Disney and the National Football League are currently in talks that could potentially alter the less-than-stellar trajectory of ESPN’s performance and forever change how and where NFL games are watched by fans across the country.
ESPN: Disney’s Achilles Heel
It’s no secret that The Walt Disney Company has an Achilles heel, otherwise known as ESPN. The Disney-owned sports network has been one of CEO Bob Iger’s many focuses since Disney’s board reinstated him in the role shortly before the Thanksgiving holiday in 2022. Iger even hired on two former Disney execs as consultants to help him decide how best to handle the not-so-lucrative sports network.
In fact, Iger’s decision to bring back the two execs could give fans a hint about the possibility of Disney’s future and about the $1 trillion entity that has emerged to possible buy out The Walt Disney Company.
Now, as talks have begun between Disney and the National Football League–talks that have been referred to as “one of the greatest plays in sports” that “isn’t taking place on any athletic field”–the antidote for that Achilles heel could be at hand.
Disney & The NFL: A Lucrative Partnership to Right the Ship?
Representatives for The Walt Disney Company are said to be in what is described as “earnest talks” with representatives for the National Football League. Those talks, should they prove successful, could ultimately lead to the league owning a major stake in ESPN and putting the company’s NFL Media unit under Disney’s control as well.
If such a move were to become a reality, and the NFL acquired a stake in Disney’s ESPN assets, the relationship between Disney and the NFL could deepen, making it more difficult for Disney to lose the rights to top-rated football games. It could also put some of the NFL’s most valuable assets, including the NFL Network and NFL RedZone, under Disney’s already giant umbrella.
Neither party has spoken publicly about the talks, which were initially reported on by The New York Post, The Atlantic, and Variety, but the House of Mouse has been looking for potential partners for ESPN as it begins to experience a decline in one of its once highly-lucrative “primary economic engines”–revenue from cable distribution. The National Football League is one of the sports leagues Disney has considered as a potential partner.
Following several days of talks between the two entities, The New York Post reported that “discussions have gone far enough for the league to inform the Players Association and team owners,” which sounds positive for Disney, but both parties have declined to comment on the talks up to this point.
What Good Could Come From Such a Partnership?
As of the time of this post, a completed transaction between Disney and the NFL is not guaranteed, first, because of the nature of business, and second, because even if the two mega-entities reached a more formal agreement, it would likely have to be approved by NFL owners during a meeting already on the calendar for mid-Spring 2024, which would certainly translate to delays in bringing a potential agreement to fruition.
In other words, it could be months before there’s a final decision made on any potential agreement that might be drawn up between the two behemoth organizations.
But if such a deal were to be reached between the two, it could easily add the now-stand-alone NFL Network to ESPN’s wide world of content, and it might even make NFL RedZone a part of that content on ESPN+. NFL RedZone is described as a “whip-around” cable offering that features clips of highlights from each of the many NFL games that are played on Sundays during football season.
Per Variety, the addition of RedZone to ESPN+’s content library could “turbocharge” the streaming hub and “reduce ESPN’s reliance on other rights that have helped buoy the outlet, such as the UFC.” The prospect lines up nicely goals shared by Disney CEO Bob Iger.
Working Together Already
Recent talks between Disney and the NFL come following a concerted effort on Disney’s and ESPN’s part to improve their standings in the eyes of executives with the NFL.
Disney worked hard to be able to simulcast some of the Monday Night Football games on its ABC television network, which expands the audience. The efforts also eventually brought commentator and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman and sportscaster Joe Buck away from Fox Sports to their roles as announcers during Monday Night Football.
Recently, the NFL granted The Walt Disney Company the rights to broadcast almost an entire season of Monday Night Football games on ESPN and ABC, which served to help ABC as the network, like other networks in the business, struggled in the wake of two major strikes in Hollywood.
It remains to be seen whether any firm partnership agreements will come of Disney’s talks with NFL representatives. But no matter what The Walt Disney Company decides to do to stop the bleed at ESPN, the undeniable fact is that something must be done to address the situation.