By Callum Williams, Insider Sport — In what could prove to be a significant moment for the US sports broadcasting industry, CNBC has revealed that Disney and its subsidiary company ESPN have held talks with the major US sports leagues over ownership of the company.
Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger and ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro reportedly held preliminary talks with the NFL, NBA and MLB to discuss whether the three sports leagues would be interested in becoming minority investors in ESPN.
This comes after Iger revealed to CNBC that Disney is looking to overhaul its approach to sports broadcasting amid mass layoffs at ESPN. As the sports broadcaster has been making the transition to streaming over the last several years, Iger hinted that a stake in the company was possible.
The preliminary talks with the three major sports leagues ranged from stake ownerships, investment structures and a multitude of partnership opportunities.
Streaming appears to be at the forefront of the minds of Disney, ESPN and the NFL, with the football league pursuing its own goals of selling stakes in its online media platforms NFL Network, NFL RedZone and NFL.com, according to CNBC sources.
The NBA and MLB also have their own streaming services, NBA League Pass and MLB.TV respectively, but an all-in-one streaming service for all three on the ESPN platform controlling a share each could cause a significant shift in the US sports broadcasting landscape.
This would give consumers a more ideal and convenient way to watch the three sports and could provide unique packages to purchase.
This move would also fall in line with Disney’s ambition to move away from traditional cable TV to streaming, as NBA and MLB TV ratings have experienced dwindling viewership figures over the last decade.
Iger said to CNBC last week: “Our position in sports is very unique and we want to stay in that business. We’re going to be open minded about looking for strategic partners that could either help us with distribution or content. I’m not going to get too detailed about it, but we’re bullish about sports as a media property.”
A jointly-owned streaming platform between ESPN, NFL, NBA and the MLB will no doubt cause a major conflict of interest with the rest of US broadcasters and streaming services such as Comcast, Amazon and Apple.
In 2021, the NFL announced it had agreed a media rights partnership agreement with a plethora of broadcasters, which includes Amazon, CBS, ESPN/ABC, FOX and NBC, running until 2033.
The NBA also finds itself in an interesting situation as its current TV rights deal with Disney and Warner Bros Discovery is due to end by the 2024-25 season and the league has already begun exploring avenues for its next TV deal, with Apple and Amazon reportedly interested in acquiring NBA games for their streaming platforms.
Similar to the NFL, the MLB has a current long-standing agreement in place with ESPN, FOX and TBS to broadcast games until 2028.
A combination of the three leagues’ TV deals cause a major hurdle for a joint venture with ESPN to come into fruition. CNBC also outlines that another hurdle would be the whether or not ESPN reporters and journalists’ objectivity would be clouded due to the leagues owning the platform.
Despite this, ESPN reporters and journalists are still able to remain objective as the network is already business partners with the three leagues and if the joint streaming platform is realised, ESPN may put measures in place to minimise conflicts in reporting.