ESPN Is Reportedly Losing a Major College Football Sponsor Due to a Critical Story

By A.J. Katz 

We’ve become accustomed to hearing about networks and shows lose advertisers due to accusations of bad behavior from their hosts, including accusations sexual harassment, or polarizing comments about immigrants.

But ESPN is reportedly losing a major sponsor of its college football property for a totally different reason: investigative journalism.

Not something you see everyday.


Sports Business Journal is reporting that Pilot Flying J, America’s largest chain of travel centers with 750 locations across the U.S., is pulling out of the sponsorship agreement it has with The Worldwide Leader in Sports because the brand’s CEO Jimmy Haslam is angry about a story ESPN senior writer Seth Wickersham wrote about the other company he runs: The NFL’s Cleveland Browns.

SBJ’s Michael Smith writes:

Sources said that the relationship was irretrievably damaged by a lengthy insider-style story on entitled “The Clash of the Cleveland Browns: How Hue Jackson, Jimmy Haslam and Baker Mayfield collided.” The story went behind the scenes to look at the Browns organization during the ’18 season, including a detailed look at how Haslam handled the midseason coaching change. The story’s author, Seth Wickersham, wrote that Haslam “tightly gripped every aspect of the Cleveland organization, often creating as much chaos as he inherited.”

Based in Knoxville, Pilot Flying J reportedly has a multi-platform deal with ESPN which includes significant advertising around college football, an SEC corporate sponsorship that made it the conference’s official travel center, and agreements for well-known ESPN SEC talent Paul Finebaum and Laura Rutledge to endorse the brand.

Pilot Flying J and ESPN are in the second year of a four-year deal, and the brands are reportedly negotiating how to unwind the deals, which are reportedly worth low-to-mid seven figures per year.

According to SBJ, neither Pilot Flying J nor ESPN are commenting.