Last year, ESPN executive Burke Magnus described the diplomatic relations between his network and the NFL in the same way the Obama administration once talked about Vladimir Putin. Faced with acrimony and a bad Monday Night schedule, Magnus called for a “reset.”
In an interview with The Ringer on Monday, Magnus sounded the notes of diplomatic success. In November, ESPN made a deal to put the entire NFL draft on its big-sister network, ABC. This week, ESPN plans to announce that ABC will also carry two hours of the NFL scouting combine—giving a happily nerdy NFL Network event a boost onto network TV.
Asked about ESPN and the NFL’s relationship status, Magnus said, “I think it’s in a wonderful place right now.”
“You see it,” Magnus continued. “It’s this draft deal. The combine deal. There were rumors we would not retain our wild-card game. The schedule we got from these guys for Monday Night Football last year. I feel like the NFL has responded to a new day at ESPN relative to the relationship.”
“The reset has been done,” Magnus added.
ESPN’s problem with the NFL was buried in its status as a semi-journalistic organism. ESPN is one of the league’s financial partners and an occasional critic. The NFL has been annoyed by the reporting of Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, by Outside the Lines, by Don Van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham. On Sunday, Bob Costas was on E:60 talking about how his statements about brain injuries got him bounced from NBC’s Super Bowl pregame show—a classic case of moral queasiness rubbing up against rights fees.
For the past year, ESPN’s executive class has been working a charm offensive. ESPN installed new, league-friendly Monday Night announcers. For the first two days of its ABC draft coverage, ESPN will create a parallel show hosted by the College GameDay crew—a way of luring more college football fans into the NFL offseason.
Before he resigned in 2017, former ESPN president John Skipper had grown uneasy about the network’s NFL partnership. James Andrew Miller has reported that Skipper wasn’t inclined to renew Monday Night Football. Under current president Jimmy Pitaro, ESPN now values the NFL more like it did in the 1990s, when another former president, Steve Bornstein, called pro football the network’s “crack cocaine.”
A source familiar with the ESPN-NFL negotiations described the combine deal like this: “It’s like, what can we do to make sure we’re best friends again?”
A slot on broadcast TV is an unlikely milestone for the combine. The only reason it’s on TV at all is the creative desperation of the NFL Network. From its founding in 2003, the NFL Network wanted to find ways to report on and advertise the league without the benefit of airing regular-season games. So the network leaned into a process called “eventizing”: taking content that isn’t a game and producing and selling it as if it was.
At first, NFL executives didn’t believe the three-cone drill and the bench press would make for good TV. Anchor Rich Eisen has compared watching the combine to watching to a yule log burn.
“All of a sudden it turned into being not only good, it enhanced [the combine],” Bornstein, who later became the NFL Network’s first president, told me in 2015. “Better quality athletes wanted to participate because of the exposure.”
Bornstein and his producers covered the combine like CNBC covers a day at the stock market, with a narrative of winners and losers providing the “action.”
“That’s how I look at it,” Bornstein said. “‘Here’s what could happen. Here’s what will happen. Here’s what won’t happen.’ … It’s less about making it compelling television than telling a compelling story.” In its thirst for content, the NFL Network gave similar treatment to the league’s annual schedule release.
For the NFL, “eventizing” had a happy side effect. Not wanting to be outflanked, ESPN tried to match the NFL Network’s coverage. ESPN has a two-hour prime-time show devoted to the schedule release. Before Trey Wingo and Co. announce the combine on March 2, ESPN will air episodes of NFL Live from inside Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis—creating shoulder programming for an event that is already shoulder programming.
Amanda Herald, the NFL’s vice president of media strategy and business development, said ESPN added slightly more money to its current deal with the NFL to show the combine and expanded draft coverage. ESPN will promote the NFL Network, which will cover the combine for four days with more than a dozen TV personalities.
The NFL worked with combine organizers and then ABC so that the network window will feature quarterback and wide receiver workouts. Thus, the combine will be drawn out of the world of football wonkery and into the dad-friendly, network-blazer realm of leisure sports. For two hours, it’ll almost seem like a football game.
Asked if ESPN’s new closeness with the NFL would affect the network’s journalism, Magnus said, “No. Jimmy has been very clear on this.”
Magnus pointed to recent pieces by Seth Wickersham and the Fainarus as evidence. “We do a lot of things besides investigative journalism,” he said. “We do a bunch of what we call stories with heart about the positive aspects of sport, football included. We have our insider business with the NFL—that’s [Adam] Schefter and crew. We obviously have the traditional results and analysis of the competition itself.”
ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr., who will sit alongside Wingo and Co. on March 3, has never been to the combine in 35 years of draft gurudom. “I viewed it as a waste of time,” Kiper told me Monday. The analyst says he’s always been happier at home in Maryland, getting a jump on next year’s draft class.
Though Kiper studies the reams of data thrown off by the combine (he particularly values arm length and vertical leap), he’s slightly bemused by the idea that there is anything informative about watching a drill. “Let’s face it,” he said. “What are you going to get out of watching a kid run?”
Kiper said the combine had two big uses for a draft guru. It was a way to size up college underclassmen who have fewer verified measurements (i.e., height and weight) than their senior counterparts. Moreover, after the teams conduct their private interviews with the prospects, Kiper asks his sources how the interviews went.
The prospect interview is the one part of the combine the NFL Network cameras never managed to infiltrate, because of teams’ obvious interest in secrecy. If you hear Kiper doing a voice-over in a few years, you’ll know the ESPN-NFL reset is truly complete.