ESPN could land college football bowl games

With a couple of bold moves, Disney cabler ESPN stands to raise its already high profile in the sports broadcasting world, with potentially significant implications for sister network ABC.

First, Disney made a reported $125 million bid for the rights to the complete Bowl Championship Series, the five annual contests — the Orange, Sugar, Fiesta and Rose bowls plus the BCS National Championship — that ultimately determine college football’s No. 1 team.

Fox, which has the rights to all but the Rose Bowl at a cost of $82.5 million per year, has upped its bid to $100 million. If Disney is successful, ESPN will air the games beginning in 2010. The Rose Bowl, currently airing on ABC, would likely also move to ESPN.

In a second potential 2010 coup, as reported in Sports Business Daily, ESPN is poised to snag the rights to all four rounds of the British Open. Turner cabler TNT now carries the first two weekday sessions, with ABC taking over on Saturday and Sunday.

Combined, the two gambits will dramatically shift Disney’s sports emphasis away from its broadcast net. “There’s no question that we’re looking at the gradual obsolescence of ABC Sports,” observed Rick Gentile, director of Seton Hall Sports Poll.

That process, said Gentile, began with ESPN taking over the “Monday Night Football” franchise from the Alphabet net in 2006 and the branding of events such as NBA basketball as “ESPN on ABC.”

The transfers make financial sense for Disney, he added, as events that may struggle to make a profit on broadcast will have no such challenge on ESPN, which draws both advertising income and fees from cable operators.

“Their attitude is, if ‘Monday Night Football’ can be on ESPN and not on free broadcast television, then why can’t these other events?” Gentile surmised. “And it looks better on the books at ESPN than on ABC because of the dual revenue stream.”

ESPN declined to comment.

If the trend continues and ABC events like NBA basketball and the Indianapolis 500 eventually migrate to ESPN, Gentile ventured that it could call into question ABC’s very identity.

“The way we have traditionally defined a network is there’s entertainment in primetime, soap operas in the afternoon, evening news, and there’s sports on weekends,” he said. “This would be a new definition.”

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