ESPN.com altered the published headline of one story and deleted Twitter and Facebook posts about it, and halted the promotion of another story, all under pressure from advertising partners, according to an ESPN source and internal emails viewed by Deadspin.
On February 13, ESPN published an article from Mike Rodak about Buffalo Bills linebacker Preston Brown and the improvements he made in the offseason that helped him become the NFL’s leading tackler last season. Brown credits his improvement to playing 10 pounds lighter thanks to a superior diet, and specifically, cutting out the Wendy’s wraps that sustained him for the first three years of his career. The initial headline of the post was: “How avoiding Wendy’s helped Preston Brown become NFL’s lead tackler.”
However, it now reads “How a diet helped turn Preston Brown into NFL’s leading tackler.” The post’s URL still reflects its initial headline, and while you won’t find any links to the post on ESPN’s NFL Facebook or Twitter pages, @ESPNNFL did post a tweet reading “The key to becoming the NFL’s leading tackler? Don’t eat Wendy’s.” That tweet was quietly deleted after the brand’s own Twitter account responded, and a Facebook post bearing the same copy was also deleted, though a cached version is still available.
A source told Deadspin that ESPN only did so after being pressured by Wendy’s, an ESPN advertising partner. Per our source, Wendy’s threatened to pull sponsorships, which led to the quiet deletion of the social media posts and the headline change. The post-hoc alteration of the story’s packaging is similar in kind, if not degree, to a mess BuzzFeed got itself into a few years ago, when they deleted several posts due to pressure from its own business department.
Rodak did not respond to a request for comment, while an ESPN spokesperson told Deadspin that changes were due to “simple editing. Brown cites multiple reasons he lost weight in the article, and after it posted, an editor read it and thought singling out a single reason didn’t accurately represent the reporting.” Wendy’s also did not respond to a request for comment.
This week’s Wendy’s incident does not seem to be the first instance of ESPN changing the packaging of a story because of an advertiser. ESPN’s sales department also held up an Oct. 2016 story on Packers tight end Jared Cook finding a revolting chicken head in his Buffalo Wild Wings order. Internal emails obtained by Deadspin show that ESPN sales personnel asked for the image in Cook’s gross tweet of the bird’s fried skull not to make its way onto ESPN or social channels or shows like SportsCenter.
“They spend a lot of money with us....can we avoid this?” one asked. “Can we make sure we don’t use this [...] they’re a big spender with us. This is truly nasty, but may hurt us with an important client,” another wrote. In this case, it appears Buffalo Wild Wings was not involved in the process, though sales still dictated editorial decisions.