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Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos may have given Disney CEO Bob Iger an early Christmas present this year. But if Iger accepts it, he could be paving the way for the demise of traditional cable TV networks, including Disney's own ESPN.
Amazon has placed a first-round bid for Disney's 22 regional sports networks, sources familiar with the matter told CNBC's David Faber on Tuesday.
Disney is being forced to divest the 22 networks as part of its larger $71.3 billion deal for Fox assets. They include the YES Network, which broadcasts New York Yankees games, plus other networks that show live regional games from a variety of professional leagues, including Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League
The threat of Amazon buying sports rights — even a declining business like regional sports networks — should scare traditional media companies that are banking on owning must-see live content to stay alive in an on-demand world.
In Disney's case, Amazon's interest is a double-edged sword.
On the plus side, a competitive bidding situation could push up the sale price, which could top $20 billion. Other first-round bidders include a bunch of private equity firms and two broadcast-TV companies, Tegna and Sinclair, CNBC reported.
But they don't have the balance sheets to reasonably compete with a big traditional media player like Fox. The slimmer "New Fox" needs live TV, including sports, to stay relevant. That's one reason why it's the favorite to buy back the 22 networks, as sources familiar with the matter told CNBC last month. Fox CEO Lachlan Murdoch confirmed at the Dealbook conference earlier this month that his company has an interest in buying back the networks, even though sources told CNBC that Fox didn't submit a first-round bid.
Amazon's interest could drive the price for Fox up, helping Disney get the maximum value from the assets it has to divest.
On the other hand, despite all the chatter around Disney+, Disney is still very much a traditional media company, and its largest media asset by revenue is ESPN. Owning sports rights is critical to ESPN's long-term success.
Selling sports rights to a giant like Amazon, with a market capitalization of more than $700 billion, could spur other technology giants like Apple, Google and Facebook to bid on sports rights to stay competitive.
The sports rights for the big professional leagues are locked up through 2020. Traditional media players such as Disney, CBS, Comcast's NBC and AT&T's DirecTV and Time Warner dominate the landscape.
When current rights deals expire, tech giants could conceivably outbid the traditional media players for exclusive or digital-only rights, assuming the leagues themselves are willing to abandon traditional partners.
Amazon almost certainly doesn't want to be in the long-term business of running cable networks with declining programming fee growth. But Amazon could buy the networks and then simply phase them out over time, according to BTIG analyst Rich Greenfield. Amazon could then offer the games "exclusively available to Amazon Prime subscribers or offer it is an add-on Amazon Channel," Greenfield wrote in a note to clients last month.
If packaged with Amazon Prime, broadcasting regional games exclusively could help persuade customers to keep subscribing to the service. Further, it increases digital advertising opportunities for Amazon, which is growing its market share against Facebook and Google. Perhaps most importantly, it brings even more people into the Amazon tent, exposing them to all of the products and services Amazon offers.
Disney's best long-term strategic move could be to keep Amazon around as a bidder, only to use them as a threat to get more money for the networks. Amazon's presence could be a weapon for Iger if Fox or others believe keeping tech giants out of the live sports business is crucial for survival.
"Sports is also the only content that is holding its audience viewership-wise and in turn supporting the $70 billion TV ad industry," Greenfield wrote.
Second-round bids for the networks are due before the end of the year, sources told CNBC. Whether or not Amazon puts in a godfather offer for the channels could be the biggest story in media as 2019 kicks off.
Disclosure: Comcast is the owner of NBCUniversal, parent company of CNBC and CNBC.com.