Disney, NFL in Talks That Could Give League ESPN Stake, Put NFL Media Under Disney

One of the greatest plays in sports isn’t taking place on any athletic field.

Walt Disney Co. and the National Football League are said to be in earnest talks, according to two people familiar with the matter, that could have the league take a stake in ESPN while putting its NFL Media unit, which the sports body has been trying to monetize in better fashion, under the media company’s control. Such a move would further align Disney with the NFL, making it difficult for the company to lose valuable sports rights to show top-rated football games, and could put such NFL assets as the NFL Network and RedZone under Disney’s aegis.

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Disney and the NFL declined to comment on the talks, which were reported previously by The New York Post and The Atlantic. Disney has been seeking partners for ESPN as it faces declines in one of its primary economic engines — affiliate revenue from cable distribution. Among the parties the media giant has turned to are sports leagues, which have a vested interest in ESPN’s success, as it broadcasts top games from multiple bodies.

Such a transaction is not guaranteed to reach fruition, and one of the people familiar with the talks suggested it would have to be approved by the NFL owners at a regularly scheduled meeting slated to take place in mid Spring.

But a consummated deal might have significant ramifications for an array of sports entities. It could add the stand-alone NFL outlet NFL Network to ESPN’s array of sports content and might send NFL RedZone, a so-called “whiparound” cable offering that shows clips from across NFL games on Sundays to a venue such as ESPN+, a move that might turbocharge the streaming hub and reduce ESPN’s reliance on other rights that have helped buoy the outlet, such as the UFC.

The talks come after Disney and ESPN have worked to improve their standing among NFL executives. The company has worked to simulcast some of its “Monday Night Football” games on ABC, expanding the audience for the contests, and lured Troy Aikman and Joe Buck from Fox Sports to serve as “MNF” announcers. ESPN also developed a popular new “ManningCast” on ESPN2 that has football siblings Peyton and Eli Manning holding looser discussions about the “MNF” games over a simulcast feed. The NFL recently granted Disney rights to broadcast nearly an entire season of “MNF” games on ESPN and ABC to help the company as it worked through two severe Hollywood strikes that have now ended, but starved big media companies of fresh content and programming.

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