The Walt Disney Co. has become ESPN’s secret weapon.
Backed by its parent company, ESPN has emerged as the biggest winner from the NFL’s new $113 billion, 11-year media rights deals.
Since its founding in 1979, ESPN has dreamed of landing the Super Bowl.
Under its new 10-year agreement from 2023 to 2032, the network will retain “Monday Night Football.” But it will also produce its first two Super Bowl telecasts that will air on sister network ABC after the 2026 and 2030 seasons.
With distribution in over 100 million U.S. homes, ABC’s reach enables ESPN to sidestep the loss of millions of U.S. homes from cord-cutting and cord-shaving.
That’s why ESPN has been televising or simulcasting more sports content on ABC, including the NFL, NBA, college sports and European soccer.
ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro emphasized the contract is the latest example of the growing alliance between the $65 billion Disney and the NFL.
“The league has been clear that a priority of theirs is, of course, reach, and through the breadth of our programming and platforms we offer at the Walt Disney Company, we will certainly deliver,” Pitaro said.
Landing Super Bowls is the biggest headline for ESPN. But it also scored flexible scheduling for “Monday Night Football.”
Under the new deal, ESPN will collaborate with the NFL to flex in better MNF matchups during Weeks 12-17. The lack of flex scheduling has doomed many MNF games between losing teams to poor ratings.
Previously, only NBC boasted flex scheduling for “Sunday Night Football.” The flex was a “critical component” to renewing MNF, said Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming and original content: “Obviously from time to time there’s been games that haven’t had the stakes that you would want in order to drive audience.”
All told, ESPN/ABC will expand their regular season MNF coverage to 23 games from 17.
Pitaro noted ESPN could also “MegaCast” the Super Bowl with multiple presentations the way it did for its Wild Card telecast this season — and the way it does annually for the College Football Playoff National Championship.
On the digital front, Chris Berman and Booger McFarland’s “NFL PrimeTime” will return to ESPN+. The iconic highlights show has become the most-watched, non-game content on the streaming platform. The deal also allows Disney to simulcast all ESPN/ABC games on ESPN+.
“At the heart of it, too, is an expansion on the digital,” noted Hans Schroeder, the NFL’s executive vice president and chief operating officer. “I’m not sure there’s anybody in the media landscape in this country today that is growing, innovating and evolving their approach and their business in the way that Disney is.”
While staggering, the numbers look better for Disney from a financial standpoint too. ESPN will still pay the most annually of any NFL TV partner: $2.7 billion.
But the 35% increase from its previous $2 billion annual deal is significantly lower than the 100%-plus increase NBC is paying to retain “Sunday Night Football.” Or the roughly 100% increases being paid by CBS and Fox to keep their Sunday afternoon AFC/NFC packages.
ESPN will also continue to televise the NFL Draft (fending off a challenge by Fox) and the Pro Bowl, and it gets comprehensive NFL highlight rights. Burke called these highlights the “oxygen” that fuels ESPN’s NFL pre and post-game programming as well as studio shows like “NFL Live.”
Pitaro added ESPN’s also had “exploratory conversations” about acquiring the “Sunday Ticket” package of out-of-market games long associated with DirecTV. Under the new contracts, all of the NFL TV partners gain digital rights for their streaming services, including ESPN (ESPN+), CBS (Paramount+), NBC (Peacock), Fox (Tubi) and Amazon Prime Video (15 “Thursday Night Football” games).
When ESPN founder Bill Rasmussen asked the late NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle about a Super Bowl back in 1979, Rozelle told him, “Not today, Bill, but someday.”
Over four decades later, Rasmussen celebrated on Twitter: “Someday has arrived – the Super Bowl on ESPN!!!! Outstanding!”