In Depth

NFL, ESPN Talk NFL Network Partnership

The National Football League, which has been unsuccessful in getting major cable operators to carry its NFL Network, is talking to Walt Disney Co. and its ESPN unit about forming a partnership, sources familiar with the talks said, confirming an initial report in the Wall Street Journal Friday.

The deal reportedly could put NFL Network programming—including eight live regular season games—on Thursday and Saturday nights—on what is now the low-rated ESPN Classic networks. ESPN Classic has about 63 million subscribers and the NFL Network 40 million, mainly via satellite.

Given that ESPN has long-term contracts with most of its cable distributors in place, it is unclear whether the network would be able to raise the fee it charges for EPSN Classic if football was added to the lineup.

When the NFL last conducted negotiations with cable operators, Comcast offered to pay $400 million for the rights to the newly created package of eight games in order create a national sports network that would compete with ESPN.

The NFL elected to keep the games and create its own channel as an outlet for its games. But that strategy failed when Comcast and other cable operators refused to pay the steep 70 cents per subscriber fee being sought by the league.

That meant high profile games were not available to viewers of the network, which led to subscriber complaints to operators, and trips to Congress and the courts by both parties.

The NFL Network has filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission, charging that in deciding which networks to carry, Comcast is illegally discriminating between networks it owns, such as Versus and the Golf Channel and the NFL Network, which it doesn’t.

Comcast Friday evening filed a response with the FCC, asking the agency to dismiss the NFL Network’s complaint. The cable operator argued that the network got exactly the deal it bargained for and that Comcast hasn’t broken any carriage rules. Comcast also said the complaint should be dismissed on procedural grounds.

Spokesmen for ESPN and the NFL Network declined to comment beyond prepared statements.

ESPN said in its statement that it has a long-term and extensive relationship with the NFL.
“To that end, we are always in discussions with them about mutual projects,” the cable sports network said.

Similarly, the NFL Network said, “We talk to ESPN all the time on a wide range of issues.”

(Editor: Baumann)