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Disney and Comcast are willing to walk away from Rupert Murdoch’s local sports networks

Sometimes you ask a question, and it takes a while to get an answer.

Like here: In December, I wondered why Disney, which was already committed to expensive TV sports rights through its ESPN unit, would want to buy even more expensive sports rights by acquiring 21st Century Fox’s regional sports networks.

It took until today for the penny to drop. Disney may not end up owning Fox’s 22 RSNs after all.

Turns out that Disney has already told investors that it would be willing to get rid of Fox’s RSNs, after buying them, if regulators require it. (This is a little embarrassing: As far as I can tell, Disney has been disclosing this via public filings since April. On the other hand: I can’t see any evidence that anyone else in the press picked up on it, either.)

Disney’s stance came to light today when Comcast made its own bid for assets currently owned by 21st Century Fox, and promised to match any regulatory commitment Disney had made, including the possibility that it would have to “divest … any of 21CF’s RSNs.”

Which doesn’t mean that either Comcast* or Disney want to get rid of Fox’s RSNs. The rights those networks own — which give local viewers the ability to watch teams like the New York Yankees — are very expensive, but they’re also very valuable. You could make an argument that pairing them with Disney’s ESPN or Comcast/NBCUniversal’s existing RSNs would be a nice thing to have.

But you could also argue that being on the hook for what appears to be a never-ending escalation of rights fees, at the same time that audience and subscriber demand for live sports may have peaked, isn’t a great place to be.

And now both companies have said that if push comes to shove, they’re willing to walk away from those assets altogether.

* Comcast is an investor in Vox Media, which owns this site.

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