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If The NFL Buys A Stake In ESPN, Expect More Ass-Kissing

A view of an ESPN Monday Night Football logo on a TV camera.
David Berding/Getty Images

ESPN and the NFL have been discussing a deal to get cozier, according to a report published Friday by Andrew Marchand of the New York Post. In this proposed agreement, the NFL would transfer control of NFL Media (including RedZone, NFL Network, NFL Films, and more) to ESPN, in exchange for the league receiving an equity stake in the Worldwide Leader. Marchand made sure to clarify that the two sides were only in the "advanced talks" stage, and nothing was close to finalized. But looking at the sports media landscape, it feels like a natural conclusion.

ESPN already pays the NFL around $2.7 billion annually for the rights to a package of primetime games, most of which air as part of Monday Night Football. It's also invested resources in football coverage with the weekly Manningcast and the big contracts given to the NFL commentating duo of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman in 2022. For the past couple of years, there have been rumors speculating whether ESPN's parent company, Disney, would spin off the network or find minority partners, since the increase in cable TV cancellations has affected the main generator of revenue: carriage fees. Disney CEO Bob Iger has publicly said that the plan is to make ESPN a direct-to-consumer streaming service by 2025. Cutting a deal with the NFL would be in line with that objective.

Again, there's still a lot to be determined. Marchand reported that the NFL Players Association has been looped in, so as to figure out the revenue sharing as enforced by the collective bargaining agreement, but there are months of work ahead. (For example: Does this mean the NFL would have a stake in ESPN's sportsbook?) The news mainly functions as a thought experiment: Outside of a few well-sourced reporters who incisively report on ownership drama, ESPN is already broadly sympathetic to the NFL. How much more sympathetic can it get?

It'd be foolish to make any guarantees here, but I think that if this deal happened, it would be great for people who already make a ton of money, and dreadful for pretty much everyone else. When considering the history of how these things go, I'd expect less critical coverage from ESPN's editorial side, and more shit you never asked for or wanted. Maybe Pat McAfee would take over RedZone and be forced to ramble through seven hours of commercial-free football. Oh, and there would probably be layoffs. That seems like a safe bet—a bet you can place live using ESPN's gambling app, in partnership with Penn Entertainment and cross-promoted on NFL Network, with all of it overseen by Disney. Who's excited for the future?

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