A year after ESPN’s infamous cupcake broadcast, ESPN is back at Husky Stadium … at night … for UW-Arizona State. Washington and the worldwide leader are working on repairing their relationship. Step 1: No more Mark Jones.
“I just want to say something to our fans: We apologize for these late games. And I’d also like to reiterate it has nothing to do with us or the administration. We want to play at 1 o’clock. It hurts us tremendously in terms of national exposure. No one wants to watch our game on the East Coast that late, and we all know it.” — Chris Petersen, Oct. 2, 2017
Chris Petersen’s tone was even-tempered, his words composed, when he delivered the comments that sparked a war with ESPN.
This was nearly a year ago, at the Washington coach’s weekly Monday news conference with the local media, as the Huskies were preparing to play back-to-back games scheduled to start at 7:45 p.m.
A week later, Petersen’s demeanor had changed. This was after ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit said on “College GameDay” that the Huskies “should be thanking” ESPN for broadcasting their games, after ESPN’s sideline reporter placed three cupcakes on the Husky Stadium sideline during a game broadcast, after ESPN play-by-play man Mark Jones called Petersen “irascible and somewhat cantankerous” on air.
Petersen was irate, according to two people close him, and he was preparing to fire back publicly at ESPN. Ultimately, he was convinced that that would further escalate the situation, and by the time he sat down for his next Monday news conference his words were again measured and composed. “We just need to move on,” he said then.
An ESPN crew will be back on the UW campus this week as it prepares to broadcast Washington-Arizona State for another late kickoff — 7:30 p.m. — at Husky Stadium on Saturday. Hold the cupcakes, please.
Behind the scenes, UW athletic director Jennifer Cohen and ESPN executives have worked over the past year to repair the relationship, to better understand each sides’ needs. They are “in a better place” now, Cohen said.
Yes, there was a puzzling setback earlier this month when Jones seemed to gloat on Twitter about the Huskies’ season-opening loss to Auburn. “Where’s Montana?” he tweeted, setting off a small firestorm from UW fans.
During the cupcake broadcast of the UW-Cal game last October, Jones and ESPN analyst Rod Gilmore sounded personally insulted that Petersen declined to meet with them face-to-face the day before the game, as is fairly common practice for coaches and broadcasters. “He didn’t have much time for us this week,” Jones said during the game’s broadcast.
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Even after Jones’ tweet, Cohen said she is encouraged with the state of the relationship with ESPN. And ESPN, for its part, has acknowledged mistakes and apologized to Cohen. (Washington has been assured Jones will not be assigned to any UW games for the foreseeable future.)
“The unfortunate tweet we saw can get all of us discouraged, and we can react to that,” she said. “I love that our fans are so protective and passionate about our program and also our brand. But that was one person. And several people within (ESPN) were very responsive in their desire to move forward from that and they don’t expect those types of things to happen again.
“And anytime you’re in a partnership with folks, you just have to trust and believe that that’s the direction we’re going.”
Former UW quarterback Brock Huard is part of the ESPN broadcast team for UW-Arizona State on Saturday night. In May, ESPN sent Huard and Herbstreit to speak at the Pac-12’s annual coaches’ and athletic directors’ meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz. Cohen saw that as evidence of ESPN’s commitment to improve the relationship with the conference overall.
“We’ve been really pleased with the conference’s collaborative efforts … and with the leadership at ESPN,” Cohen said. “We have a lot of friends in this industry and for the most part all the folks we work with are completely professional and on board to try to learn from each other and make things better. …
“I thought the meeting we had with all 12 football coaches and athletic directors with ESPN leadership and Herbstreit and Brock Huard — who felt very comfortable and honest with all of us about ways we can improve as well — that was extremely healthy and productive.”
Looking back, the cupcake broadcast at Husky Stadium last October was “an unfortunate confluence of events in one week, which we wish we handled differently,” Pete Derzis, ESPN’s senior vice president of college programming, said in a statement.
“With that mindset,” he added, “we apologized to Washington and the conference, while also committing to further discussions throughout the season and the offseason. Also, we immediately made plans to address the issue internally. In both cases, the conversations took place and were productive.”
Cohen and Petersen both reiterated that the coach’s comments about late kickoffs were not directed at ESPN. (Late kickoffs are a sensitive subject for the Pac-12 and for ESPN. As broadcast partners — partners that are paying $3 billion to the conference as a part of a 12-year media-rights contract — ESPN and Fox have night-game broadcasting windows to fill, and Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott often points to strong ratings for Pac-12 games in those after-dark time slots.)
“Thank God we have a coach who cares about our fans,” Cohen said. “We cannot run this program successfully without our fans. He knows that, I know that, and that was all that was. It was really a comment that, I don’t think he intended it to have any legs. ESPN wasn’t even mentioned in his comments.”
Petersen was asked recently to reflect on the incident with ESPN, and on his approach to broadcast partners’ access to him and his program. Is he still upset? Did he make any changes because of that?
“Whatever that was all about — whatever,” he said. “The night-game thing had nothing to do with ESPN.”
No, he said, the spat with ESPN did not change his approach to media access. “Not one bit.”
But he said he is “always” available for phone interviews with broadcasters, whether from ESPN, Fox or the Pac-12 Network.
“And if they need a little more face-to-face time, and that helps them do their job better, I’ll do what I can to help that,” he said.
He has made one concession this week and is scheduled to meet with the ESPN crew in person on Friday.