No independent confirmation of this yet, but WSJ is reporting that ESPN (NYSE: DIS) is negotiating with the National Football League to take control of the NFL Network. That such a deal is even being contemplated — let alone negotiated at the high levels reported by the Journal — suggests a major change in tactics from the NFL’s heavy-handed approach to broadcasting a slate of eight games on its own network and its push over the past few years to run its own multimedia operations. To make matters even more interesting, Steve Bornstein, the president of the NFL Network, is a former chairman of ESPN and high-ranking Disney exec.
One scenario offered by WSJ involves a possible joint venture that would combine the NFL Network with ESPN Classic, using the slate of games to boost rates for ESPN Classic while taking advantage of its current distribution on expanded basic. These discussions follow the NBA’s decision to turn over its TV and broadband operations in the U.S. to Turner Broadcasting.
The NFL has insisted that cable operators carry its network on expanded basic cable, not on premium, accusing Comcast (NSDQ: CMCSA) and others who didn’t want to follow suit of an illegal block. The impasse has kept the games from being viewed by the widest possible audiences and has kept the NFL Network from reaching significant distribution — and likely from achieving the kind of profit the NFL owners want to see.
Update: The NY Post reports some variations on the theme — that the discussions about combing forces with a media outlet date back two years, and that the NFL earlier had spoken with Fox, CBS (NYSE: CBS) (a possible JV with CSTV), and NBC.