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ESPN Personalities Enjoy Sponsorship Deals, So What?

February 15, 2011

A recent New York Times article discussed some of the sponsorship deals that ESPN on-air personalities have signed. In particular, the article focused on Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, and Lee Corso and their association with Nike. The article raises some good points about a sports broadcaster’s integrity. Although sports broadcasters have historically been used in advertisements and sponsorships with great success, there’s debate about whether a limit should exist. Journalism’s purists probably believe that reporters must have no conflicts of interest because their integrity as reporters of facts and stories cannot be compromised, but is that reality for sports? Do we really believe that a sports broadcaster cannot have a sports related sponsorship deal? Is sports so serious that we have to protect the integrity of a report about the University of Oregon in fear that Corso is saying nice things because Phil Knight writes him an extra check?

Sports reporting is a serious job, and the men and women who do it put in serious hours. It’s also a fun job though and allows reporters to have interesting insight and stories into the sports that everyone loves to watch. For example, during my senior year at Northwestern University, Mike Wilbon came to speak. Mr. Wilbon allowed for an hour and a half of question and answer because he knew that the room full of sports fanatics wanted to hear stories. We didn’t want to hear about how he got in the business for the whole period. We wanted to hear what it’s like to cover an Olympics, what it’s like to follow the career of Michael Jordan, and what his thoughts were about the future of the Northwestern football team. His Q&A was fantastic.

Fowler, Herbstreit, and Corso served the same role at Nike. They went to functions and served as masters of ceremony. It was harmless and fun, and Nike probably got a great response from it. Would it be perfect for all broadcasters to reject sponsorship deals and stick to the stories, probably, but that’s not necessary. Broadcasters are great personalities and faces for products and should be able to sponsor sports related products as long as they’re able to do their day jobs properly.

My only problem with the Nike deal was that ESPN had no idea about it. There is a necessity for ESPN to know because they do have a duty to have fair coverage even if they don’t have a duty to avoid all potential conflicts of interest. Perhaps a good policy would be for networks like ESPN to know of and disclose all of the deals so that their fans, ombudsman, and employees could police the coverage. With the attention that sports gets, this should suffice as we let broadcasters enjoy the fruits of their labor.

– Jason


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