monday Night match-ups and improved NFL ties
James Pitaro, president of ESPN, the US sports broadcaster owned by entertainment giant Walt Disney, has claimed that more attractive scheduling will boost the network's NFL American football ratings in 2018.
Pitaro, who was appointed in March following the abrupt departure of John Skipper, also revealed he has spent the majority of his first few months in the role attempting to strengthen relations with the NFL, which became strained last year by ESPN investigations into player concussions and its coverage of players protesting racial injustice and police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem.
The audience for the 2017 NFL regular season, which ran from September to the end of December, fell by 9.7 per cent, with the average game attracting 1.6 million fewer viewers than the previous year, according to Nielsen.
Despite the decline in viewership, 20 of the 30 most-watched TV programmes in USA last year were NFL games.
Live NFL broadcasts on national network NBC, which airs Sunday and Thursday night games, and ESPN, which holds rights to Monday Night Football, ranked as the most-viewed shows in every week of the regular season.
Last season, multiple players opted to kneel in silent protest during the playing of the national anthem before games, prompting US president Donald Trump to tell viewers to stop watching.
ESPN is said to have been disappointed with the quality of match-ups in last season's Monday Night Football, for which it pays $2 billion per year until 2021, and, speaking to reporters in USA ahead of the 2018 NFL regular season, which gets under way on 6 September, Pitaro said: “We have 11 out of the 12 teams that made the playoffs last year. We are very pleased with the schedule.”
MNF will open with the Oakland Raiders versus Los Angeles Rams, while later in the season ESPN will broadcast the Kansas City Chiefs and Rams from Mexico City.
Pitaro said he told the NFL that ESPN has no plans to air the national anthem ahead of its Monday night telecasts. While the policy is not a change from previous seasons, it is the first time ESPN has articulated its plans directly to the league.
Pitaro said: “They have not asked, but we have proactively, just as a courtesy and as good partners, let them know what our plans are.”
Stephanie Druley, ESPN’s senior vice-president for event and studio production, said that policy could be adjusted if news warranted, but added: “We’ve seen data - fans want the game. That’s where we will keep our focus.”
On the wider relationship with the NFL, Pitaro said: “I’ve spent a lot of time with league executives. The relationship is incredibly important to us. That programming cuts across everything we’re doing on the studio side, on the original content side. And we’ve made that very clear to the NFL.”
Pitaro replaced George Bodenheimer, the long-time former president and executive chairman of ESPN who had been serving as acting chair of the company since Skipper resigned from the role in December last year.
Skipper shocked the sports broadcasting industry as he stepped down citing a substance addiction, but re-emerged as executive chairman of Perform, the international sports data and media company, in May.