Fox Family Deal Could Be Good for ESPN, Too

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The Walt Disney Co.'s purchase of Fox Family Worldwide last week could provide a major boost to ESPN and other Disney sports properties, as the Mouse House looks to promulgate its dominance in cable's sports arena.

The addition of a highly penetrated service to the Disney family will do more than serve as an outlet for ESPN's vast array of live game and entertainment-based sports programming. It can also be a trump card in the network's push to obtain major sports packages, including cable rights for the National Basketball Association, industry analysts said.

Though Fox Family doesn't carry much sports programming, it will most likely retain its Major League Baseball regular season and post-season packages, Disney officials said last week in announcing the company's $5.3-billion purchase of Fox Family Worldwide Inc.

But those games, currently produced by Fox Sports Net, will have a distinct ESPN flavor. ESPN will produce the games and cross-promote the telecasts across its various cable sports services. ESPN's ad-sales staff will handle spot ad sales.

To further increase awareness for the baseball package, ESPN may look to move some of its more niche-targeted sports programming to the network, sources close to the situation said.

ESPN representatives said it's too early to speculate on any programming relationships between Fox Family and ESPN. But Sports TV analyst and Pilson Communications president Neal Pilson believes the new ABC Family would be an ideal outlet for ESPN programming.

"ESPN and ESPN2 have had difficulties scheduling all the properties that they control or want to buy," he said.

He also said ABC Family's entertainment bent would be a better venue for ESPN Original Entertainment initiatives. The recently created EOE division is expected to debut a number of sports reality and game shows, as well as original movies, on ESPN during the upcoming season — although not at the expense of traditional sports events, said ESPN executives.

"I'm not sure ESPN and ESPN2 is the right outlet for these new EOE properties," Pilson said. "They need to maintain ESPN and ESPN2 as a sports flagship — all sports, all the time."

Going forward, ABC Family could serve as a wild card in ESPN's bids for major sports packages. ESPN has already said it is interested in obtaining cable rights to National Basketball Association product, which is up for grabs after the league's 2001-02 season. Turner Sports currently holds NBA cable rights.

ABC Family could also be an additional outlet for NBA Entertainment programming. The league has started to branch out beyond the distribution of league games into more entertainment-based programming, and develops shows or has programming relationships with such non-sports oriented outlets as Food Network, Nickelodeon, MTV: Music Television and Lifetime Television.

"ESPN now has a high-profile network with 80 million subscribers with which to help lure the NBA," Kagan Associates sports analyst John Mansell said. "It gives them more shelf space for [NBA] programming."

NBA officials would not comment on any potential negotiations with networks.

But ESPN's acquisition of NBA cable rights is by no means a lock: Turner Sports senior vice president of public relations Greg Hughes said that retaining the NBA package "is a priority" and it will look to secure the best deal for the company.

Turner has a one-month exclusive negotiating period with the NBA, beginning in mid-September, in which it can renew its current $890 million agreement, sources said.

Hughes added that Turner Broadcasting System Inc. parent Time Warner Inc.'s merger with America Online Inc. has given it numerous synergistic opportunities that would also appeal to the NBA.

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