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Disney Leans Hard Into ESPN – And Sports – At Upfront

Pat McAfee at Disney Upfront
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NEW YORK–For an organization that considered selling ESPN, the Walt Disney Co. sure leaned into sports during its upfront presentation here Tuesday.

Disney trotted out a succession of A-List athletes and ESPN personalities to tout the symbiotic relationship between Mouse House and the Worldwide Leader in Sports. 

Virtually the first hour of the two-hour presentation for national advertisers was devoted to sports and ESPN. It was a smart move by Disney. The writer’s strike in Hollywood is limiting opportunities for entertainment giants to tout their new dramas, sitcoms, and reality shows.

  • Pat McAfee appeared on stage to tout his eponymous YouTube Show, moving to ESPN this fall. The former Indianapolis Colts punter delivered a few off-color jokes. But he seemed jazzed to be hitching his wagon to ESPN’s weekday daytime programming block, where his show will follow Mike Greenberg’s “Get Up” and Stephen A. Smith’s “First Take” this fall. Other ESPN talents who appeared included Elle Duncan, Hannah Storm, Laura Rutledge, Dan Orlovsky, and Desmond Howard.
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  • Serena Williams took the stage to announce her upcoming documentary series, “In the Arena: Serena Williams.” The series will be directed by Gotham Chopra and co-produced by ESPN and Tom Brady’s 199 Productions,  Religion of Sports, and Williams’ Nine Two Six Productions.
  • ESPN’s MNF announce team of Troy Aikman and Joe Buck saluted Damar Hamlin, the Buffalo Bills safety who suffered a cardiac arrest on the field. Aikman also noted ESPN landed the NFL game every network wanted in Week 1 of the 2023 season: Aaron Rodgers’ regular season debut with the New York Jets against the Buffalo Bills on Sep. 11.
  • Peyton Manning was also on hand to promote another season of  “ManningCast,” an alternate presentation of MNF with brother Eli Manning. McAfee frequently appears with his old Colts QB.

Even when Disney was touting its vast portfolio of entertaining shows and movies, the presentation had a sports feel to it.

Jesse Palmer, the former New York Giants quarterback, pushed the sagging “Bachelor” franchise on ABC.

Ex-Giants superstar Michael Strahan of ABC’s “Good Morning America” touted the network’s news offerings. It was the second upfront in as many days for Strahan, who also appeared at Fox’s upfront on Monday.

Returning Disney chief executive Bob Iger rejected calls from activist investors to spin off ESPN. Instead, he recently made ESPN one of three pillars of the Mouse House along with Disney Parks and Disney Entertainment.

Tweeted CNBC’s Alex Sherman: “All sports at the Disney upfront so far. They’re leaning on ESPN like it’s 2012!”

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