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What Disney can do with Fox's regional sports networks

Daniel Roberts

It’s official: Disney is acquiring most of 21st Century Fox’s film and television assets for $52.4 billion, at a share price that values 21st Century Fox at $75 billion. It is the sixth-largest media deal ever, according to Thomson Reuters.

The deal includes a large portfolio of sports television assets: Sky Sports, Star Sports, and Fox’s 18 regional sports networks (RSNs) across America.

Disney paying for these TV assets is a sign that Disney CEO Bob Iger is doubling down on live sports television, rather than back away from it, as some analysts have suggested or predicted Disney might. And the local channels are a potential boon to ESPN.

SportsCenter anchors Michael Smith (L) and Jemele Hill (Getty)

Fox owns 22 regional sports networks (here’s its own list), each one pegged to a specific city, state, or region, with names like Fox Sports Kansas City, Fox Sports Oklahoma, SportsTime Ohio, and Fox Sports Midwest. They show the games of more than 44 MLB, NBA, and NHL teams and produce more than 5,500 live games per year. The most well-known among these channels: YES Network, jointly owned by Fox and the New York Yankees.

ESPN did not have RSNs before now. It’s about to get 22 of them. So while some analysts say this dumps too much of a burden on Disney—air time it will have to fill with programming—clearly Iger sees the value and has a plan for them. Many of these channels still get very high ratings, from fans that watch a high number of games per year of their local hometown team.

Expect Disney to swiftly rebrand the Fox RSNs as ESPN channels.

ESPN can use the RSNs to bring new life to the SportsCenter franchise, which it has sought to reinvent with digital-first “SportsCenter Right Now” segments, a Snapchat version of SportsCenter, and a new anchor lineup at a time when many sports fans no longer see the need to sit down and watch a full episode of SportsCenter when they can get news and scores on social media as it happens.

Imagine regional versions of SportsCenter, like a SportsCenter Tennessee that airs on the ESPN Tennessee channel, covering only news about the Titans, Grizzlies, Predators, Volunteers, and Commodores. And vice-versa: Disney can pull some of the local content from RSNs into national ESPN broadcasts.

In other words: this is a bet on local, live sports television, but it can also build the reach of ESPN.

ESPN and its rival Fox Sports 1 (which is not part of the deal) are losing cable subscribers due to cord-cutting: ESPN lost 100,000 of them in November, according to Nielsen data, and FS1 lost 199,000. And ESPN laid off 250 people this year.

To turn the business around, Disney plans an ESPN+ streaming service, to be built by MLBAM Tech, which Disney acquired in full this year, though the product will not have everything that airs on ESPN (a la HBO Go) but instead offer supplementary live sports content (think tennis and cricket).

The RSNs could feed at least some content to the ESPN+ streaming product, although there are obvious questions about how much content and what content, since ESPN can only stream the live sports content it has rights to, and the rights to the local games shown on the RSNs are tied up in years-long deals already.

Then there’s Sky and Star, big European sports channels that can help grow ESPN’s global footprint.

Many are questioning the logic of this move by Iger and Disney. It is a massive bet on cable television at a time when many consumers are ditching cable television. Iger appears to be thinking, ‘We’ve already got one foot in the television world, we might as well go all in.’

And maybe, in two years, people will look back on 2017 as the year that two big Disney acquisitions saved ESPN.

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite

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