You know how it’s barely Week 2 of the NFL season and you’re already sick and fucking tired of DraftKings commercials? Well, good luck, because ESPN fantasy writing is now just one long DraftKings commercial too.
In his Week 1 Love/Hate column, Matthew “The Talented Mr. Roto” Berry was seriously in the tank for DraftKings. There were multiple paragraphs shilling for DraftKings leagues, players’ DraftKings values were included, and the company was mentioned 29 times in his article.
Over the summer ESPN signed an exclusive agreement with DraftKings which, according to Sports Business Journal, included a deal to “integrate the company directly into ESPN programming.” We thought that meant something like sponsored SportsCenter segments—replacing the Coors Light Cold Hard Facts segment with a DraftKings Totally Isn’t Gambling Fantasy Picks Of The Day one—but apparently it means infecting editorial copy as well.
Berry, whose column has always been based around direct interaction with his readers, got an earful from them the past week, and his Week 2 Love/Hate column is mainly about this topic, going on about it at excruciating length before getting to a couple of picks. He writes about how he knows what it means to sell out, because he’s done so; how he has bills to pay; and about how DraftKings is a really great product. He also discloses something he somehow forgot to mention in Week 1: he’s a paid DraftKings spokesperson!
Full disclosure: I am a paid spokesman for them. I’ve filmed a few commercials for them, I’m going to continue to tweet for them, make appearances on their behalf and there will be opportunities for people to play against me on their site in the future. It’s a deal I agreed to for one very specific reason:
I like it.
I like the product, I like the company, I know the people who run the company and they’re good people. I really enjoy playing daily fantasy and I really enjoy doing it on DraftKings. I’d recommend them anyway, so if they want to send me a check to do it? You bet. Where do I sign?
(Come on man! Don’t give us this “I would recommend this product even if they weren’t paying me to do so” shit! We know that’s what they’re paying you to say because you just told us!)
ESPN has guidelines about these things, which say that the company needs to be alerted before any deal is taken and that gambling endorsements will almost never be approved, and offer a list of commentator endorsements on which Berry’s name does not appear. I posed a number of questions to ESPN PR, and here is the on-record statement they gave me:
“Consistent with our procedures for any potential endorsement, this opportunity was raised for ESPN’s consideration and it was approved within our guidelines.”
It seems that ESPN considers daily fantasy to be the same as anything else when considering endorsements, and that it can’t be bothered to update the list of commentator endorsements more often than every few months. Fair enough, but it doesn’t really matter.
The issue here isn’t really whether Berry is violating some clause buried 40 pages into his employment contract or even some abstract ethical precept that solemn journalism professors treat as if it was handed down on Mount Sinai to Moses himself, but that he is shamelessly advertising to readers in the middle of his ostensibly independent editorial copy, and that he and his editors didn’t think they needed to mention it to his readers. It’s not only fundamentally dishonest, it’s something no one with any sense would ever do. Once it’s been revealed that some of your opinions are your own and some are ones you’re paid to hold, you’ve permanently forfeited your credibility.
This isn’t just a problem with one individual writer, either. DraftKings and FanDuel are all over every single sports website not just because they’re spending advertising money as if someone will burn it if they don’t, but because they’re not just engaged in normal, arms-length relationships. ESPN is in bed with DraftKings; CBS has a “media partnership” with FanDuel; and Yahoo is pimping their own product. Fantasy sports writing has always been awful, but it’s rapidly becoming a hellscape of sponsored and pseudo-sponsored content, advertising in name and in everything but and in all shades in between.
I asked ESPN if their sponsorship by DraftKings mandated mentions in editorial copy, and if Berry or anybody else would be allowed to put the FanDuel prices in a column instead of DraftKings’ prices. They haven’t gotten back to me.