ESPN is putting Disney's massive distribution machine to work to help land top-tier sports rights.
The sports network's president Jimmy Pitaro said the network is leveraging its cable channels, as well as its streaming service, ESPN Plus; Disney's broadcast network ABC; and Disney parks, in negotiations with leagues like the NFL and NBA.
"When we sit down with the NFL, yes, we bring a cable channel, but we also bring a broadcast channel," Pitaro said in a conversation with sports anchor Hannah Storm at the Paley Center for Media on Thursday. "How many of our competitors can bring the theme parks to the table?" (Comcast's NBCUniversal also operates theme parks.)
Pitaro pointed to the NBA Experience that opened in August at Disney Springs, in Walt Disney World, as an example of how Disney could work with other leagues in its parks. The experience includes an arcade, a court that simulates the experience of playing in a professional game, and other activities.
The competition for sports rights is heating up now that cash-rich tech giants like Amazon have taken an interest.
The competition for sports rights is nearly as fierce as the match-ups on screen now that cash-rich tech giants like Amazon and YouTube are vying against the media behemoths that traditionally broadcasted the major sports leagues.
E-commerce leader Amazon, for example, snapped up the rights to stream Thursday Night Football, in one of the NFL's biggest digital rights deals. Reuters reported that Amazon beat out Twitter and YouTube for the rights.
ESPN already has deals with many of the major sports leagues, from the NFL to the PGA Tour. Its current deal with the NFL includes Monday night games and the contract runs through 2021. The network will likely look to renew.
It may even try to carve out a piece for its subscription-video platform, ESPN Plus. Pitaro did not discuss bringing the NFL to ESPN Plus at the Paley Center event, but said the company is trying to weave the streaming service into every new deal it negotiates.
ESPN is also leveraging Disney's broadcast network and streaming services.
Pitaro argued that Disney's scale, legacy relationships with the sports leagues, and production value, would also give it a leg up over newer players that are vying for rights. ESPN's core cable channel reaches 86 million subscribers. ESPN Plus has 2.4 million subscribers. Then, there's broadcast behemoth, ABC.
Disney leveraged ABC in its deal in the NFL draft this year. "The NFL said to us, what's most important to us is expanding our audience," Pitaro said. So, Disney aired two broadcasts: one on ESPN and one on ABC. The ESPN broadcast analyzed the player moves, and ABC went for viewers' heartstrings, interviewing parents of the players and uncovering their backstories.
In the end, Pitaro thinks the negotiations with the leagues will come down to "the power of the Walt Disney Company." He said streaming competitors, meanwhile, still need to prove to leagues that their platforms are reliable and can scale.
"In aggregate, I very much like our hand," Pitaro said.