by Phil Rosenthal
If you see more coverage hyping the smash-mouth human pinball games of the Arena Football League next year on "SportsCenter," it's not a matter of ESPN selling out.
It's buying in.
ESPN not only has negotiated a five-year deal with the AFL, which opens its 21st season in March, to become its media partner in TV, the Internet and sundry other platforms, the Walt Disney Co.-owned behemoth also has acquired a minority, non-voting equity stake in the indoor football league.
"This is a deal where, in the end ... there is more money to be made by growing the league than just by broadcasting the media rights," AFL Commissioner David Baker said, announcing the arrangement in a conference call Tuesday. "It becomes a true partnership, and I think that, therefore, ESPN becomes strongly incentivized toward promoting it and growing us."
So a league and sport generally overshadowed by more traditional athletic fare, such as college and pro basketball, Major League Baseball and even the National Hockey League, is poised to be presented as big time as, say, the ESPN-promoted youth-oriented extreme sports of the X Games.