WWE reportedly started having serious WrestleMania-related talks with ESPN last year, according to Justin Barrasso of Sports Illustrated.
It was reported last year that ESPN wanted to up their coverage of WrestleMania 35. They did more than usual, but SI reports that ESPN was in a "deep discussion" to have a desk at WrestleMania, and to air WrestleMania SportsCenter breaks all weekend. The talks died the week before WrestleMania 35. A sticking point was that WWE Chairman Vince McMahon didn't want to reveal the behind-the-scenes aspects of WWE, including moments after the show ended. That is interesting because of the rare moments that are shown on various WWE Network specials such as WWE 24 and WWE Chronicle. SI noted that all of those moments could have been acquired by ESPN for a significant price, but the footage is far more valuable to WWE than it ever would be to ESPN.
A potential WrestleMania 36 partnership between WWE and ESPN for this year included airing the pay-per-view on the ESPN+ pay-per-view service. Those talks ended when the coronavirus pandemic forced all original plans to change. ESPN reportedly did not want to spend such a high price on any event that was surrounded in uncertainty. SI also noted that while airing WrestleMania on ESPN would have also made sense, WWE executives questioned whether that would've led to a mass exodus of WWE Network subscribers.
SI also pointed to how existing relationships are important, in regards to WrestleMania not airing on ESPN. FOX and the USA Network were reportedly "less than enthused" with WWE making a deal to air replays of WrestleMania 30, WrestleMania 32 and WrestleMania 35 on ESPN over the last three Sundays, ending with this Sunday as a lead-in for Night Two of WrestleMania 36. FOX was especially not thrilled with the deal.
FOX reportedly hoped that some of the WrestleMania encore presentations would belong on FS1, but WWE made the decision to air them on ESPN because that network draws significantly more viewers. As we've noted, the WrestleMania 30 replay from March 22 drew 839,000 viewers while the WrestleMania 32 replay from this past Sunday drew 720,000 viewers.
WWE and FOX Sports did announce a slate of programming to push WrestleMania 36, highlighted by their first-ever pay-per-view presentation of WrestleMania on the FOX Sports App and website this coming weekend. Full details on that deal can be found here.
The WWE - ESPN relationship continues this year and appears to be strong. SI noted that one thing is certain and that's ESPN is interested in being in the WWE business.