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Looking to broaden its reach, NFL Network talks with ESPN

The National Football League’s NFL Network is in talks to form a partnership with Walt Disney’s ESPN cable sports network in an effort to end a cable blackout, says a report in the “Wall Street Journal.”

An agreement would represent a big shift in strategy for the NFL, which appears to be abandoning its effort to force cable operators to carry its own network and pay lucrative monthly fees to do so.

The move could also send a message to other professional sports, which have enjoyed rising TV fees for years, that even the biggest and most powerful league in the United States cannot launch a new channel without the consent of giant cable operators such as Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

NFL executives including Steven Bornstein, chief executive of the NFL Network and previously chairman of ESPN and president of Disney’s ABC unit, have been holding discussions with Disney executives in recent months.

One scenario that has been discussed would involve combining the NFL Network with the ESPN Classic network, which has relatively low ratings but wider distribution. ESPN would broadcast eight more games per season on ESPN Classic and then attempt to wring higher subscription fees than the 16 or 17 cents it currently receives for the channel. Under such a scenario, ESPN and the NFL could form a joint venture and share revenue, or ESPN could take an equity stake in the channel.

There is no guarantee the two sides will reach a deal, because talks have been underway for some time.