ESPN, NFL Network To Partner: Report


ESPN and the NFL Network are in discussions to form a partnership that would give the league-owned network wider distribution through any one or more of ESPN’s existing expanded basic cable channels, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.

Steve Bornstein, chief executive of the NFL Network and former chairman of ESPN and president of Disney’s ABC network, has reportedly been holding “high-level discussions” with NFL and Disney executives—including CEO Robert Iger and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell—in recent weeks, according to WSJ sources familiar with the negotiations.

Backed by a court ruling, which is now under review, Comcast migrated the channel to a sports tier, chopping off 8 million subscribers.

Then in February, Dish Network dropped the NFL Network from its America’s Top 100 Package, moving it to the America’s Top 200 package, effectively costing the NFL Network another 4 million subscribers and reducing its audience to roughly 31 million subscribers.

Kicking off with the 2006 season, the NFL decided to withhold eight games—angering faithful fans who were shutout by their cable providers—from its lucrative TV licensing packages to broadcast on its own channel in an attempt to gain leverage with cable operators in securing distribution for its network. But major cable operators such as Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cablevision Systems and Charter Communications balked at the network’s push for digital-basic positioning and its pricey 70-cent monthly subscriber fee.

One analyst quoted in the WSJ report suggested the league and Walt Disney Co. might consider combining the NFL Network with the ESPN Classic network, which attracts modest audiences but has wide distribution on expanded basic cable tiers. The analyst said ESPN would likely use its market weight and the eight additional games that were formerly available only on the NFL Network to garner more than the 16 cents to 17 cents per subscriber it currently receives for ESPN Classic.

The NFL Network averaged 196,000 viewers during primetime in 2007, according to Nielsen Media Research.