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Disney-Fox deal gives ESPN a local strategy to combat its financial woes

(Mike Windle/Getty Images for ESPN)

Thursday’s news release announcing Disney’s deal to acquire a massive package of 21st Century Fox assets was heavy on certain specifics, especially those that deal with the entertainment world. Deadpool, X-Men and Fantastic Four — comic-book film entities previously owned by Fox — get mentioned twice, as does the Avatar franchise. Various other Fox creations — TV series such as “The Americans” and the “The Simpsons,” plus films such as “Hidden Figures” and “Gone Girl” — are referenced as the type of entertainment Disney now will be able to offer.

But buried within the release is the announcement that Disney will be acquiring Fox Sports Regional Networks, a collection of cable channels that are broadcast to local subscribers across the country. (Fox Sports, the FS1 and FS2 networks and the Big Ten Network will remain with Fox.) Assuming the deal passes federal antitrust muster, this portion of the pact could have a seismic impact on Disney-owned ESPN, rearranging a business model that until recently was thought to be the cause of the network’s well-documented financial problems.

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For starters, ESPN will be acquiring a massive amount of new content, as Fox Sports’ 22 regional sports networks (RSNs from here on out) control the local cable rights to the following professional teams:

NBA (17): Suns, Hornets, Pistons, Magic, Pacers, Pelicans, Timberwolves, Cavaliers, Thunder, Hawks, Grizzlies, Mavericks, Spurs, Heat, Clippers, Bucks, Nets.

MLB (15): Diamondbacks, Tigers, Rays, Royals, Cardinals, Twins, Reds, Padres, Braves, Rangers, Marlins, Angels, Brewers, Indians, Yankees.

NHL (12): Coyotes, Hurricanes, Red Wings, Panthers, Blues, Wild, Blue Jackets, Predators, Stars, Lightning, Kings, Ducks.

That doesn’t even include college football and basketball, plus Major League Soccer and the WNBA.

Let’s put it another way: The total price tag of the Disney-Fox deal is estimated to be $52.4 billion. CNBC’s David Faber estimates that Fox’s RSNs alone would be valued at $20 billion, or more than 38 percent of that amount. This isn’t an entertainment deal; it’s a sports deal.

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ESPN will certainly slap its name on all of those networks, but this goes far beyond mere branding. Cable companies can charge customers top dollar for the right to have RSNs in their cable lineup, with costs that approach the more than $9 ESPN gets monthly from each customer who has ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU and the SEC Network in their package. The price is so high because cable subscribers view RSNs as essential: According to a 2016 Neilsen survey of 1,500 pay-TV subscribers, the local RSN ranked as the fifth-most-important cable channel in their lineups, ahead of any other cable channel (including ESPN). In markets such as St. Louis and Detroit — both of which are served by Fox Sports RSNs — the local RSN ranked higher in importance to cable customers than broadcast networks such as NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox.

ESPN’s financial woes have stemmed from cord-cutting cable customers who have balked at the high prices cable companies are charging, with the network losing more than 13 million subscribers from its peak of 100.13 million households in 2011. Those losses, combined with steadily escalating sports-rights fees, led the network to lay off roughly 550 employees over the past two years, with the most recent round of job cuts coming late last month.

But customers might think twice about dropping their cable packages if it meant losing access to games played by their local teams. Those games — and the money cable customers pay to watch them — will now be under the ESPN domain.

“We have long known that our RSNs are akin to the fifth broadcast network in their markets in terms of ratings, and Nielsen’s research confirms the remarkable importance of these networks to viewers,” Fox Sports Regional Networks President Jeff Krolik said in December 2016. “Local sports are tribal, and RSNs inspire the same loyalty and connection as the hometown teams they bring to fans.”

There also is the matter of ESPN’s new subscription streaming service, ESPN Plus, which will be unveiled early next year as a “complementary product” to the network’s cable offerings, President John Skipper said Tuesday. Disney President Robert Iger said Thursday that the sports content ESPN acquired in the Fox deal will not be integrated into the network’s direct-to-consumer offering, most likely because cable companies still control the streaming rights to that content under their current deals. But ESPN will almost certainly make a push to acquire those streaming rights as those contracts expire, giving the network something more to offer cord-cutting consumers down the line.

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Iger echoed Skipper’s “complementary” comment on Thursday.

“You have to look at the RSNs as a complement to ESPN, not an overlap,” he said on CNBC.

At its heart, the sports portion of the Disney-Fox deal is about ESPN planting its flag in local markets, even more than it already was as the nation’s most prominent provider of televised sports. With 22 new cable channels at its disposal, the main network will more easily be able to elevate local stories that are attracting national attention while also giving the local networks access to ESPN’s stable of talent and programming, a synergistic win-win in Iger’s eyes.

“There will be a sharing of product so that we can infuse ESPN national with some more local content” and vice versa, Iger said. “The result will be that both will be better.”

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