When it comes to last week’s news that ESPN bailed on a concussion joint-venture with PBS, the easy explanation is that the NFL affirmatively pushed ESPN in that direction. But the easy explanation may not be the correct explanation. Or at least not the full explanation.
As Peter King points out in his latest Monday Morning Quarterback column, the NFL can’t do much to ESPN, which is paying well over $1 billion per year for the ability to broadcast Monday Night Football through 2021. While ESPN needs the NFL more than the NFL needs ESPN, the NFL still needs ESPN; there’s no other cable channel that can pay that kind of money.
After reading King’s take on the situation, I obeyed the link at the bottom of the page and read the latest insightful report on the NFL-ESPN-PBS mess from Richard Deitsch of SI.com. Deitsch’s column eventually endorses the excellent report from Richard Sandomir, James Andrew Miller, and Steve Eder of the New York Times regarding ESPN’s massive influence over college football. And so I clicked that story and began to read it.
Here’s the moment where the light flickered: “This season, ESPN channels will televise about 450 college games. ESPN’s closest competitor, Fox, will show 50 on various networks.”
ESPN ultimately didn’t back away from the PBS collaboration because it potentially hurts the NFL’s interests in the concussion litigation brought by former players. In our view, ESPN backed away because ESPN doesn’t want to be directly associated with work that could choke off the supply of the boys who’ll suit up in those 450 college football games per year.
Now isn’t the time for ESPN to have a Pinkman-style crisis of conscience regarding its own brand of meth-making. The powers-that-be in Bristol, who by virtue of their ownership by Disney ultimately answer to a board of directors and in turn to shareholders, need to stay the course that has made ESPN worth a whopping $40 billion.
Take away 17 regular-season NFL games, and subscription fees in excess of $5 per month per home will drop. Take away 450 college football games, and the monthly charge plummets.
ESPN has built its empire in large part on college football. If college football goes away, or if at a minimum becomes diminished, that hurts ESPN a lot more than the NFL ever could.
ESPN didn’t need pressure from the NFL. ESPN simply needed a wake-up call. And it’s quite possible the NFL provided it.