NFL Denies Report Of Disney Deal As Network Negotiations Continue Toward Key March Free Agency Date

A 2020 "Monday Night Football" telecast on ESPN AP Photo/Kamil Krzaczynski

The NFL flatly denied a report of a preliminary rights deal with Disney, but the league is continuing to hold active talks with all bidders ahead of a key March date.

Sports Business Journal reported the Disney pact, though it cautioned that “contracts have not been signed.” It pegged the annual rights fee at $2.6 billion, which is more than $1 billion lower than what the league had reportedly been asking. One plum aspect of the agreement for Disney is that ABC would re-enter the Super Bowl rotation for the first time since 2006 and would air games in tandem with ESPN, as is the case with the NBA and other sports. Monday Night Football on ESPN will see its current deal expire at the end of the upcoming season.

“The report is incorrect, and as we do not negotiate through the media, there will be no further comment,” an NFL spokesman said. ESPN also declined to comment when contacted by Deadline.

On March 17, the new league year begins, and free agency along with it. With the value of franchises continuing to rise, player contracts rising and off-season free agent movement increasing, the salary cap is an important element in off-field NFL action. The cap will need to be set by March, with the date giving the league extra incentive to close TV deals by then. Sources familiar with the discussions say they are proceeding on all fronts. Earlier this month, the league set a floor of $180 billion for the cap, which is yet to be finalized. While teams and the league remain flush, revenue took a hit in 2020 due to the effects of Covid-19.

The long-term TV pacts are expected to reach a total of $100 billion for rights to games over the next , with incumbent rights holders Disney, Fox, ViacomCBS and NBCUniversal all likely to renew. Amazon Prime Video is seen as a contender for full rights to Thursday Night Football, which it has streamed as a complement to linear broadcasts over the past couple of seasons. A streaming-focused Thursday and a tweak of Monday Night Football and ESPN’s broadcast sibling, ABC, are apt to be the biggest wrinkles in the renewal. Despite massive upheaval in the media business and steady declines of pay-TV subscriptions, viewership and advertising revenue, NFL football remains as safe a traditional bet as there is. NFL ratings declined 7% in 2020, a modest drop compared with the plunges experienced by other sports on TV.

One longtime rightsholder apparently heading to the exits is AT&T, which said Thursday it is offloading DirecTV to a new separate entity that will have private equity firm TPG as a minority owner. DirecTV has controlled NFL Sunday Ticket packages (with full slates of all league games) for nearly 30 years, making it a key customer acquisition tool over the years. Satellite penetration has been dramatically shrinking lately, and the package can be delivered via the internet, opening it up to new bidders willing to break the bank. AT&T is in the opposite position, facing a mountain of $146 billion in debt. The company said it plans to earmark $2.5 billion for the next two seasons to cover the NFL package.

Disney CEO Bob Chapek didn’t tip his hand when asked about the state of football talks earlier this month on Disney’s quarterly earnings call with Wall Street analysts.

“We’ve had a long relationship with the NFL, and if we have a deal, if there is a deal that will be accretive to shareholder value, we will certainly entertain that and look at that,” he said. “But our first filter will be whether it makes sense for our shareholder standpoint going forward.”

In other words, essentially: No comment.

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