Bob Raissman: ESPN can push around Dana White and UFC, but what about Roger Goodell and the NFL?

Tribune Content Agency

The cancellation of UFC 249 provided evidence that networks, in this case ESPN, are vulnerable to public and political pressure.

With some of the public starved for live sports programming while quarantined by the coronavirus pandemic, ESPN eventually told its partner, UFC boss Dana White, that “it wasn’t the right time, for a variety of reasons” for UFC 249 to be held in a Casino outside Fresno, Calif.

The “variety of reasons” boiled down to one: ESPN would look awfully bad if it aired White’s UFC card. By ignoring medical experts and holding the event, UFC and ESPN would be cavalierly putting everyone involved in UFC 249 at risk of getting coronavirus. Even the TV suits, and ultimately the promoter, didn’t want more death on their hands.

In the grand scheme of the sports landscape, UFC is low on the food chain. So, what’s going to happen if the NFL, already pushing hard to stay on its schedule, bulldozes ahead to start its season on time, even if the coronavirus is still affecting parts of the country with a growing list of fatalities?

This is something that hasn’t sunk into the heads of media propagandists who continue spreading the myth that sports are a great healer, with the power to unite people and lift everyone’s spirits.

That’s jive. A stone fantasy. Sports was, is, and always will be a cold, bottom-line business. And there’s no bigger sports business than the National Football League.

It’s one thing for ESPN suits to push around and dictate to UFC, quite another for the World Wide Leader, or any of the NFL’s television partners, to deliver an edict to Roger Goodell & Co. There are many elements to consider here.

The NFL’s network partners (CBS, Fox, ESPN, NBC, NFL Network) have a vested interest in seeing the NFL start on time. The networks are paying the league billions of dollars in rights fees to air the games.

In order to make up that nut, the networks charge top dollar to companies who advertise their products during the games. No games, no advertising revenue.

Are the TV networks going to have the stomach to push back on the NFL when they too have so much money at stake? Financially speaking, the NFL has much to gain by starting the season on time, rather than having to drastically alter its schedule. There could also be a clause in the TV contracts where the NFL doesn’t receive full payment if either the schedule is changed or a complete 16-game regular-season slate is not delivered.

If the medical experts are not in agreement whether it is safe to play, even if the games take place in empty stadiums, there is little doubt the politicians won’t be in agreement either; especially if MLB, the NBA, and NHL have not yet open for business by September.

If that’s the case, and the NFL still wants to charge ahead, Goodell’s decision making will become a major issue, likely discussed and debated by the president and his eventual opponent. It would become a flash point.

That will put even more pressure and a brighter spotlight on the NFL and its network partners.

Yet if Goodell absorbs the negative bombs dropped on the league and decides the NFL is starting on time, even with some experts saying the nation is still facing a health crisis, it won’t be a surprise — not to ESPN or any of the league’s TV partners.

For even they know Goodell ain’t no Dana White.


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