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For ESPN, a Choice of Fact or Friction

'Playmakers,' about a make-believe football team, creates a rift for network with its real-life partner, the NFL.

November 16, 2003|Meg James and Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writers

A rookie running back smokes crack an hour before kickoff. A distraught linebacker undergoes therapy after paralyzing an opponent. A wide receiver gets a pounding during practice by teammates who discover he is gay.

Not exactly an NFL promo for the United Way. This is ESPN's "Playmakers."

The cable sports network's inaugural dramatic series, with its salacious off-the-field story lines, made a splash during its short run. The show produced solid ratings but infuriated the NFL commissioner, several owners and players who say the show is a gross distortion of their lives beyond the locker room.

Now ESPN must decide whether to sack the profitable program, which ended its 11-week run Tuesday, or renew it and incur the wrath of one of its biggest business partners, the NFL.

"ESPN has a difficult decision to make," said sports marketing consultant Neal Pilson. "This is the true meaning of being caught between a rock and a hard place."

The situation reflects a collision of interests in the lucrative world of televised sports, and the clout of the NFL. ESPN, 80% owned by the Walt Disney Co., has been developing original shows during the last two years to help offset the rising cost of the rights to broadcast major sports events.

ESPN's first original movie, the Indiana University basketball saga "A Season on the Brink," was a financial success, according to the network. But the movie, which premiered in March 2002, was reviled by critics. A second movie, "The Junction Boys," which ran last December, fared better. It depicted the grueling 1954 Texas A&M training camp in parched Junction, Texas, early in the legendary coaching career of Bear Bryant.

ESPN's goal has been to broaden its audience with shows that would appeal to young adults and casual sports fans. And "Playmakers" fit the bill, bringing in an average of 1.7 million viewers, which nearly quadrupled the network's average audience on Tuesday nights at 9.

"Our fans realize that it's fiction," ESPN President George Bodenheimer said. "And from the looks of it, a great number of people have certainly enjoyed it."

The hourlong show, which was filmed in Canada and sold to ESPN for about $1.4 million an episode, is a bargain by major network standards. And ESPN squeezed out even more money by rerunning it.

The NFL knew "Playmakers" was in the works, having turned down the producers' request to use authentic team names and logos. Before the first episode ran Aug. 26, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue was so riled by the promos that he called Disney Chairman Michael Eisner to complain, according to a source familiar with the conversation.

Other league officials successfully pressured the network to abandon plans to run promotional spots during exhibition games, the source added.

"I haven't watched a whole episode," Tagliabue said. "All I had to do was watch one of the promotions to know it was a terrible distortion of the players in the National Football League and not worthy of ESPN."

Another prominent NFL partner, Gatorade, pulled its advertising from the last "Playmakers" episode. A spokesman for the company, which spends about $20 million a year to place its product on NFL sidelines, said Gatorade didn't pull out because of any pressure from the league. "We just grew increasingly uncomfortable with the content of the show," said spokesman Andy Horrow.

Former Oakland Raider great Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Assn. and a member of the NFL Hall of Fame, accused "Playmakers" of racism. Active players have complained about the program as well.

"Crack at halftime, getting people pregnant, missing meetings when you want, telling the coach [off]," San Diego Charger defensive end Marcellus Wiley said this week. "The wives, the girlfriends, the ladies of our life really second-guess what goes on in the locker room or what happens on the road trips because they think it's like that.

"I say, 'Hey, honey, it's not us. It's the NBA.' "

Wiley said he understands there is plenty of mystique surrounding the NFL, and, thus, great appeal to use the league as a canvas to tell stories.

"That's why there's so much money and excitement about our game," Wiley said. "They see us out there as gladiators with our helmets on, and they don't know who that person is. And when you have the first opportunity to show who you are as a player, you don't want it to be in that image."

Last month, Philadelphia Eagle owner Jeffrey Lurie took a swipe at "Playmakers," and the Disney-controlled network, saying: "How would they like if Minnie Mouse were portrayed as Pablo Escobar, and the Magic Kingdom as a drug cartel?"

Sports economist Andrew Zimbalist said the NFL should relax.

"Everybody knows there are some players who get in all sorts of trouble," said Zimbalist, a professor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. "Paul Tagliabue must realize that he's not running a church."

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