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Here we are, 11 months removed from CupcakeGate, witness to another case of ESPN-on-Pac-12 verbal violence — to a public display of contempt that would not happen, ever, to the Big Ten or SEC.
Some partnership we got here, huh?
The latest instance involves Washington (again) and play-by-play announcer Mark Jones (again), who on Sunday excavated an issue that everyone else, including his employer, had moved beyond.
Jones used the occasion of the Huskies’ loss to Auburn –he didn’t call the game, by the way — to mock UW’s soft non-conference schedule from last year, tweeting:
“Washington Huskies took one one on the chin. Where’s Montana ?”
Were this the only instance of ESPN showing disregard for UW, and thereby for the Pac-12, the tweet wouldn’t be worth anything more than a 280-character response, if that.
But Jones has a personal grievance against Washington and coach Chris Petersen, who last year failed to kiss the ESPN ring to a satisfactory degree. And depending on your view, this is either the fourth or fifth instance of ESPN employees jabbing the Pac-12.
Oh, and it comes after the sides spent the spring and summer privately seeking to improve relations, to find ways to better serve and promote each other.
For those just grabbing a ringside seat, let us quickly recount the events:
* During a weekly press conference in early October, Petersen apologized to UW fans for the litany of night games on the 2017 schedule but did not specifically mention ESPN.
*** Five days later, on a GameDay broadcast, analyst Kirk Herbstreit unloaded on Petersen, saying the conference “should be thanking” ESPN for its coverage.
*** That night, while broadcasting the UW-Cal game from Seattle, the three-man crew of Jones, analyst Rod Gilmore and sideline reporter Quint Kessenich mocked the Huskies’ non-conference schedule and aired complaints about Petersen.
Kessenich placed a series of cupcakes on the sideline to represent the non-conference opponents, which included Montana.
Jones then called Petersen “irascible” and “somewhat cantankerous” and noted “he didn’t have much time for us this week.”
Gilmore then chimed in with an explanation: “He declined to see us this week.”
(Unlike many coaches, Petersen didn’t make time for an ESPN production meeting the day before the game. Of course, this was nothing new: Petersen never meets with TV talent on Fridays during the season.)
Well, the barbs from the booth didn’t sit well with the Huskies or the conference or reflect well on ESPN. A senior-level executive called Washington athletic director Jen Cohen to apologize and assure her it wouldn’t happen again.
***Three weeks later, ESPN play-by-play announcer Chris Fowler tweeted to his 750,000 followers:
“Our crew Would be interested in seeing (Khalil) Tate and the Cats battle Wazzu. But here in SC they haven’t heard of Pac12 Network.”
That right cross from across the country was the last of the ESPN shots for 2017, and the offseason brought a series of meetings to rebuild relations.
During the Pac-12’s spring gathering in Scottsdale, conference officials and the 12 head coaches met extensively with ESPN executives and on-air talent to find common ground:
How could ESPN better promote the Pac-12 teams and players? What could the Pac-12 do to support that endeavor, both in terms of providing information and access to the coaches?
The Pac-12 made it clear how deeply it values ESPN, which despite linear subscriber losses remains the undisputed kingmaker in collegiate athletics. The network, in turn, assured the Pac-12 of its stature as a key partner.
It was, per a conference source, a productive meeting.
The good vibes continued through the summer, when athletic communication strategists from several schools joined Stanford coach David Shaw in Bristol for 24 hours of facetime with ESPN executives, producers and talent.
(Shaw was the only head coach to make the trip and spoke to a gathering of 250 at ESPN’s talent summit.)
“They heard loud and clear that we care about them,” the Pac-12 source said. “There was a lot of goodwill on both sides.”
After all that, fast forward to late August …
*** First, GameDay sent a tweet promoting a handful of games that Herbstreit considered season-shapers.
The list included Washington-Auburn, only instead of an image of UW quarterback Jake Browning, the tweet featured a picture of quarterback Jacob Eason, who transferred to UW from Georgia and is sitting out this season.
Eason was wearing his Georgia uniform in the picture.
The gaffe elicited a few raised eyebrows across the conference, and a request for correction, but was otherwise left alone — it was, assuredly, an innocent mistake
*** Then, on Sunday and out of nowhere, came Jones’ tweet, oozing sarcasm, obviously personal and clearly unprofessional:
Washington Huskies took one one on the chin. Where’s Montana ?
— MarkJonesESPN (@MarkJonesESPN) September 2, 2018
He then tried to placate UW fans with a follow-up tweet:
“Hey don’t get me wrong…I still think Washington will have a great season..losing to Auburn in their backyard is a lot better than what a team like Miami did to their CFP chances. All love Seattle. S/o to the bruthas at Greenlake Park”
Where do things stand?
* Petersen and Washington AD Jen Cohen, who typically move in lockstep on issues, aren’t talking. (The guess here is that Petersen doesn’t want to draw attention to Jones or create a distraction for his team.)
* The Pac-12 issued a statement: “We are aware of the inappropriate comments in this tweet and have addressed it with ESPN.”
* ESPN did not issue a statement but assured UW that Jones won’t work a Husky game this season.
(It’s possible that edict was already in place internally, and simply confirmed to the conference and UW over the weekend.)
* If Jones has been punished or reprimanded in any way, that will seemingly remain an ESPN state secret.
But it’s clear that ESPN’s promise to Cohen last fall — that the pot shots would cease and desist — hasn’t materialized.
And that whatever private discussions Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott and other executives had with ESPN didn’t solve the problem.
And that the progress made in the spring and summer is, at least, halting.
And that this wouldn’t happen once with the SEC or Big Ten, much less twice. (And if it happened twice with the SEC, Jones would be unemployed the next day.)
Viewed individually, none of the instances rise to the level of crisis. Collectively, however, they paint a backdrop that should be concerning to the conference.
ESPN and and the Pac-12 are broadcast and business partners, tied together for 12 years and $1.5 billion, with many shared interests:
The better the Pac-12 football product, the better the ratings and the greater the ad revenue for ESPN; better promotion by ESPN improves the Pac-12 image, which helps recruiting and improves the product.
Repeated public jabs by ESPN employees undermine the Pac-12 brand and create an adversarial relationship.
Scott is in a difficult spot. Private discussions between executives are typically how tiffs get resolved, and he’s undoubtedly wary of going public and making matters worse.
Four years from now, let’s not forget, the Pac-12 will need ESPN to be all smiles at the negotiating table when the Tier 1 media rights are up for bid.
At the same time, Scott is employed by the schools to work on behalf of the schools.
In the Hotline’s view, the situation has been handled appropriately by the conference to this point. But if another issue surfaces with ESPN, be it with Jones or Herbstreit or whomever, then a private conversation and generic statement won’t suffice.
Scott will need to be very public in his critique of ESPN’s transgression and in his support of the school involved, leaving zero doubt that he has its back.
Forget about the Pac-12 and ESPN being on the same page. Nothing matters if the conference office and its members aren’t unified.
The Pac-12 should draw a line in the turf, here and now.
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