ESPN/ABC Have a Chance to get into the Super Bowl Rotation, And One Path Looks the Clearest


ABC wants in on the Super Bowl rotation and has a chance to do so come 2022. With ESPN and the NFL’s relationship improving, the question is no longer if they will go for it, but whether they can strike a deal for it. While Andrew Marchand has reported they are considering going after Fox’s or CBS’ Sunday packages to land a Super Bowl, another option could be in play. There is a way Disney and the NFL can come to terms on a package centered around international and holiday games that come with the biggest event in America.

In a conversation with The Big Lead, former Fox Sports executive and current industry consultant Patrick Crakes clarified that poaching a rival’s package is not a prerequisite for ESPN/ABC to get into the coveted rotation.

“Not necessarily,” he said. “If ESPN pays enough they could secure one, for ABC though. Not ESPN – although they could do a simulcast with ABC. They could also secure a Super Bowl with a new package of 8-10 games carved out from current Sunday daytime, London/international and holiday games.”

This would appear to be a more realistic route for Disney to air a Super Bowl in the near future than supplanting CBS or FOX as a Sunday rightsholder. Not that paying for a better Sunday package as Crakes mentioned wouldn’t result in better quality of games, but that could be a bidding war with the odds stacked against them. ESPN has already been paying $1.9 billion for their NFL package. Presumably, Disney would not want to lose Monday Night Football’s presence on ESPN if they were to add this package.

With the loss of sub fees, that would come with losing the NFL on cable, replacing Monday games on ESPN with Sunday games on ABC may not be worth it for the company. Crakes details the expensive, not-all-that-productive process.

“Think there will be strong across-the-board increases for all established packages, probably at least 30-40 percent. That could go higher if there’s a strong desire for one network to swap or add a package(s) around, or an incumbent network loses a package and then pivots to a competitor’s set. One issue for ESPN in swapping out MNF for Sunday daytime is transitioning from getting paid for NFL directly via ESPN’s sub fee to levering more indirect re-transmission and reverse re-transmission fees via ABC’s broadcast television affiliates. I would imagine that Pay TV distribution partners would want relief from ESPN right away but will take their time compensating ABC for Sunday daytime football via local stations. It’s two different pools of money tied to two different systems of distribution for two very different packages so it’s not a simple as just moving fees around.”

The package Crakes could see would give ABC eight more must-see windows a year. “I think you could get a package of 8 regular season games plus a Wild Card/Divisional game and a Super Bowl. With London/international think four come from there. You could add two Saturday windows, maybe a Friday Thanksgiving game and then some type of Christmas/Holiday. Some of the inventory already sits in standalone windows but belongs to other partners. The NFL would have to weigh that impact to established partners against the upside of adding a new partner.”

Most in the industry believe this would not be much of a conversation if John Skipper, not current ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro, were still running things. The consensus is that Skipper would have been okay with not re-upping with the NFL, whom his company had a less-than-ideal relationship with. Jim Miller explored this scenario in 2017, which now seems like it was decades ago.

Recent trends of ESPN’s parent company could have one wondering how much more they truly will be willing to spend. Disney is going all-in on their ESPN+ and upcoming Disney+ streaming services. Nevertheless, the lure of ABC from the NFL’s perspective is that it is a broadcast television network, and as media becomes more and more fragmented these have proven to be the most resilient vessels for live sports advertisers to reach eyeballs at scale.

The potential musical chairs scenario does have another factor: Turner. Now with AT&T, seeing them get back into the NFL business is now a real possibility. Michael McCarthy previously reported that they were weighing the option of placing a bid on the most popular league in the country. Perhaps, given they run cable channels, they could be in play for Monday Night Football, either by splitting it with ESPN or securing it exclusively if ESPN were to lose it. There is a history between the two splitting a package — ESPN and TNT shared the Sunday night package in the ’90s.

Nobody can rule the tech companies out, either. Is 2022 finally the year Amazon tries to poach away live rights? What if Apple got involved? However, we’ve been hearing for years that FAANG could get involved in premium exclusive sports rights. While they’ve nibbled along the edges, they’ve yet to get any truly meaningful packages that take anything away from the legacy television institutions.

We are still a few years out before much of this will be settled, but there is reasonable belief that the most powerful sports league and the most powerful sports company could soon combine to put forth a Super Bowl. What appears to be the surest thing is that, contrary to the narrative just a year ago, the NFL is just fine and is as hot as ever.