In December, the Walt Disney Company — which owns 80 percent of ESPN — agreed to pay $52.4 billion to buy most of 21st Century Fox’s assets, including its 22 regional sports networks, pending regulatory approval. The slimmed down company that remains will include Fox, Fox Sports, Fox News and a few other channels, and will focus on live programming such as sports and news.
Despite television ratings for the N.F.L. having fallen 19 percent over the past two seasons, Fox has decided to make the league a cornerstone of its programming. In addition to winning the rights to “Thursday Night Football” and the N.F.L. draft, the network might soon be televising an additional playoff game as well.
After being held in New York City for 50 years, the N.F.L. has treated the draft as a traveling circus since 2015, setting up shop in different cities with all manner of fan activities surrounding the actual picks. Last year a reported 70,000 people showed up to the first round in Philadelphia, and this year’s draft is poised to be even bigger, as it will be held at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Tex., the home of the Dallas Cowboys.
The draft has evolved into the biggest event of the N.F.L. off-season, and a bridge from the Super Bowl to the combine to the opening of training camp, in no small part because of the efforts of ESPN.
For decades, the draft was a sleepy meeting of team representatives in a hotel ballroom surrounded by newspaper reporters. But in 1979, Pete Rozelle, then the commissioner of the N.F.L., teamed with Chet Simmons, the president of ESPN, to televise the draft live. ESPN, then far from the dominant network it is today, was eager for cheap programming to fill time, and turned it into a massive, multiple-day television spectacle.
In the beginning, ESPN didn’t pay to televise the draft. After N.F.L. team owners learned how much ESPN was earning from the draft, they demanded the network cover its cost, and then eventually charged a rights fee to televise it, the way it does with games.