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ESPN: NBA Finals are a “must have” and CFP rights sharing is a possibility

President of content Burke Magnus discusses rights strategy ahead of full DTC launch.

18 August 2023 Steve McCaskill
Nikola Jokic NBA Denver Nuggets

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  • ESPN could be rolled into ESPN+ as early as 2025
  • NBA and CFP contracts are up for renewal
  • Pac-12 turned down US$30m a year per-school deal

ESPN’s president of content Burke Magnus considers the National Basketball Association (NBA) finals to be a “must have” for the sports broadcaster, telling The Athletic the Disney-owned broadcaster is also open to sharing the rights to the College Football Playoff (CFP) and would consider a potential deal with WWE.

The NBA and CFP are two of ESPN’s most important properties, but both contracts are up for renewal in the next two years.

However the self-proclaimed ‘worldwide leader in sports’ is expected to face significant competition, and more expensive bills, if it wants to hang on to both. The NBA in particular is seeking a significant increase on the value of its rights deals and is preparing a package to attract interest from streaming services.

In a wide-ranging interview, Magnus said ESPN was prepared to be aggressive and was adamant that any future deal would ensure it retained the finals for Disney’s broadcast network ABC.

“We want very much to keep [the NBA],” he said. “As always with an incumbent property, I’m sure there’s little things, pieces of it, that could be changed or altered throughout the process. But we hope to come out of it with a package that looks pretty similar to what we have now. We hope that’s a relationship that goes on for many, many years.”

College football is a mainstay of ESPN’s schedule, however new television deals, significant conference realignment, and an uncertain future for the Pac-12 will all shake up how the broadcaster covers the sport in the near future.

Magnus expressed surprise at USC and UCLA’s decision to leave the Pac-12 for the Big Ten, a move which had a domino effect on the rest of the college football landscape, and confirmed that the Pac-12 turned down a deal from ESPN that would have seen each school receive US$30 million a year.

He also lamented the loss of the Big Ten, which will be broadcast by CBS, Fox, and NBC from next season, but reiterated that this would have no impact on which locations that College Gameday chooses to broadcast from.

Despite the loss of the Big Ten, he said ESPN was happy with its college football portfolio. From 2024 it becomes the exclusive broadcaster of the South Eastern Conference (SEC), which Magnus described as “the best college football conference by far”,  while it also has the rights to the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and Big 12.

The CFP has become an important part of this offering since it was first staged 2014 and is set to expand to 12 teams in 2026. Magnus reiterated that ESPN would be open to sharing the rights but not with more than one other broadcast partner.

“We intend to pursue [the CFP] aggressively,” he said. “I think it’s certainly possible it could be one [broadcaster]. It’s only going from seven games to 11 games in total. That’s not that big to begin with. If it were to be shared, I personally feel like it couldn’t or maybe rather shouldn’t be shared beyond two.”

Magnus also discussed women’s college sports and the Fifa World Cup rights, as well as broadcast talent, recent layoffs and the betting partnership with Penn Entertainment. In an extended version of the interview on the Sports Media podcast, he also said ESPN would theoretically be interested in WWE – albeit for streaming rights to premium events and original content rather than the promotion’s weekly Raw and Smackdown shows.

“There’s no hesitation anymore from a brand perspective or from a live event versus scripted,” he explained. “[WWE] fans and our viewers, there’s tremendous overlap, so, to me, it’s just about the business of it and is there something that works.”

SportsPro says…

ESPN is at a crucial juncture. In the next few years it must successfully transition from a linear broadcasting giant to a fully-fledged direct-to-consumer (DTC) platform provider by integrating its flagship network into ESPN+.

This challenging task is compounded by the rising cost of sports rights and intense competition at a time when some of its most important contracts are to be renegotiated. The company has already implemented cost-cutting measures to ensure it is in a position to retain the NBA, CFP and other flagship properties.

However, ESPN will also be looking at other rights and content to justify the cost of its all-in-one ESPN+. The company has reportedly held talks with major leagues about integrating their DTC offerings or becoming a platform for local broadcasts.

WWE would be an interesting move. Peacock’s absorption of WWE Network has been a huge success, bringing a huge amount of content to the streaming platform and attracting a highly engaged fanbase. With NBC’s US$1 billion deal expiring in 2026, ESPN might hope for a similar outcome.

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