What happened last week with League of Denial
, a partnership between ESPN and Frontline
, was familiar to anyone who remembers the fate of Playmakers.
The show was the handiwork of then-executive VP Mark Shapiro, who's the guy quoted up top. It was a strange creature to begin with. One of ESPN's first cracks at a scripted series, it followed the players and coaches of a fictional pro football team, the Cougars, in a league that was never identified as anything other than "The League." And it was, for a basic cable channel with the family sensibilities of a CBS sitcom, daring.
Players used drugs. They got injured. They slept with each other's girlfriends. They got into fights. They struggled with their weight. They struggled with being gay. They committed crimes. All things real NFL players do and have done.
The show was critically solid and a commercial hit, drawing ratings better than anything on the network other than Saturday night college football and Sunday night NFL. Naturally, the NFL hated Playmakers
as much as everyone else loved it. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, without having watched an entire episode, called up Disney's then-CEO, Michael Eisner, to complain. Gatorade, a major NFL sponsor, pulled its advertising.
"The NFL opposed the show," Shapiro would later tell the Los Angeles Times
, "and week after week we heard their complaints, objections and concerns."
In the recent ESPN oral history Those Guys Have All the Fun
, Tagliabue stated the terms of the NFL-Bristol relationship with bracing, if sententious, candor. He cited a conversation with Eisner in which the CEO alluded to previous unflattering portrayals of the league, such as in the book North Dallas Forty.
Eisner's suggestion was that the NFL had been down this road before.Tagliabue recalled his response:
North Dallas Forty
, are you kidding me? It's got nothing to do with this issue. The author of North Dallas Forty
did not have a contractual relationship with the NFL. He was an independent author, a former player, who was not under an obligation to present NFL football, NFL players, NFL teams in a way that makes it a valuable, credible, respected product. You [Disney and ESPN] have that obligation, and I think what you're doing here is directly undercutting that. People want to watch sports when they can respect the athletes. This program leads them to have a view of the athletes that leads them to disrespect the athletes
In response, ESPN removed Playmakers
commercials from its Sunday Night Football
broadcasts. The show was allowed to play out its 11-episode order, but after the final episode—"Week 17" aired in November—no one expected it to come back. Despite the ratings, ESPN had much more to lose: It was in negotiations with the NFL to renew its contract for Sunday Night Football
, and as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
put it, ESPN "did not want to risk getting canceled by the NFL."
The decision to kill the show was made in January, but ESPN waited until after the Super Bowl to announce it. "We didn't want to rain on the NFL's parade," Shapiro told the Los Angeles Times
Other networks approached ESPN about picking up the series, but SportsBusiness Daily
reported that Bristol summarily turned them down for fear of further upsetting the NFL.
Shapiro said the league's reaction was "the primary factor" in the show's end, and declared to the New York Times
that ''ESPN is intoxicating for the NFL." (Shapiro was still drunk on Playmakers
, though. According to Those Guys Have All the Fun,
he met with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman before the 2004-05 lockout and proposed a sort of Playmakers
for hockey, which could air during a work stoppage. Bettman demurred.)