Disney Plans to Spread Sports Further Beyond ESPN

·12-min read

An increasing amount of what ESPN does isn’t going to be seen on good ol’ ESPN.

“Sunday Night Baseball” has been a mainstay of the Disney sports network since the show’s launch in 1990, but on August 8, the program will air on ESPN’s corporate cousin, ABC. When ESPN this fall launches its first NHL season coverage in a decade and a half, a good chunk of the games will be made available for viewing by ESPN digital subscribers on Hulu. In 2024, portions of ESPN’s Wimbledon coverage will turn up on ABC and the streaming outlet ESPN Plus. And in 2026, when Disney gets the rights to its first Super Bowl in 20 years, ESPN’s chief expects viewers will be able to watch several different broadcasts of the game across multiple networks, some potentially with unique camera views and others with celebrities and athletes joining the conversation.

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“We had 14 different broadcasts for this past season’s college football championship game, and so I don’t know if we’d offer that number, but several of those broadcasts would be contemplated for the Super Bowl,” says Jimmy Pitaro, whose title was recently changed from president of ESPN to chairman of ESPN and Disney sports content. The NFL, he adds, is “absolutely interested in having the conversation,” though he cautions ESPN and the league have not had “substantial discussions” on how the football extravaganza will look that year. An NFL spokesman said the league declined to comment.

ESPN has long fed its content to other parts of the Disney empire, but as the media industry’s streaming wars shake up how people watch TV, Pitaro says much more is on the way. Executives at ESPN have spent the past two years wrangling over billions of dollars in rights deals that give the outlet new ties to leagues like the NHL, PGA Tour, and La Liga that they have not had for years, if at all. For the first time since 2005, ESPN has contracts with all four of the nation’s biggest sports: baseball, hockey, football and basketball. But it has maneuvered in other areas, too, snatching a group of SEC college football games previously covered by CBS. And it has pressed for the flexibility to move games to venues like ESPN Plus or even Hulu, and to create new kinds of telecasts that emphasize specific interests, like sports betting, Marvel characters, even “Star Wars” themes.

“I definitely see them pushing themselves and spending more,” says Daniel Cohen, senior vice president of media rights consulting at Octagon, the Interpublic Group sports-management firm. “You are going to see this hybrid model of cable, free-to-air and streaming and using a lot of high-end sports programming to push people to keep watching the next thing,” he adds. “We are at a point in media now where you have to use every bullet in your chamber.”

All this comes as traditional TV viewers continue their great migration to on-demand outlets like Netflix, HBO Max, and a growing coterie of similar services. ESPN’s two flagship cable roosts, ESPN and ESPN2, are expected to see continuing subscriber drops, according to Kagan, a market research unit of S&P Global Market Intelligence. By the end of 2021, Kagan projects ESPN will have 73.4 million subscribers, down 13.4% from the 84.6 million it boasted in 2019. ESPN2 faces similar declines.

“I honestly cannot tell you where I think the traditional side of our business will level off,” says Pitaro, who notes Disney and ESPN are pivoting to keep sports in front of devoted audiences. “We will be right there with the fan.”

Maintaining a relationship with those die-hards means focusing more intently on sports rights. ESPN executives are betting that games will keep viewers connected to the outlet, even as the network’s anchors and correspondents continue to command attention for behavior on and off screen. When asked about a recent controversy involving sportscasters Maria Taylor and Rachel Nichols that has generated headlines, ESPN said Pitaro declined to comment, citing a desire not to speak publicly about individual contracts. [The Variety interview with Pitaro took place before a New York Times report detailed internal reaction to comments Nichols made about losing the “NBA Countdown” hosting gig to Taylor and ESPN’s diversity efforts during a phone conversation she believed was private.] In a memo, Pitaro told staffers Taylor “earned” her post on the basketball program and reiterated management efforts to encourage staff diversity. ESPN will likely always have to deal with some imbroglio involving behind-the-scenes friction, flip remarks on air by a prominent anchor, or the defection of a popular sports journalist to a rival, but without rights to show baseball games, football contests, UFC matches and hockey championships, all would be lost.

Sports are also taking on new importance at ESPN’s parent. By moving more SEC games, Wimbledon matches and the like to ABC and other networks, Disney is clearly counting on sports to snare Madison Avenue interest in its most expensive programming even as traditional viewers depart. “Primetime is when most people are watching, and that’s what sports is. Sports is prime,” says Rita Ferro, president of Disney Advertising Sales, who notes many advertisers who hadn’t used sports in the past are spending big dollars on them in new ways. One case in point: Google has become a big sponsor of the WNBA. “We actually expanded our coverage, because they funded the coverage,” Ferro says. Meanwhile, Disney has discovered that ESPN Plus subscribers tend to be the heaviest users of ESPN’s digital offerings, says Russell Wolf, executive vice president and general manager of ESPN Plus. The company aims to push those consumers to pick up its “bundle” of streaming outlets, he says, which also includes Hulu and Disney Plus.

Still, sports are fueling ESPN’s competitors. The merger of WarnerMedia and Discovery, expected to be completed next year, would create a new company that has rights to many of the properties ESPN holds dear — Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL — along with a passel of international rights to showcase the Olympics and PGA Tour. With its launch of a series of celebrity golf matches, Warner has created a sports option that does not involve haggling with a league. Fox Sports plans to revive the USFL and has even taken a stake in the relaunched entity. CBS Sports has shown new interest in cultivating relationships with international soccer leagues — just like ESPN. And NBC Sports is pursuing similar avenues to ESPN’s. The NBCUniversal unit plans to shut down its NBCSN sports cable outlet at the end of the year and push viewers to see some of its sports on Peacock, its own streaming operation. And of course, there are plenty of digital companies large and small — Amazon, with its attachment to both “Thursday Night Football” and the regional YES sports network — eager to get their hands on sports properties.

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In 2019, with a bunch of important rights contracts set to lapse in months to come, Pitaro convened executives from around the company for a meeting at Delamar, a luxury hotel in Southport CT, where the in-house restaurant serves everything from fried pickles to heirloom strawberry and tomato caprese. Burke Magnus, ESPN’s president of programming and original content, was partial to the chocolate chip cookies made available, but says the primary task for the assemblage was to fill ESPN’s sports pipeline, not managers’ stomachs.

“We never like to assume anything. Even properties like Major League Baseball that we absolutely want to continue a very important relationship with, you can’t assume that’s going to happen. We basically prioritized what we wanted to have in the portfolio and created paths if something didn’t happen,” Magnus recalls. At the top of the list, he says, was a looming renewal with the NFL, whose big-audience games are an essential part of the lifeblood of the modern TV business. “You can’t ever assume an NFL renewal, so that was probably our highest-stakes conversation of all of them. We didn’t just want a simple, straight renewal of ‘Monday Night Football.’ We had a couple of strategic priorities inside of the deal that we ended up getting, which were more games and better games and most post-season and Super Bowl rotations.” ESPN will end up paying $2.7 billion a year in a deal that lasts into next decade.

Realizing the growing impact of streaming, ESPN had other goals as well. The company pressed leagues for more games that would be exclusive to ESPN Plus — games ESPN would not have to share with regional sports networks — and sought the freedom to create events that could air for select audiences across Disney’s collection of TV properties. “It was critical that we secure DTC rights in each of these deals,” says Pitaro, as well as “the ability to do what we call ‘alternative broadcasts’ or ‘mega-casts.’”

Doing so, says the ESPN chief, gives the company a chance to meet a demand from most of the leagues with which it does business. “We know from all of our meetings that audience expansion is probably the number one priority for our leagues, and it’s the recurring theme and the common denominator across all of the conversation: ‘How can you guys help us appeal to and attract new fans?’” says Pitaro.

When ESPN was in discussions with the National Hockey League, executives knew they had to find ways to follow digital fans of the game. “We, like most, see digital streaming at the very least as a complement to linear TV, and certainly as a major player in the video space, for consumers now and in the future,” says David Proper, executive vice president of media strategy and distribution at the league. “Rather than holding tight to a model of linear TV exclusively, we need to be in the digital space in a meaningful way to fully serve our fans.” One of the bedrock elements of the new pact between the league and ESPN is a move of the NHL’s streaming package for out-of-market games to ESPN Plus.

Putting a sport on a single network is no longer enough to entice some top rights holders. “We are one event, but many stories,” says Mick Desmond, commercial and media director at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club, which manages Wimbledon. Executives were attracted to Disney’s overseas streaming services as well as the cable assets the company bought from Fox in 2019. “We want to get as many sports fans and tennis fans as we can to follow the Wimbledon story,” he adds. “At the same time, we want to attract new fans, and it’s getting tougher out there.”

ESPN has tried to sweeten the pot by describing the ways it might help the leagues reach both younger fans and a growing part of the U.S. population able to take part in legal sports betting. Executives expect to keep developing tailored broadcasts that introduce data about odds and bets into the proceedings, says Pitaro. And he has hopes for new concepts aimed at hooking younger crowds, beyond use of Disney properties. “We have done a fantastic job of putting our microphones on players, and you can expect that to continue. You can expect us to be aggressive in terms of our asks here in getting league approval and player approval,” the executive says. “One of the ways you attract a younger demo is by providing access to the athletes and coaches.”

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It’s no secret that ESPN has, during the pandemic, sought to tamp down costs. Many top anchors and executives took pay cuts amid scuttled live games, and word has leaked out in recent weeks that the company parted ways with some on-air personalities, such as Kenny Mayne, after offering them renewal deals for less money. Pitaro says ESPN isn’t trying to skimp on talent in order to fuel rights deals. “There’s no causal connection here,” he says. “Yes, we are being disciplined both on the rights acquisitions and also on the talent side. We have had some very talented folks who we wanted to stay leave, because we just couldn’t get there, or we couldn’t match a competitive offer. While we are disappointed to see talent go, at the end of the day, we have a really strong bench.” ESPN has renewed deals in recent weeks with Jesse Washington, Kelley Carter, Buster Olney, and PJ Carlesimo, among others.

The executive says ESPN won’t back away from ambitious original content, even though it recently saw the departure of two longtime senior executives, Connor Schell and Libby Geist, who specialized in just that type of programming. ESPN remains committed to newsmagazines like “30 For 30” and “E:60,” says Pitaro, along with big-event documentaries like last year’s “Last Dance,” a miniseries about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. He points to coming projects focused on Tom Brady, Derek Jeter, and the New York Mets. “The theme here is bigger and bolder projects that we think will move the needle, and it’s quality over quantity,” he notes.

At some point, ESPN won’t be able to buy any more sports to put on the air. “Even Disney can’t continue to spend at the rate they are spending,” says Cohen, the Octagon executive.

But executives say the company knows its limits. “You can’t possibly own everything in live sports anymore, because the price of entry is so high,” notes Magnus, who says ESPN’s parent keeps an eye on all the deals. “There’s no rubber stamp involved. These are heavily analyzed and heavily scrutinized.”

And ESPN has yet to hit a wall, says Pitaro. “We have a five-year plan and also, we have a ten-year plan, and we are actively looking at our rights and evaluating what’s coming up, and what we can go after,” he says, adding: “We are not done.”

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