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Disney holds talks with pro-sports leagues about ESPN investment

A sound technician with ESPN helps produce a telecast of a football game. (Photo by Maize & Blue Nation via Wikimedia Commons, Graphic by The Desk)
A sound technician with ESPN helps produce a telecast of a football game. (Photo by Maize & Blue Nation via Wikimedia Commons, Graphic by The Desk)

Two top executives at the Walt Disney Company have held discussions with a number of professional sports leagues about acquiring a minority stake in sports broadcaster ESPN, according to a new report.

On Friday, business news channel CNBC said Disney CEO Bob Iger and ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro have approached a number of sports franchises, including the National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Basketball Association (NBA), to weigh any potential interest about taking an ownership stake in the brand.

The discussions come as Iger and others at Disney plot the company’s future around direct-to-consumer streaming initiatives. Disney already operates a streaming version of ESPN, called ESPN Plus, that offers access to some professional sports alongside an extensive video on-demand catalog. The service does not include live access to the ESPN multiplex of cable networks, but Iger says a streaming version of ESPN’s channels is inevitable.

Disney already runs ESPN as a joint venture with Hearst Corporation, which holds a 20 percent minority stake in the cable network. It was not clear if Hearst is or was involved in those discussions.

Disney holds telecast rights to NFL, MLB and NBA games for ESPN and ABC, though the NBA’s broadcast contract is up for renewal soon. It wasn’t immediately clear if Disney was going to pursue a renewal of its agreement with the pro-sports league, but the report published on Friday indicates that discussions appear to be progressing on that front, and could include the NBA making a minority investment in the sports channel.

The talks also come at a time when the NFL is looking for an established media brand to make an investment in its own cable properties, including NFL Network and NFL RedZone, according to CNBC. It wasn’t immediately clear from the report if Disney and the NFL had any discussions surrounding that initiative.

Last week, Iger told a CNBC reporter that the company was looking for a “strategic partner” to help operate ESPN as Disney continues to pursue various options centered around the future of its traditional and new media businesses.

“Our position in sports is very unique, and we want to stay in that business,” Iger said during the interview. “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.”

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is the publisher of The Desk and reports on the business and policy matters involving the broadcast television, streaming video and radio industries. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, Disney-ABC, Tribune Broadcasting and McNaughton Newspapers. Matthew is based in Northern California, has won numerous awards in the field of journalism, and is a member of IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors).