ESPN, NFL Network are believed to be closing in on a deal

In January, Andrew Marchand (then of the New York Post) reported that the NFL and ESPN were in “advanced talks” that could result in the NFL taking an equity stake in ESPN, and that would give ESPN control of NFL Media.

Nearly four months later, there’s a growing belief in industry circles that a deal is coming, as soon as next week.

As one industry insider put it, the agreement is “all but signed.”

That would help explain the NFL’s recent slash-and-burn approach to NFL Network. If ESPN is going to be taking over, why should the NFL renew contracts?

Of course, the NFL still has multiple key NFL Media employees under contract. For instance, Ian Rapport recently renewed his deal with the league. It’s unclear what will happen with those contracts.

The league has been stripping original programming from NFL Network, starting with a nonsensical extended hiatus for its popular morning show and culminating in multiple reports that Total Access — the original and signature studio show — is being shut down for good.

The relationship between NFL Network and ESPN raises more questions than it answers, in multiple ways. Beyond the future programming of NFLN, there will be very real questions about ESPN’s independence when it comes to covering the league. If/when the NFL takes an equity stake in ESPN and ESPN takes charge of NFL Network, ESPN reporters will be as inherently compromised as NFL Network reporters — especially when it comes to topics that might make the league or its owners look bad.

It’s already hard enough for broadcast partners to say what needs to be said without griping from 345 Park Avenue. At ESPN, those complaints will carry far more weight once a pair of four-letter networks become the strangest of bedfellows.

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