A blockbuster media consolidation deal announced this morning sees Fox handing over nearly its entire empire to ESPN’s corporate parent Disney, with the exceptions of Fox News and the national Fox Sports networks FS1, FS2, BTN, Fox Deportes, and Fox Soccer Plus. Disney will now possess 22 Fox Sports RSNs that hold exclusive local rights to 44 MLB, NBA, and NHL team broadcasts. Here’s what to expect in our newly-monopolized sports future.
First, look for your local RSN to be rebranded under the ESPN umbrella. Fox has been cornering the market on most of these—buying out network minority shareholders, which in many cases included professional sports teams themselves—and slapping “Fox” onto the names of networks previously known as SportsTime Ohio or Sun Sports. But Fox didn’t get around to buying out everyone; ESPN’s parent company will now be joint stakeholders with the New York Yankees in YES, the Padres in Fox Sports San Diego, and the Reds in Fox Sports Ohio. Whether Disney or Fox will look to buy those teams out in the process of completing this deal is unclear, but the future of ESPN’s reporting is, at least potentially substantially complicated by the unique employment contracts of team broadcasters, who in many cases are both employees of the teams they cover and the network on which they appear.
Fox, for its part, never seemed to leverage its ownership of the RSNs into content on the national channels, other than the three Fox college-sports networks which we assume will cease to exist. (Nor did it seem to care about disclosing its ownership partnerships with the teams that it covered.) ESPN has dabbled in localizing its brand on several occasions, with limited success. But the established Fox RSNs are consistently among the most-demanded channels by local viewers—in some markets, people want their local RSN more than they want ESPN—and this now gives ESPN’s parent a massive amount of clout when it comes to bargaining carriage deals with cable and satellite providers.
More importantly—to Disney/ESPN, at least—establishing a new and confident voice behind the RSN ownership should allow a sports megalith bully teams into smaller contracts. The history of each Fox Sports RSN is different, and usually features a long string of various majority and minority owners; now that Disney/ESPN owns almost all of them outright, with Fox having already bought up almost any possible market competitor, teams whose games currently air on a Fox Sports RSN will have the choice of either taking what Disney/ESPN is willing to give them or starting their own network—which has been and continues to be a disaster for teams like the L.A. Dodgers.
Disney’s acquisition of a solid chunk of NHL local broadcast rights may be a boon to ice hockey fans who miss ESPN’s presentation of the sport, but whether that access will lead to more coverage on ESPN proper is anybody’s guess. Again, the national Fox Sports networks never really made much use of the assets provided by the RSNs, so if ESPN were to implement more of that it would require years of relationship-building.
So, too, will constructing the rebranding efforts, which would go beyond removing “Fox Sports” from each network’s name and adding ESPN. Fox Sports has an elaborate system that ensures graphics and sound assets are consistent across all of its networks, be they national or regional; Disney/ESPN would have to build its own centralized system for this. (It already has some experience with this through ESPN3, though ESPN’s branding is far more inconsistent on those broadcasts than would be expected for the RSNs.) Fox Sports has invested a tremendous amount of money in its most recent revision of its most recent graphics branding, with the assumption that it would be utilized across its entire portfolio of networks. Depending on when the Disney-Fox deal is finally completed—and that could be years from now—ESPN may either be scrambling to generate its own centralized graphics resource or extending its current system until whatever its new branding approach is launched. In all this seems likely to amount to a mess.
This sort of thing should make little difference to you, the viewer, but it’s an example of the many obstacles that will have to be surmounted for the Fox Sports RSN empire to be absorbed by ESPN. Of course, it may not be; there are a variety of reasons why Disney might want to keep them separate, brand them as something else, and treat them as completely separate from ESPN. That won’t prevent ESPN from exploiting their assets, or vice versa—look at how much ‘synthesis’ we get between ESPN and ABC, for example—but it’s very possible that Disney could elect to keep everything formerly Fox in its own division for the time being. That might be easier, in the short term, for management’s sake; it would also be the worst possible outcome for viewers who may not keep up with the news, unaware that the biggest step in what has been a long march toward media monopolization has taken place.