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There’s nothing subtle about how ESPN personalities are promoting Disney’s new streaming service

Staff watch a presentation at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., in 2018. (Yana Paskova for The Washington Post)

When Kelly McBride joined ESPN as an ombudsman in 2011, the sports media giant was wrestling with what to do about commercial sponsorships for some of its television personalities, she said. Of course some of the former athletes the network employed were going to get — and take — sponsorship offers. But some of ESPN’s reporters had significant followings. They wanted a piece of the endorsement deals, too.

That presented a problem that ESPN continues to wrestle with today, media analysts say. As media companies consolidate even further, disparate properties now may have at least one thing in common: corporate ownership.

“This is what’s going to happen as media companies become larger and larger,” McBride said in a phone interview. “We’re in this era where you can’t just exist as a successful media company. You have to continue to grow and get bigger and bigger, and you see all media companies doing it.”

The Walt Disney Company, which owns ESPN, launched subscription streaming platform Disney Plus on Tuesday. The service, which costs $6.99 per month, includes original content from Disney, Marvel, National Geographic and Pixar, along with archival programming from each.

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“It will change lives,” ESPN NFL reporter Adam Schefter tweeted, along with a promotional video that did not include any ESPN content.

“Access to a huge cache of incredible content, new and old,” NFL reporter Ed Werder posted.

That rankled some sports media analysts, who saw ESPN personalities marketing the service on Twitter. It’s an unusual move, they say, for a journalist to market a commercial product, especially on a platform typically reserved for news distribution, even if it is from the same corporate owner as the news division.

Sports Illustrated’s Jimmy Traina lampooned those promotions in his morning column, writing that ESPN cracked down on figures who talked politics and told them to “stick to sports” but would do no such thing when personalities marketed a new revenue stream.

McBride, a senior vice president at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism organization, said that kind of promotion from journalists could make news consumers question the loyalty of reporters: Are they looking out for the public, or their corporate bottom line?

“You’re turning the journalist into a salesperson and asking them to upsell the product,” she said. “That’s not the relationship you want the journalist to have with the audience member. You want that relationship to be about trust in the journalist’s expertise.”

An ESPN spokesman said in an emailed statement that the network never told employees to share promotional material about Disney Plus but actively told them about the new streaming service, which is meant to play a fundamental part in Disney’s future, especially as more consumers cut the cord.

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“It is a major company initiative, and as part of that we provided accurate and useful information to our people, so that if they chose, they were able to inform fans about available content and products,” the spokesman said.

To Bob Lipsyte, another former ESPN ombudsman and retired New York Times sportswriter, that makes sense. Reporters market their content all the time, he said, and consumers can bundle subscriptions to Disney Plus, sports streaming service ESPN Plus and Hulu.

But ESPN, he said, for all the talented reporters at the network, doesn’t behave like a typical news organization. And he wondered about the stakes of the Disney plugs.

The kind of personalities who marketed Disney Plus, though they might have large social media followings, aren’t covering Congress or climate change, he said. Schefter and Adrian Wojnarowski, his NBA counterpart who also tweeted about Disney Plus, are known as scoop machines focused on player-personnel transactions.

“It’s hardly any kind of important news that we are so concerned about the high level of integrity of the purveyor of this news,” he said.

Still, that leaves sports news junkies, the kind who voraciously follow Schefter’s and Wojnarowski’s Twitter feeds, with a decision, McBride said.

“You have to ask, ‘How valuable is this NBA analysis?’ ” she said. “And you may be willing to put up with a small amount of sales in order to consume this analysis. Or you may say: ‘I’ve got a lot of options for NBA analysis. I want to get my analysis from somebody who is only interested in doing that.’ ”

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