Is the NFL ready to hand off a controversial package of eight late-season games to ESPN?
The league and network on Friday declined to comment on a Wall Street Journal report that the NFL is talking to Walt Disney Co.'s sports media juggernaut about a possible partnership -- one that might solve its increasingly bitter carriage battle with big cable operators, including Comcast and Time Warner.
The league sparked a bitter fan protest late last year by threatening to restrict the broadcast of the then-undefeated New England Patriots' Dec. 29 game against the New York Giants to its wholly owned NFL Network. The channel is available in only 40 million homes nationwide. ESPN, in contrast, is seen in 96 million homes.
As fan protests mounted and Congress threatened to get involved, the NFL unexpectedly reversed field and allowed NBC and CBS to also broadcast the game, which the Patriots won. Earlier in the season, the dispute had restricted viewership of a game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers to those whose cable television systems carried the NFL Network.
The NFL and ESPN on Friday declined to confirm or deny that talks are underway.
"We have a long term and extensive relationship with the NFL," said ESPN spokesman Chris LaPlaca. "To that end we are always in discussions with them about mutual projects."
NFL Senior Vice President Joe Browne said that "we speak to our TV partners all the time about all sorts of issues."
But an executive with another television network that pays a premium for the right to broadcast NFL games questioned whether that's the case.
"If these talks are going on, I'm surprised that the NFL would limit discussion to just one of their network partners," said the executive, who is not authorized to discuss the network's NFL dealings. "It's kind of mind-boggling if they are having these discussions."
Another executive from the same network, who also is not authorized to discuss the network's NFL dealings, suggested that the expected success of Major League Baseball's 24-hour channel has to give NFL owners pause. The Baseball Channel, which is owned in part by Time Warner Cable, DirecTV, Cox and Comcast, will immediately reach a rollout record 47 million cable and satellite homes nationwide when it launches in January -- more than four times as many as the NFL Network reached with its launch in 2003.
Former NFL owner Art Modell, who helped create "Monday Night Football," said the NFL Network "hasn't been a smashing commercial success so far," but that the network can "come out of the hole by having some linkage to ESPN or some similar outfit."
The increasingly nasty dispute that has put NFL fans and cable television customers in the middle has its roots in a decision two seasons ago by team owners to forfeit an estimated $400 million in TV rights fees and keep an eight-game package for the NFL Network.
The NFL has incorporated the night games into a high-powered consumer marketing and statehouse lobbying campaign that is designed to pressure Comcast, Time Warner and other cable companies into making room for NFL Network in their widely available programming packages.
Big cable operators generally have refused, on the grounds that, other than the occasional big games, the NFL Network's fare isn't worth what the league wants to charge.
Derek Baine, a senior analyst with cable industry market research firm SNL Kagan, said that the reported discussions could signal the NFL's realization that it isn't likely to win this fight on its own. For two years, the league has maintained that it wouldn't sell an equity stake in NFL Network or back away from its demand that cable companies make room for the channel.
"Obviously, you're going to have more luck getting carriage if you're Walt Disney than a league or any other independent network," Baine said. "If it's with Disney, NFL Network is bundled in a package with all the other Disney channels, and the cable operator takes all of it or gets none of it."
If the NFL were to agree to bundle its NFL Network offerings into ESPN's Classic channel, Baine suggested, Disney and the league arguably could use their combined leverage to demand a higher per-customer payment from cable operators.
Word of a possible break in the NFL Network impasse came days after the Big Ten Network ended its year-long carriage battle with Comcast.
Times staff writer Dawn Chmielewski contributed to this report.