It has been a wild year for ESPN, which began with them winning a best documentary feature Oscar for "O.J.: Made in America" before seguing into a months-long drama involving Trump tweets and a bungled suspension involving anchor Jemele Hill. But the year is ending as it always ends for the network: With ESPN firmly atop the sports world, with competitors stumbling in their wake.
Or, in this case, bought by ESPN's parent company, Disney, which just acquired a large number of Fox's assets, including some of its sports assets.
When the Fox Sports One cable sports channel was launched in July 2013, the network positioned itself, explicitly, as everything ESPN was not. "The plan is for FS1 to be the funny, irreverent, less serious sports channel," trumpeted a Bloomberg piece. This idea, that ESPN was some sort of stuffy NPR egghead channel (rather than a place where Stephen A. Smith and LaVar Ball mean-mugged at each other) was a bit baffling, but it was still a clear declaration of intent: Fox was coming to take out ESPN.
The "attitude" adjustment was a feint — ultimately FS1 just turned into unhinged agitators screaming at each other — but the strategy made some sense. The company thought that FS1 could leverage its Regional Sports Networks (Fox Sports Texas, Fox Sports Midwest, and so on), where it had market dominance and through which most of America watched its favorite local sports teams, to funnel viewers to their national station to make it a viable ESPN competitor.
Disney clearly now has the same idea for ESPN. More than four years later, it gobbled up Fox and bought essentially everything of value — though, tellingly, not FS1, which means that all those regional networks that Fox Sports thought would serve as the lifeblood of their big new ESPN competitor are now owned by ESPN.
It's important to remember just what exactly Disney bought from Fox, sports-wise. Fox News, FS1 and the Big Ten Network — of which Fox owns a large share— are separate from the purchase and are going to be spun off into their own company. (Don't expect to see Joe Buck wearing an ESPN blazer.) ESPN, though, now has all those regional stations, which amounts to 44 stations across Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League, according to Sporting News' Bob Hille. This means, most visibly, if you're a Cardinals or a Penguins or a Heat fan, at some point in the next year your broadcasts are going to switch from showing commercials for Jason Whitlock and Colin Cowherd to showing ones for Michael Smith and Jemele Hill. (It's difficult to argue that the switch isn't an improvement.)
But that's just a branding issue: The Fox Sports regional crews have been in place for so long that it's unlikely for ESPN to fire everybody and start over. Other than the cross promotion — at least in the short term — your local games should look mostly the same.
But this play isn't just about ESPN trying to take over local markets. It's about, as everything is now, streaming. After ESPN purchased a majority share of Bamtech (the streaming and technology arm of MLB Advanced Media and the unquestioned behemoth in the space of online video) in August, they cleared the field to launch ESPN Plus, a standalone streaming service meant to help offset the increasing number of cordcutters who have eaten into ESPN's bottom line in recent years, in 2018.
ESPN Plus likely won't have immediate access to those regional games; there are existing deals in place that have to expire. But when they do, ESPN could negotiate new deals that would require would-be viewers to subscribe to ESPN (or ESPN Plus, or both) just to watch their local sports franchises. That would allow ESPN to own your sports fans experience at both ends: Locally and nationally.
"You have to look at the RSNs as a complement to ESPN, not an overlap," Disney CEO Bob Iger said Thursday on CNBC. "There will be a sharing of product so that we can infuse ESPN national with some more local content … The result will be that both will be better." Or, the result could simply be that you will be unable to avoid either.
Matt Bonesteel made a key point in "The Washington Post": "This isn't an entertainment deal; it's a sports deal," he wrote. "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."
So as a viewer and a fan of your local sports teams, you might not notice the ramifications of this deal (outside of branding) for a few years. But if you want to watch your favorite team, eventually, you're going to have to pay Disney and ESPN to do it.
As for FS1 and company? Well, they were barely keeping their heads above water when they had the promotion from the RSNs. Now that the local networks are gone, they have only the Fox broadcast channel — which does still have the National Football League, a national MLB contract and next year's World Cup — on their side and an entire stronger-than-before sports industrial complex stacked against them.
Their initial challenge to ESPN was not just futile, it was counterproductive — and it resulted in ESPN gobbling up the one advantage they had. ESPN has been the dominant, unchallenged figure in the world of sports for nearly four decades now. After this, no one would dare challenge them again: With the might of Disney behind them, and now the might of the one valuable thing Fox Sports owned, they will always beat everybody.
Will Leitch is a senior writer for Sports On Earth, contributor to Sports Illustrated, contributing editor at New York magazine and the founder of Deadspin.