Disney, NFL and ESPN Reach Long-Term Agreement

The Walt Disney Company, ESPN and the National Football League have reached a long-term agreement that will result in ABC/ESPN joining the Super Bowl rotation, having additional playoff action, exclusive national ESPN+ matchups over the course of the agreement, and more regular-season contests including “Monday Night Football.”

The deal will also result in enhanced game quality and new schedule flexibility, according to a Disney press release.

The 10-year agreement begins with the 2023 season.

“This landmark agreement guarantees that ESPN’s passionate fan base will continue to have access to the best the NFL has to offer,” Disney CEO Bob Chapek said in a statement. “Bringing all the considerable and unique capabilities of The Walt Disney Company and ESPN to the table opens up so many opportunities across our industry-leading direct-to-consumer, broadcast, cable, linear, social and digital outlets. Special thanks to Roger Goodell and the NFL owners for continuing to embrace new ways to appeal to their fans, especially through increasingly important platforms like ESPN+.”

“When ESPN and the NFL work best together, the results are transformational for sports fans and the industry,” Jimmy Pitaro, chairman, ESPN and sports content, said in a statement. “Some of the most remarkable collaborative examples have occurred in the past 12 months and have demonstrated the extraordinary range of The Walt Disney Company that is fundamental to this agreement. There are so many exciting new components, including Super Bowls and added playoff games, new end-of-season games with playoff implications, exclusive streaming games on ESPN+, scheduling flexibility and enhancements, and much more. It’s a wide-ranging agreement unlike any we’ve reached with the NFL, and we couldn’t be more energized about what the future holds.”

“We are thrilled to extend and expand our partnership with Disney far into the future, as ESPN will continue to host cable’s most-watched series, ‘Monday Night Football,’ and ABC is returning as a Super Bowl broadcaster,” said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. “We look forward to working with Disney as they use new platforms, including ESPN+, in innovative ways to reach even more NFL fans.”

ABC/ESPN will carry two Super Bowls (2026, 2030 seasons) as part of a rotation between the NFL’s media partners, marking the first time that an ESPN-NFL agreement includes such Super Bowl rights, according to the press release. ABC last televised the Super Bowl in February 2006 (2005 NFL season). Also, ESPN will present more playoff action, adding an annual divisional round game to its schedule, which will continue to include a wild-card matchup.

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ESPN’s increased regular-season package will include one annual exclusive national game on ESPN+. The game will take place internationally and will be aired live in the Sunday morning Eastern time zone window. Additionally, this agreement allows ESPN the opportunity to simulcast all ESPN/ABC game telecasts on ESPN+.

Also included is rights for the return of ESPN+ highlights show “NFL PrimeTime” each week on the streaming platform.

ESPN will increase its regular-season schedule by 35% — six more games per year (from 17 to 23). It will include an ESPN game on Monday nights (including three weeks with a separate game on ABC), a Saturday doubleheader the season’s final week and the Sunday morning game on ESPN+.

The added two Saturday games will take place during the final week of the regular season and will showcase matchups with playoff implications. Both of those games will be simulcast on ABC and ESPN.

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The agreement includes new elements that will enhance the caliber of the “Monday Night Football” slate, according to the press release. First, the schedule will be more flexible than in years past with the ability for the NFL to swap “a more meaningful” game into the “Monday Night Football” slot with 12 days’ notice from Week 12 on, according to the press release. Additionally, top teams will appear more often, as a result of the agreement which provides ESPN the ability to showcase any four teams at least twice, “leading to even more compelling games,” according to Disney.

With comprehensive NFL highlights rights, ESPN will continue to offer and/or develop NFL-branded programming, pre- and post-game shows, news, analysis and highlights studio shows, storytelling vehicles, digital and social content and more. The deal also includes data rights (e.g. – NFL’s Next Gen stats), according to Disney.

In addition, ESPN has once again secured rights to the annual Pro Bowl. Other key elements include opportunities for alternate telecasts, extending and expanding ESPN’s international rights (including areas in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, Oceania, India), ESPN Deportes and more.

ESPN has also obtained rights to NFL Drafts, an event that has been an ESPN fixture since 1980, as part of the agreement.

The 2021 season will be the last in ESPN’s current arrangement with the NFL. ESPN and the NFL have reached a bridge agreement for 2022 — the year between when the previous agreement expires and the new 10-year extension begins. For both the 2021 and 2022 seasons, all the foundational components from the agreement expiring in 2021 will be included (e.g. – weekly “Monday Night Football” games), in addition to select elements from the new 10-year agreement. For example, in 2021, ESPN will be adding the two Saturday games with playoff implications on the last weekend of the regular season. For the 2022 bridge year, ESPN will showcase the two Saturday games with playoff implications on the last weekend of the season, a Sunday morning ESPN+ game and one ABC “Monday Night Football” broadcast on a week there is also an ESPN Monday Night Football telecast.

‘Mighty Ducks’ Movie Trilogy Streaming on Hulu and ESPN+ Ahead of Disney+ ‘Mighty Ducks’ Series Debut

For a limited time through May 28, the “Mighty Ducks” movie trilogy is streaming on Hulu and ESPN+ ahead of the debut of a new “Mighty Ducks” series on Disney+.

Hulu and ESPN+ subscribers can watch the original three films and upgrade to the Disney bundle — which gives subscribers access to Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+ — to stream new original series “The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers,” premiering March 26 on Disney+. This marks the first time movies have been programmed across the Disney bundle to support an original series premiere on one of the three streaming services.

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In the 10-episode “The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers,” set in present-day Minnesota, the Mighty Ducks have evolved from scrappy underdogs to an ultra-competitive, powerhouse youth hockey team. After 12-year-old Evan Morrow (Brady Noon) is unceremoniously cut from the Ducks, he and his mom, Alex (Lauren Graham), set out to build their own team of misfits to challenge the cutthroat, win-at-all-costs culture of youth sports today. With the help of original Ducks coach Gordon Bombay (Emilio Estevez), they rediscover the joys of playing just for love of the game.

The series features up-and-coming young actors, including Brady Noon, Maxwell Simkins, Swayam Bhatia, Luke Islam, Kiefer O’Reilly, Taegen Burns, Bella Higginbotham and D.J. Watts.

Steve Brill, the original creator, writer and executive producer of all three films, is back as co-creator and executive producer of the new series.

Disney’s ESPN+ (and Hulu) Streaming Big on NHL Hockey

Disney-owned ESPN and the National Hockey League March 10 announced an expansive seven-year deal, returning the professional sport to ESPN (and other Disney platforms) for the first time since 2004. Included will be 25 regular-season (2021-22) games on ESPN or ABC TV, early-round playoff series and one conference final each year, four Stanley Cup Final series on ABC and more than 1,000 games per season streaming on ESPN+.

ESPN+, with 12 million subscribers, and Hulu (39.4 million) will be home to 75 ESPN-produced exclusive telecasts per season. NHL.tv, the league’s branded SVOD service, will join the ESPN+ platform.

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The deal also includes opening-night games, the NHL All-Star Game and Skills Challenge and other special events. The NHL’s out-of-market streaming package (NHL.TV) is also moving to ESPN+ as part of its subscription offerings. International rights in Latin America, the Caribbean and parts of Europe are also part of the deal, as are extensive highlight rights for ESPN’s digital platforms.

The NHL has aired on NBC and its cable properties for the past 16+ years.

“This agreement clearly underscores The Walt Disney Company’s leadership in the sports media landscape and serves as a blueprint for sports deals in the future,” Jimmy Pitaro, chairman of ESPN and sports content for Disney, said in a statement. “We know the power of the NHL and are thrilled to welcome it back as a significant new pillar across our platforms, and we look forward to connecting more deeply and directly with some of the sports world’s most passionate fans.”

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the “incomparable power, reach and influence of The Walt Disney Company and ABC/ESPN” would set a new distribution standard for hockey and its most passionate and tech-savvy fans.

The first NHL game on ESPN aired on Dec. 19, 1979 — a little more than three months after the network premiered. ESPN continued to produce NHL content for the next nine years. After a break, the network became the home for the NHL from 1992 to 2004.

 

Free Ad-Supported ‘Disney+Star’ Set to Launch Feb. 23 — Outside the U.S.

Disney’s over-the-top video ecosystem is about to get larger with the scheduled Feb. 23 launch of Star within the Disney+ platform. The free AVOD tier will offer thousands of hours of movies and television programming from the company’s multiple studios, including content from the 21st Century Fox acquisition, i.e. FX, Searchlight, and 20th Century Studios, along with Star-branded exclusive originals and local programming, tailored to specific markets.

Star Plus is bowing in Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, with an additional rollout slated for Latin America in June.

Disney acquired the India-based Star brand through the Fox deal, which includes existing streaming service Hotstar. The latter includes exclusive access to Indian Premier League professional cricket, a national pastime. Hotstar is responsible for 30% of Disney+’s 94.9 million global subscribers.

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Disney+ features exclusive and catalog content from Disney, Marvel (“WandaVision”), Pixar (Soul), Star Wars (“The Mandalorian” and upcoming “The Book of Boba Fett”  and “Andor” series) and National Geographic.

“Star will be integrated into Disney+, as a distinct sixth brand tile,” CEO Bob Chapek said on the Feb. 11 fiscal webcast. “And will offer easy to use parental controls to manage access to the content.”

The platform looks to expand Disney’s OTT base of 146 million subs, which includes Disney Plus, Hulu, Hulu with Live TV and ESPN+.

“We’re less than two weeks away from launch and we’re seeing tremendous excitement amongst consumers,”Chapek said.

Disney+ Streaming Service Ends Q1 With 94.9 Million Subs

Walt Disney’s branded subscription streaming video service Disney+ continues to impress, ending the first quarter (ended Jan. 2) with 94.9 million global subscribers. The service ended the previous-year period with 26.5 million subscribers. In a continuing trend, 30% of Disney+ subs come from India via Disney+ Hotstar (and IPL cricket league), with further growth from operations in Latin America.

Hulu finished the quarter with 35.4 million subs, compared with 27.2 million subs at the end of 2019. Online TV platform, Hulu+Live TV, ended the quarter with 4 million subs, compared to 3.2 million in the previous-year period. The increase in Disney+ subs and costs reflected the ongoing expansion of the service, including launching in additional markets.

Overall, Disney now has 146 million paid over-the-top video subscribers to its services, when including ESPN+, which ended the quarter with 12.1 million subs, compared to 6.6 million in the previous-year period.

In studio results, a lack of content in the both the theatrical and retail pipeline negatively affected revenue. In home entertainment, the decrease in results was due to lower unit sales, partially offset by lower marketing costs. The prior-year quarter reflected the performance of Toy Story 4, The Lion King and Aladdin compared to no significant titles in the current quarter.

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Theatrical distribution was lower as there were no significant worldwide theatrical releases in the current quarter compared to Frozen II, which was released in the prior-year quarter. The current quarter was negatively impacted by COVID-19 as many theaters globally were either closed or operating at reduced capacity.

Regardless, CEO Bob Chapek said direct-to-consumer would continue to drive Disney during the pandemic and beyond.

“We believe the strategic actions we’re taking to transform our company will fuel our growth and enhance shareholder value, as demonstrated by the incredible strides we’ve made in our direct-to-consumer business,” Chapek said in a statement. “We’re confident that, with our robust pipeline of exceptional, high-quality content and the upcoming launch of our new Star-branded international general entertainment offering, we are well-positioned to achieve even greater success going forward.”

Streaming Media’s Growing Interest in Legalized Gambling

Live sports and gambling have a long co-dependent relationship, which has been expanding beyond casinos to over-the-top video — especially during a pandemic. But the wheels in motion began years before the coronavirus kept gamblers away from Las Vegas and Atlantic City, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 striking down a federal anti-sports gambling law.

Fox Sports became the first major media company in the U.S. to acquire a stake in sports gambling after paying $236 million for a 5% ownership of The Stars Group.

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“Digital sports wagering represents a growing market opportunity that allows us to diversify our revenue streams, connect directly with consumers and expand the reach of the Fox Sports brand,” said Eric Shanks, CEO of Fox Sports.

Fox Bet Super 6 just added nearly 3 million players during the just-ended NFL season, bringing its user base to more than 4.3 million players. It claims to be the biggest free-to-play online game of its kind in the country. The platform also seeks to entice non-sports fans with wagers on the recent Georgia U.S. Senate runoffs, the stock market and a weekly quiz.

Speaking on the Feb. 9 fiscal call, Fox Corp. CEO Lachlan Murdoch said Fox Bet aims to be more than an online gambling site. The platform is rolling out in states that have legalized wagering, including most recently Michigan on Jan. 26. Fox also owns a 18.5% stake in FanDuel, the daily fantasy and online sports book.

“A key differentiator for Fox Bet has been across promotional power of all of Fox’s assets to ignite the Fox Bet brand,” Murdoch said. The executive said sports gambling factors into ongoing distribution negotiations for NFL games.

“The NFL is very aware of the importance of sports wagering, I’m sure to us, I’m sure to sort of others as well,” Murdoch said.

FanDuel in 2019 inked a deal with fubo TV, making it the exclusive sports book, online casino, horse racing and DFS (distributed file system) partner of the TV streaming service. The agreement was FanDuel Group’s first partnership with an online TV service aimed at expanding fubo TV’s sports offering for consumers while integrating betting data on the platform.

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“We are always looking for ways to add value for consumers and enhance their premium experience with fuboTV,” said Min Kim, VP of business development at Fubo. “Gaming and sports are natural complements.”

Adam Kaplan, VP of content business & operations at FanDuel, said the company’s data analytics will change how people watch live sports on TV and the Internet.

“We can enhance the live-viewing experience by allowing cord-cutting sports fans to view the content that matters to them the most from their TV, phone, tablet or computer,” Kaplan said.

But FanDuel’s relationship with fubo TV could change as the latter branches out into its own sports gambling. The 6-year-old service last year acquired Balto Sports, a backend developer of fantasy sports gaming software. Last month, fubo TV expanded to live sports by acquiring Vigtory, an interactive sports gaming company.

The valuations around sports betting operators are so huge, why not take a punt on being one?” said Andy Clerkson, an advisor for Fox Bet and partner at Red Knot Communications, a gambling PR firm. “You could be a super-affiliate worth hundreds of millions. Or you could try and be an operator worth billions.”

The Motley Fool’s Rick Munarriz contends fubo TV can open the “spigot of sports gambling” without raising eyebrows the way  Google or Disney might with regulators.

“Fubo TV can go places where others can’t,” Munarriz wrote.

Disney-owned ESPN has partnerships with Caesars Entertainment, offering sport-betting-related content on ESPN and ESPN+, the brand’s SVOD platform.

“The sports betting landscape has changed, and fans are coming to us for this kind of information more than ever before,” said Mike Morrison, VP of business development at ESPN. “We are poised to expand our coverage in a big way.”

WarnerMedia Entertainment inked a deal with Caesars Entertainment to build a branded Vegas studio for its Bleacher Report (B/R) platform.

Regardless of its legality, Disney remains defensive to deflect the family-based media giant’s tacit support for gambling.

“We’ve already done some [gambling-related] things that we would integrate it into our programming, but not to the extent that we would be facilitating gambling as an entity,” former CEO Bob Iger said in 2019. “In other words, we’ll provide programming that will, I guess, be designed to enlighten people who are betting on sports. But that’s as far as we would go. We just don’t intend to go into the gambling business.”

NFL Wildcard Weekend Broke Broadcast/Streaming Molds

The NFL’s just-concluded busy wildcard playoff weekend saw 12 teams reduced to eight advancing to the divisional round, beginning Jan. 16. Notably, for the first time playoff games were live-streamed (ESPN+, Peacock) and broadcast on a children’s network (Nickelodeon), in addition to the usual TV networks.

During the New Orleans Saints’ win over the Chicago Bears, Nickelodeon viewers got see trademark green slime sprayed virtually into the end zone and across the screen after Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas scored a touchdown. The game drew Nickelodeon’s largest audience in four years with 2 million viewers.

While the simulcast with CBS Sports underscored ViacomCBS’s desire to involve its brands (Nickelodeon) across new markets, for the NFL, the game represented an opportunity to reach a new demo early.

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“Our entire model is based on reach,” Hans Schroeder, EVP and COO of NFL Media, said in an interview Sunday night. “The positive responses have been overwhelming [for the Nickelodeon game], but what we did with CBS was a continuation of what we did across Sunday.”

On Disney-owned ESPN+, streamers saw analytics on steroids with an individual play’s likelihood of succeeding put on display. Indeed, an interception thrown by Baltimore Ravens QB Lamar Jackson only had only a 28% chance of being caught by the receiver initially.

Amazon Prime Video and sister company Twitch were the first streaming platforms to offer live NFL coverage through “Thursday Night Football,” featuring the sport’s first female broadcast team.

“When you have as broad appeal as we’re fortunate to have, we want to make sure we’re putting out a broad set of experiences on as many screens as we can, and increase the way our fans engage and enjoy the games,” Schroeder said.

Indeed, ESPN will feature tonight NCAA College Football National Championship Game between The Ohio State Buckeyes and University of Alabama Crimson Tide across 14 separate broadcasts, including streaming.

Hulu Bows $1.99 Monthly Service for College Students

Disney-owned Hulu Jan. 11 announced it is cutting the price of its $5.99 ad-supported on-demand subscription streaming video service to $1.99 for college students attending any accredited school in the U.S.

The price includes access to Hulu’s Watch Party feature enabling subscribers to watch and comment on programming with friends and family in separate locations.

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Hulu, which touted 38.8 million subs at the beginning of December, remains bundled with ESPN+ and Disney+ in a $12.99 monthly promotion. The separate Hulu with Live TV subscription service recently raised pricing 18% to $64.99 from $54.99; $70.99 for no ads.

In 2017, Hulu partnered with Spotify for a student-oriented promotion that later included Showtime as well.

Disney’s ESPN+ Streaming Service Raising Annual Fee 20%

ESPN+, the sports-themed subscription streaming arm of Disney’s OTT offerings that also includes the Disney+ and Hulu platforms, will increase its annual fee 20% to $59.99 from $49.99 for new subscribers, effective Jan. 8, 2021. Existing subs will see renewal price hikes around March.

ESPN+, which is increasingly being promoted as a live-sports alternative to pay-TV, had more than 11.5 million subscribers earlier this year — more than double from a year ago.

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Disney is also increasing the cost of its UFC pay-per-view fights — exclusive to ESPN+ — to $69.99 from $64.99. The fights were $59.99 when ESPN+ launched in April 2018.

Disney’s OTT video universe topped 137 million subs earlier this month — partially due to combining ESPN+ with Disney+ and Hulu in a $12.99 monthly promotion that remains for the time being. The Disney+ monthly fee is increasing to $7.99, from $6.99, on March 26, 2021.

Hulu Adding Access to ESPN+, Exclusive 20th Century Movies, 5th Season of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ SEC College Football; Hulu With Live TV Tops 4 Million Subs

SVOD pioneer Hulu will offer its 38.8 million subscriber access to the ESPN+ sports streaming service in 2021. Hulu’s online TV platform, Hulu With Live TV, now tops 4 million subscribers, making it the top online TV platform and fifth-largest pay-TV operator in the U.S.

“Users can sign up or enjoy existing ESPN+ subscriptions without ever having to leave the Hulu app,” Hulu president Kelly Campbell said on Disney’s Investor Day Dec. 10. Campbell said the SVOD platform in 2021 would bow original movies from 20th Century Studios and Searchlight. The platform also greenlighted a fifth season of original hit series “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

ESPN+, which had 11.5 million subscribers as of Dec. 2, will begin streaming select Southeastern Conference college football games in 2021. ABC TV (and ESPN+) will become the exclusive SEC broadcasters in 2024 for 10 years, including the SEC Championship. The SEC, which is currently broadcast on CBS and ESPN, includes perennial national champion contender University of Alabama, in addition to the University of Georgia, University of Florida and Louisiana State University, among other schools.

“This is a significant day for the Southeastern Conference and for the future of our member institutions. Our agreement with ESPN will greatly enhance our ability to support our student-athletes in the years ahead and to further enrich the game day experience for SEC fans around the world,” Greg Sankey, SEC Commissioner, said in a statement. “One of our primary goals was to improve the television scheduling process in ways that will benefit our students, coaches, alumni and fans. By working in collaboration with ESPN, we were able to secure an agreement that includes more lead time for many game time announcements, and in many ways modernizes the college football scheduling process.”