ABC, ESPN Need Deal With NFL

Nov 29, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Having been outbid for a big chunk of the top college football bowl games by Fox, The Walt Disney Co.’s ABC Sports and ESPN are expected to buckle down and get an NFL deal done before the end of the year.

A source close to the situation said ABC would likely renew its “Monday Night Football” package, which is losing money, according to the network, and ESPN would re-up for its Sunday night games around Super Bowl time. Following the loss of rights to the Bowl Championship Series, ABC appears pressed to move quickly, the source said.

Disney’s financial picture has become clearer now that it won’t be paying for rights to the Bowl Championship Series, and it needs its NFL coverage to stay in the young male demo game.

ABC apparently was caught flat-footed earlier this month when Fox and CBS agreed to pay $8 billion for six more seasons of Sunday afternoon football games (TelevisionWeek, Nov. 15). DirecTV, meanwhile, effectively blocked the cable industry by kicking in $3.5 billion to continue its exclusive NFL Season Ticket package through 2010.

The sudden moves left Disney alone in deciding whether to invest in “Monday Night Football,” which delivers high ratings but big losses for ABC, and “Sunday Night Football,” which makes ESPN one of the highest-priced and most valuable channels on cable.

At that time, both the NFL and Disney expressed interest in extending their current agreements. Disney may not have known how close CBS and Fox were to deals but has been engaged in high-level talks with the league for some time, despite reports that it may have football on the back burner while working out its other high-level corporate issues. NBC, with its broadcast and cable networks, has been waiting on the sidelines for a crack at “MNF.” Turner Broadcasting’s TNT also is interested in regaining some of the Sunday night cable games.

An ABC sports spokesman had no new comment on the negotiations. A spokesman for the NFL declined to comment.

Fox, which up till now has televised only the Cotton Bowl, last week agreed to a four-year deal covering the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, the FedEx Orange Bowl and the Nokia Sugar Bowl from 2007 through 2010, plus a new separate BCS Championship Game from 2007 through 2009.

ABC, which earlier this year retained its rights to the Rose Bowl, gets the BCS Championship Game in 2010.

Terms were not disclosed, but published reports put the amount Fox paid at about $300 million, or $20 million a game.

That was too much for ABC, which said it withdrew its bid Nov. 18 after the extra game made the package less attractive.

But Fox Sports Chairman David Hill was enthusiastic about having more big events to broadcast. With ratings for most programming fragmenting, bowl games “stand like giants in a world of Pygmies,” he said.

Fox expects to make money on the package, he added.

Fox probably will have to either get the current sponsors of the bowl games to renew their agreements or find new ones. But the deal also gives Fox all media distribution rights, including radio and Internet, and sponsorship rights to the games it covers.

Mr. Hill said the deal has nothing to do with the national sports channel Fox chief Rupert Murdoch has been discussing.