In today's New York Times, Jim Miller and Richard Sandomir report that ESPN apparently came very, very close to buying half the NFL Network for $2 billion four years ago. So close the NFL literally had the Champagne on ice when the deal fell through.
This all went down in 2009. The league wanted a big investor in its fledgling—and struggling—NFL Network, but more than anything, it wanted a partnership with ESPN to open up the possibility of airing college football on the network. At the time, NFL Network carried only eight regular-season NFL games, which apparently wasn't nearly enough live sports tonnage to convince cable operators, like Time Warner Cable, to automatically put it on the air. If the NFL Network could get some SEC or Big Ten games, it would help force the hand of cranky cable operators and there'd be big subscriber fees in return. After six rocky years, the NFL Network would finally become essential programming.
Most intriguingly, the NFL was ready to provide all sorts of incentives to ESPN if Bristol bought in, including actually putting Monday Night Football on more equal footing with the Sunday night games. The Times reports:
To help entice ESPN, the N.F.L. offered to reduce the price of "Monday Night Football." The new "Monday Night" contract, which starts next season, will have ESPN paying an average of $1.9 billion a season, plus $100 million annually for a wild-card playoff game. The executives involved in the talks said the N.F.L. offered to cut the fee to $1.5 billion a year, with the playoff game tossed in as a signing bonus.
Perhaps even more attractive to ESPN than paying less was the N.F.L.'s suggestion that its "Monday Night" schedule would be improved.
So far this year, 13.3 million people on average watch MNF; nearly 10 million more people watch Sunday Night Football. A lot of this has to do with the better slate of games with which the NFL rewards NBC. So ESPN would get a better MNF slate, a cheaper deal for MNF games, and a free playoff game.
And then it all came apart. There were two reasons cited by the Times: 1.) ESPN didn't want to give up its best college football games, and 2.) the network "did not want to get involved in the contentious efforts to help the NFL Network gain additional distribution."
It's an interesting tidbit on its own, but it also provides a little more context for ESPN's bizarre League of Denial drop-out. ESPN doesn't just write up a check to the NFL every year and send it off; ESPN is a living, breathing, wheeling-and-dealing business partner to the NFL, and apparently sometimes it has quite a bit of leverage itself. They were so very close to consummating the partnership, too. Per the Times: "Talks got so promising that cases of Champagne were ordered and stashed away at N.F.L. headquarters in Manhattan for the anticipated celebration of an agreement."
Without a deal, the NFL increased its slate of regular-season games from eight to 13 last year. Now there's talk of more Thursday night football, with the strong possibility that the NFL is going to sell off half of its Thursday games to another cable outfit, like Fox Sports 1 or NBC Sports Network. In any event, the NFL wins.