Tuesday October 3, 2023

Who Could Buy A Piece of ESPN? Here Are Seven Candidates

  • Could Amazon simply buy ESPN – and inherit its sports rights?
  • ESPN investment makes sense for sports betting giants and Fanatics.
Bob Iger of Disney
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Disney chief executive officer Bob Iger shook up Wall Street Thursday when he told CNBC he’s open to finding a strategic partner for ESPN.

Who could that be? Let’s start with sports betting operators.

Both Disney and ESPN executives have danced around entering the lucrative sports betting game – as long as the family-friendly Mouse House keeps its hands clean.

Disney Advertising Sales does business with numerous betting operators, including DraftKings, FanDuel, Caesars Sportsbook, BetMGM, NJ Lottery and Tipico.

The U.S. sports industry is also awash in petro-dollars from foreign countries looking for sportswashing investments.  

I spoke to some sports media advisors about strategic partners that could buy a stake in ESPN or forge a joint venture. 

The first place to look, they said, is sports betting platforms trying to morph into media companies. 

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“I would say sports books, for sure. But I would also say another candidate would be Fanatics,” said T.K. Gore, the former media advisor turned head of business development for Kiswe. “If you look at (Fanatics’) database, how valuable is that? They know every purchase I’ve made. There would be integration opportunities with the transactional side of it: betting, eCommerce, digital. They could do a lot of creative things.”

Iger cut his teeth as a young executive for the legendary Roone Arledge at ABC Sports, whose motto was “Innovate or Die.”

The 72-old chief executive officer still loves sports. He’s turned down requests from activist investors to spin off ESPN. Instead, he’s made it one of three corporate pillars of a reorganized Disney. 

“ESPN is a differentiator for this company,” he told analysts. “We just have to figure out how to monetize it.”

Armed with a contract extension through 2026, Iger told CNBC he’s open to a strategic partner for ESPN, which could take the form of a joint venture or equity stake. He’s focused on streaming, as Disney faces the “inevitability” of offering ESPN direct to consumers.

Here are seven possible candidates:

  • DraftKings: The sports betting giant and Caesars Entertainment signed co-exclusive deals to serve as ESPN’s designated daily fantasy and sportsbook providers back in September, 2020. DraftKings also has a deal with Meadowlark Media, the content startup launched by former ESPN president John Skipper and on-air personality Dan Le Batard. Could Skipper and Le Batard triumphantly return to ESPN’s Bristol campus?
  • FanDuel: The other sports betting power player has money to burn and is willing to spend it. They proved it by handing Pat McAfee the richest contract in sports media: $120 million for four years. Now that McAfee is taking his eponymous show to ESPN for $18 million a year, FanDuel could finally turn the network’s sports betting ambitions into a reality.
  • Fanatics: Michael Rubin’s privately held company seems to be everywhere in sports these days, launching a live events division and paying $225 million to acquire PointBet’s U.S. operations. No sports billionaire has better contacts than Rubin. Just witness his recent 4th of July party in the Hamptons that attracted the likes of NBA MVP Joel Embiid, Tom Brady, James Harden, Joe Burrow, and Odell Beckham Jr.
  • Amazon: The tech giants like Amazon, Apple, and Google/YouTube have finally leaped into live sports via rights deals with leagues such as the NFL, NBA, and MLS. With their trillion-dollar valuations, streamers like Amazon and Apple could simply buy ESPN – and take over its constellation of live sports rights, from the NFL and NBA to MLB and college football. “Why should Amazon bid for (sports) rights when it can just buy them,” asked one source.
  • Comcast: The personal and business rivalry between Comcast boss Brian Roberts and Disney’s Iger dates back decades. But Roberts has always wanted ESPN. He could finally get his wish by swapping Comcast’s 33% stake in Hulu for Disney’s 80% stake in ESPN. Don’t forget Comcast launched a $54 billion hostile takeover attempt against the Mouse House in 2004. The opportunistic Roberts could see this as a way to take back the NBA from Disney, which NBC Sports aired from 1990 to 2002.
  • Saudi Arabia: The Saudis shook up the hidebound golf industry by bankrolling Greg Norman’s rebel LIV Golf against the PGA Tour. The oil-rich nation is poised to launch a new investment fund focused entirely on athletic entities. If entities like the Qatar Investment Authority are willing to purchase minority stakes in companies such as Monumental Sports, why not ESPN?
  • Omaha Productions: Peyton Manning’s fast-rising production company is already in bed business-wise with ESPN. It produces everything from the award-winning “Monday Night Football with Peyton and Eli” to Pat McAfee’s alternative college football telecasts.

ESPN has long served as a cash cow for parent Disney. As part of the Disney reorg, ESPN is expected to release its own financial results starting this fall. Hearst has held a 20% stake in the company since 1990.

ESPN declined to comment on Iger’s remarks to CNBC. 

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