By Michael Donovan
If you’re part of that growing group of ESPN-haters, yesterday was your Gettysburg.
Disney Corp., which owns 80 percent of ESPN (the Hearst Corp. has the other 20%) bought a lot of assets from 21st Century Fox, including 22 Fox Sports regional sports networks (RSN’s) that hold exclusive local rights to 44 MLB, NBA, and NHL team broadcasts.
ESPN now has no competition anymore on the local level, and Comcast, which has 10 of these RSN’s, including the woeful NBC Sports Philly, has been left in the dust.
Fox 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.