The ESPN transparency project, otherwise known as the giving of a different name to public relations, otherwise known as "Front Row," released the company's new endorsement policies last week and came out with a list of its commentators' "endorsement relationships" this morning. We documented a fair number of these back in February (see video above), after news broke that the College GameDay crew all had Nike contracts. But we had no idea the list was actually this expansive.
Norby Williamson, VP of production for the Worldwide Leader, released the new guidelines on Front Row last week, and they were reportedly distributed around Bristol. The document's intention is to "protect ESPN's brand and the integrity of our news and event coverage," and ESPN will have "sole discretion" in determining whether or not its employees' (which include both staff and independent contractors) endorsements are acceptable.
The guidelines expressly prohibit the following endorsements:
1) Any activity in which talent is required to wear or be associated with any ESPN mark, insignia or logo or is portrayed in the endorsement material as an ESPN personality, announcer or employee.
2) Any portrayal or participation of talent for an entity, product or event that is competitive with any of ESPN's or The Walt Disney Company's lines of business.
3) Any endorsement, speaking engagement or appearance paid for by any professional or college sports conference, league, team, association, entity, coach, active player/participant, owner or administrator, television or radio network, website, blog or publication, including payments from any booster clubs, alumni associations, companies or other supportive programs.
The first guideline is interesting. Plenty of ESPN commentators, such as Dick Vitale and Erin Andrews, can get by on their own name and face recognition without the company's boost. Others certainly need the ESPN connection for the commercial appeal.
The document then moves on to what they're calling "Strict Review Categories," which will be subjected to, well, "strict review," and will be prefaced with "a strong presumption that they will not be approved." This includes any "apparel, footwear or athletic equipment used for training, playing or participating in any sport or event ESPN may cover." This would include, of course, the GameDay Nike contract. The only exception allowed here will be for "players, coaches and administrators" who are working for ESPN as analysts (which we suppose would make them independent contractor hires, which is a bit confusing). Also prohibited: anything related to gambling or lotteries, firearms or ammunition, and political candidates or advocacy. So there will be no more campaigning in the backyards of Florida mansions for Mr. Lou Holtz.
In mid-February, when the GameDay story broke, ESPN spokesman Josh Krulewitz told the New York Times that the analysts' work was "unassailable" and that the show's "content [had] not been compromised by this relationship." The refreshed guidelines would seem to be an admission that the company came to feel otherwise. Of course, this won't change anything for the network as we know it — ESPN, as we've said before, is in the business of compromising itself. It certainly improves transparency to place its commentators' endorsements on an accessible webpage, but in the end this is another indication that ethics are just the thing ESPN miraculously discovers when it feels its brand has somehow been threatened.