When the National Football League (NFL) revealed its blockbuster multi-billion dollar telecast rights on Thursday, the announcement notably lacked any mention of the NFL’s Sunday afternoon out-of-market package called Sunday Ticket.
Traditionally, the package has been reserved for customers of DirecTV’s satellite system, which has enjoyed the exclusive rights to out-of-market Sunday games for more than two decades.
There were some initial reports that the Walt Disney Company’s sports network ESPN had nabbed the rights from DirecTV, but those reports were quickly dispelled. But speculation was further fueled by comments made by an ESPN executive later in the day in which he confirmed the broadcaster was interested in holding discussions with the NFL over the package.
“We’ve had exploratory conversations with the league,” Jimmy Pitaro, the president of ESPN, said in a conference call with reporters. “Sunday Ticket is an incredibly valuable product. When the league is ready, we are interested in having that conversation with them.”
Disney is already spending a good chunk of money on broadcast and digital distribution rights for NFL games: As part of an 11-year deal reached between the NFL and various broadcasters, Disney will continue to hold broadcast rights to Monday Night Football games, which will be aired on ESPN and some ABC affiliate stations. ABC will also earn exclusive national rights to an unspecified number of NFL games and will host the Super Bowl twice over the next decade.
The deal further extends to Disney’s streaming service ESPN Plus, which will have the ability to simulcast games aired on ESPN and ABC and will be the exclusive home of one International Series game per season.
Bringing a sports package to ESPN Plus would not be out of character for Disney: The media giant already offers premium access to Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) events and will soon offer out-of-market games produced by the National Hockey League (NHL) and regional broadcasters.
ESPN is operated as a joint venture between Disney and Hearst Communications, with Disney owning a controlling stake in the brand.