Jimmy Pitaro on ESPN’s Recent String of Rights Deals, the Rise of DTC, and Disney’s Commitment to Sports

ESPN chairman provides update on latest news, rumors, and rights agreements

Since being named president of ESPN in March 2018, Jimmy Pitaro has overseen a tectonic shift in the way ESPN reaches the fan, along with a bevy of new media-rights deals worth billions. Now chairman of ESPN and sports content at Walt Disney Co., he is tasked with maintaining the revenue generated by the traditional cable model for ESPN while also preparing for a direct-to-consumer future with ESPN+.

At SportsBusiness Journal’s World Congress of Sports last week, Pitaro addressed a variety of topics: notably, ESPN’s latest NHL-rights deal, the new Monday Night Football Wild Card Game, upcoming rights opportunities for the Premier League and Big Ten, the rise of the direct-to-consumer model, the future of regional sports, Disney’s rumored spinoff of ESPN, and how ESPN will factor into the growing sports-betting landscape.

On how ESPN’s NHL deal came about:
My direct reports and I got together and looked at the five-year plan and what rights were coming up. We put them up on a whiteboard, and, across the board, every one of my direct reports and I felt like the NHL was a priority and that we wanted to be creative here to bring those rights either whole or in part back to ESPN and the Walt Disney Co. Fast forward to today, and, if you look at the scope of that deal … we have rights for ESPN, for ABC, for ESPN+, and for Hulu. I give the commissioner and his team a ton of credit for seeing our vision and taking a chance with us. We have 75 exclusive national games for direct-to-consumer platforms, 100+ exclusive national regular-season games — 25 of those will be linear television on ESPN and ABC, 75 of them will be direct to consumer. That’s a pretty progressive deal, and I give the league a ton of credit for aligning with us on that.

On ESPN’s interest in the upcoming NFL Sunday Ticket rights package:
I’m a New York Giants fan, and I lived in Los Angeles for 18 years, so I see the value of that out-of-market package. I also see the value of it when I look through the direct-to-consumer lens. I think it would be great. I also understand that it’s incredibly valuable to the league and there are many enterprises that are interested in it. We are certainly one of them.

On the value of ESPN’s rights to the new Monday-night NFL Wild Card Game:
It boils down to the clarity: knowing that we have that specific window locked in … gives us the ability to promote it well in advance, market it, get behind it, have our studio shows rally around it. It’s also a primetime game, and we think it’s going to do huge ratings. We were pretty clear with the league that this was important to us. Partnership with the league is on solid footing right now, and we expect that to continue to grow well.

On ESPN’s interest in the upcoming Premier League media-rights package:
We are heavily invested in the game of soccer. We have a great partnership with MLS; we closed the deal recently with La Liga; we have rights to Bundesliga. We had a great year this year [with] fantastic off-the-charts ratings. We love the game of soccer. We love it on linear but probably love it even more for direct-to-consumer. Absolutely, we are interested in more soccer content, and we are looking at it right now.

On ESPN’s recent 10-year SEC media-rights deal and how it impacts ESPN+:
We couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve recently secured with the SEC. That deal kicks off in 2024, but a lot of people have not focused on one aspect of that deal: the ESPN+ direct-to-consumer component actually started this season. So the rights acquisition that we recently closed … kicks off in 2024, However, as a part of that negotiation, we worked very closely with SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, and we’re able to secure direct-to-consumer ESPN+ rights for out-of-conference games starting with this season. It’s going really well for us on ESPN+; it’s definitely a needle-mover for us.

On ESPN’s recent string of major media-rights deals:
We have an annual operating plan; we have a five-year plan. And so we get together, and we create a budget for rights. Four years ago, we got together as a leadership team, and part of it was “here’s what’s coming,” and part of it was “what is our budget and where does it make sense for us to [invest]?” This string of seven deals didn’t happen by accident. While it may appear that it was somewhat reactive, it was not. We were incredibly proactive. We knew what we wanted and what we were going after. At the same time, we also knew what our budget was and what we could and could not spend on these deals.

On ESPN’s commitment to Major League Baseball:
We are completely committed to the game of baseball. [MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred] and I spoke about this several times. I was clear with him that our focus is on the national games, exclusivity, and big, impactful experiences, including the Home Run Derby. I was clear with Rob that we were interested in more postseason. If and when they come to an agreement with their players on the expanded Wild Card, we’ve secured rights to that Wild Card series. We are completely committed to baseball as we have been for decades.

On how ESPN can serve both the traditional cable model and the growing direct-to-consumer model:
We’re running parallel paths here. We’re invested in the television business, which, by the way, has been really good to us and continues to be good to us to this day. It generates a ton of cash flow. It also gives us the ability to provide the reach that our leagues are looking for. It also gives us the ability to serve customers that are still in the cable and satellite bundle. Traditional television still serves a very big purpose at the Walt Disney Co. In parallel, we take a lot of pride in what we’ve done with ESPN+ …

But I want to be clear … these two paths are working for us. We can be many things at the same time. We’re very comfortable with this idea of serving the sports fan anytime, anywhere. That’s linear television, and that’s direct-to-consumer. But, as the consumer moves from traditional television to a digital property, we will be there. And we are following the consumer. We have a world-class research team, and I’m getting regular updates from them, and we’re very in tune with what’s happening out there.

On cord-cutting and the future of the cable model:
We’re still at a level where it makes sense for us to remain invested [in the cable model]; a ton of cash flow is being generated, and that cash flow is enabling us to make these investments and do these deals that we’ve done recently. But we’re paying attention and following the fan. More and more content is moving over into the direct-to-consumer [space]. Each of [our recent] deals gives us flexibility. We have some games that are exclusive, like NHL and the NFL Sunday-morning game that will be exclusive to ESPN+. We have the ability to simulcast; we have the ability to do alternative broadcast like the Mannings [on MNF]. We have the flexibility that we need as we move forward here.

On ESPN’s interest in local sports rights:
I get the challenges and the headwinds that [regional sports networks] are facing right now. I will tell you that we see a ton of value in local sports content. We are already invested to a certain extent in terms of out-of-market. We’re also interested in in-market rights. We did an experiment with the Chicago Fire a few years ago and learned a lot from that. But, as I sit here, we see opportunity for us to expand our investment in local sports, especially on a direct-to-consumer platform.

On Disney’s commitment to ESPN and whether it could potentially spin the company off in the future:
I think if [Disney CEO] Bob Chapek was sitting here right now, he would say he’s completely committed to sports. He sees the value of live sports. Each of the deals that we’ve closed recently, we’ve received nothing but support from the Walt Disney Co. and from Bob specifically.

As the Walt Disney Co. talks about its future, the first thing you hear is that direct-to-consumer is the top priority. Look at what ESPN has done in terms of direct-to-consumer. We’ve delivered here; we’ve launched a product that is exceeding expectations. And so, when you combine the fact that we’re succeeding in the direct-to-consumer space and that is such a big priority for the Walt Disney Co., along with the fact that live-sports rights are so important in the media industry, I believe that the Walt Disney Co. is completely committed to ESPN for the future.

On ESPN’s future plans around sports betting:
I will tell you that sports betting is a growth opportunity for us, hard stop. I would also say we’ve been invested in this space for quite some time. There’s some narrative out there that, because ESPN is owned by the Walt Disney Co., we’ve shied away. It’s actually not true. You look at our content podcasts, original series, Daily Wager. We have an ESPN-branded studio in Las Vegas where we shoot Daily Wager. We’ve closed significant deals recently linking our digital pages to places where our customers can place bets. We are actively looking at how to continue our investment in this space. We see it as an opportunity to expand our audience.

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