Last month, Disney CEO Bob Iger revealed during an interview with CNBC that he was looking for a strategic partner for its sports business, ESPN, that could help them with distribution or content with a full ESPN direct-to-consumer streaming service.  And just this week, it has been revealed that Disney has brought back two former executives, Kevin Mayer and Tom Staggs, to help consult on what to do with Disney’s streaming and linear business, including coming up with a plan for ESPN with ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro.

According to a new report from CNBC, Bob Iger is looking at ways of trying to jumpstart ESPN, since the cable platform is losing subscribers year on year, as people cut the cord.   While ESPN+ does offer a wide selection of live sports, it doesn’t offer the same content that it does on linear networks.  Bob Iger has refused to say when this new ESPN direct-to-consumer product will launch, but it will likely be after 2024.

In the past few weeks since the interview, it has been revealed that Disney has been in talks with National Football League, Major League Baseball, and the National Basketball Association about becoming a strategic partner, and apparently, the National Hockey League has also been involved in these conversations.

Disney currently owns 80% of ESPN, along with Hearst owning the other 20%, and Disney is looking to potentially sell a portion of the company, to offset its financial risks but also pay off its debts that it obtained by purchasing 20th Century Fox and being hit by the pandemic.

Bringing in the four major professional sports leagues as a partner in ESPN would be unprecedented.  But this might also not work out for many reasons, since generally, these leagues are trying to play the different broadcast studios like Warner Brothers Discovery, Amazon and Apple off against one another to make more money during the TV rights auctions.

If Disney cannot find a minority partner, it has not ruled out spinning the network off as a separately traded company.  Earlier this year, Bob Iger restructured the company into three major divisions, Entertainment, Theme Parks/Resorts and ESPN.  Making it much easier to spin out ESPN, should it need to.   Bob Iger has previously said that he is resistant to spinning off ESPN and wants to stay in the sports business.    One of the key focuses of bringing in Tom Staggs and Kevin Meyer, is for Disney to keep a majority stake, to keep control of the network, but things could easily change.

ESPN is a big revenue maker, pulling in over $14 billion in revenue, and $3 billion in profit in the first six months of the year, but it continues to decline yearly.   While the rights to sports have continued to increase.  However, while Disney has been able to force cable subscribers in the US to pay each month for ESPN, regardless of if they wanted it or not, it’s unlikely to work in the world of streaming, even though many of the other streaming services do offer some sports programming.

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Roger Palmer

Roger has been a Disney fan since he was a kid and this interest has grown over the years. He has visited Disney Parks around the globe and has a vast collection of Disney movies and collectibles. He is the owner of What's On Disney Plus & DisKingdom. Email: Twitter: Facebook:

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