ESPN buys part of Arena league

The network makes a deal to broadcast at least 26 games a season for five years.

Published December 20, 2006

It was billed as "one of the most significant announcements in AFL history," but its roots can be traced to a quiet conversation between former CBS sports president Neil Pilson and current ESPN executives John Skipper and John Wildhack last spring.

Pilson, now a consultant for the Arena Football League, had some history negotiating deals with ESPN, so when it became apparent the league's four-year relationship with NBC was about to end, he mentioned to Skipper and Wildhack that it would soon be looking for a new broadcast partner.

The seed was planted, and last week, after six months of negotiations, the network and the league found themselves in agreement on the principal parts of a deal that commissioner David Baker is convinced will give his sport the market reach it has long sought.

"We reached the final points," Pilson said, "and I suggested to the commissioner that he shake hands."

The result is a five-year deal that provides ESPN with "extensive multimedia rights" and a minimum of 26 televised games each season, and also gives the network minority ownership in the league. Hoping to capitalize on the nation's affinity for Monday Night Football, the network will broadcast a weekly AFL game on Monday night. It will also air nine playoff games, including the ArenaBowl.

To the AFL, the deal appears to be a major victory. Though NBC reaches about 20-million more households, Baker feels ESPN will be able to better market the league because of the plethora of platforms the company owns: television, radio, the Internet, magazine, even cell phones.

Last year, NBC's Arena broadcasts drew a rating of just 0.8, meaning they were watched by less than one percent of all U.S. households.

But the new deal raises a few questions about the relationship between news and entertainment. Because ESPN, which is owned by Disney, will own a slice of the AFL (nobody would say how large), it stands to benefit from any growth the AFL experiences. It takes only a bit of linear deduction to realize ESPN could benefit financially from giving the league better play on its news-oriented platforms, such as ESPN.com or SportsCenter.

"It would be kind of like if the Journal of the American Medical Association invested in Pfizer," said Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at Poynter Institute, a journalism center in St. Petersburg that owns the St. Petersburg Times. "You'd have a serious problem with that."

Skipper said that the news side of ESPN is separate from the programming side, and nobody on the news side has expressed reservations.

"Their only concern is they're allowed to continue to do their job with their judgment and discretion about what is news and information," Skipper said. "They know they will get to do that."

But, he added, "we will look for opportunities where it makes sense to do profiles of players, previews of the league. We do, without apology, make sure our fans know what's coming up on our network."

That willingness to cross-promote is what makes Baker and others so excited about the deal.

"They are going to put their entire brand behind this thing," Storm coach Tim Marcum said.

The AFL is also in the midst of negotiations for a package of Friday night games. The NFL Network is one possibility.

Teams also will be able to negotiate local contracts for games that aren't nationally or regionally televised. Storm director of broadcasting Jason Dixon said the team is negotiating with local outlets, though he declined to specify.

Times researchers John Martin and Angie Holan contributed to this report.

Fast Facts:


The ESPN deal

Length: Five years (through 2011 season)

Monday nights: The highlight is a weekly game patterned after the NFL's Monday Night Football. ESPN executive vice president for content John Skipper says MNF producer Jay Rothman will also produce Monday AFL games.

What's in it for ESPN: The network gets an ownership stake in the AFL, though neither party would say how much. Neil Pilson, an AFL consultant who helped broker the deal, said it is "nowhere close to" a controlling interest. Pilson said the sides will share ad revenues.

What's in it for the league: Exposure.

What it means: Both sides insist they are not handing control to the other. AFL commissioner David Baker said ESPN does not have any decision-making power on league matters. Skipper said the AFL will have no control over ESPN's editorial content.