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.

Parks: 55% of Pay-TV Households Say Live Sports Key to Keeping Service

Live sports remains a key driver in pay-TV as subscribers’ love for football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey outweighs dropping the more-expensive home entertainment distribution channel with over-the-top video. New research from Parks Associates finds 55% of pay-TV households in the U.S. report availability of live sports is important in their decision to keep their pay-TV service.

Major pay-TV operators Comcast Cable, AT&T U-verse, DirecTV, Disneh Network and Fios Video lost more than 5.6 million combined video subscribers in 2020. Charter Spectrum added 19,000 pay-TV subs.

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“The churn rate for pay-TV services continues to trend significantly lower than the rate for OTT services,” Steve Nason, research director of Parks Associates, said in a statement. “This is fortunate given the lack of live sports in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past year, churn rates for OTT and [onlione TV] services both declined as consumers turn more and more to online video sources for their entertainment.”

Amazon Prime Video Eyeing Italian Serie A Soccer Rights

In a major move, Amazon Prime Video reportedly is set to bid on exclusive TV rights to Italy’s Serie A professional soccer league. The deal for three years could cost the SVOD platform upwards of $1.4 billion, and would put into competition against Comcast’s Sky, which is the current rights holder, according to Bloomberg, which cited sources familiar with the situation.

The league has set a Jan. 26 deadline for carriage rights.

Amazon, unlike other SVOD services, has not shied away from live sports, with Prime Video currently streaming NFL Thursday Night Football in the U.S., in addition to the English Premier League and select rugby matches overseas. This deal would be different as Amazon would have exclusive broadcast and streaming rights.

When Disney acquired 20th Century Fox’s assets, it included India’s Hotstar, which has streaming rights to cricket — a national sport in the world’s second-most-populous country. Disney has now rebranded SVOD to Disney+Hotstar, and in the process “acquired” 30% of Disney Plus’ 88.6 million subscriber base.

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Gracenote Launches Statistics and Related Content Feature for Live Sports

Nielsen’s Gracenote is launching a new live sports solution designed to help smart-TV and auto manufacturers display game statistics and other related content in real-time.

Leveraging Gracenote Global Sports Data, CE manufacturers and automakers can integrate real-time team statistics, recent game results and live updates into TV and video home screens and auto infotainment systems.

By accessing Gracenote Sports Data through plug and play widgets, a smart-TV maker can present previews of upcoming games featuring a viewer’s favorite teams followed by dynamic updates during game play. Notifications can be created to offer ways to navigate directly to the game broadcast or stream on a consumer’s preferred service at home. Or a connected car manufacturer can deliver game scores and league standings to infotainment screens in real-time.

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“Live sports are an increasingly important differentiator for entertainment platforms seeking to increase user engagement,” Simon Adams, Gracenote chief product officer, said in a statement. “For years, Gracenote has powered sports viewing experiences for the largest TV providers in the world. With Gracenote Global Sports Widgets, CE companies and automakers can easily launch new sports experiences which maximize audience engagement and drive consumption while minimizing development costs and engineering resources.”

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At launch, the Gracenote Sports Widgets will cover major North American sports leagues including the NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL; international football leagues such as the English Premier League; Germany’s Bundesliga; Ligue 1 in France; Serie A in Italy; Spain’s La Liga; Brasileirão Assaí in Brazil; Mexico’s Liga BBVA MX; as well as Korean baseball league KBO. Languages offered include English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Dutch. Additional coverage of global sports leagues will be made available throughout the year.

Gracenote is the content services arm of Nielsen Media.

AT&T Eyes AVOD on HBO Max to Widen ‘Available’ Customer Base

In addition to streaming Warner Bros. Pictures first-run movies, HBO Max’s major initiative in 2021 revolves around rolling out an ad-supported component to the platform’s SVOD legacy.

Speaking Jan. 5 on the virtual Citi Global TMT Conference, retiring CFO John Stephens (at the end of March) said AVOD enables WarnerMedia to expand its “available customer” footprint in the same way broadband and data plans have helped grow the cellular business.

“That’s what AVOD is going to help us do: expand the opportunity to serve customers in a different way,” he said.

As ad-supported VOD platforms proliferate in response to SVOD market domination by Netflix, Disney+, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video, the distribution channel, which includes The Roku Channel, IMDb TV, Pluto TV, Shout! Factory TV and Tubi, has been dogged by a dearth of higher profile content.

NBCUniversal’s Peacock streaming service, which launched in July as the market’s first hybrid SVOD/AVOD business model, is looking to change that. The ad-supported VOD option is targeting original content, including live sports such as the U.K.’s Premier League soccer to entice viewers.

AT&T CEO John Stankey told an investor even last year that live sports is an appealing component to OTT video in Europe.

“You’ll probably see as we move through AVOD, maybe we do some additional live work that we have coming forward,” he said.

Stephens said he fully expects AVOD to impact Max SVOD sub growth both positively and negatively, while at the same time luring non-SVOD consumers to the pay model.

“I see [AVOD] as an opportunity to serve additional customers, and from a finance perspective, amortize the investment in content over a greater customer base,” he said.

Report: Live Sports-Themed SVOD a Golden Opportunity

Live sports remains a primary staple of pay-TV due to existing long-term distribution agreements between sports leagues, college sports and broadcasters.

Although a handful of rights-holders, such as Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association, National Hockey League and FIBA (soccer), have been operating proprietary SVOD services for years, over-the-top video distribution of live sports remains a nascent market. Most sports rights holders distribute highlight clips and other short-form content on third-party platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

Germany’s pro soccer Bundesliga is reportedly eyeing launch of a SVOD platform in the Middle East and North Africa where the league has no pay-TV presence. Boxing-themed DAZN, dubbed the “Netflix of sport,” just launched global access in 200 countries with a £1.99 monthly option.

Regardless, live-sports streaming is a market SVOD behemoth Netflix thus far has no interest in entering. Rivals Disney, via ESPN+, Amazon Prime Video, through its NFL Thursday Night Football streams, and YouTube TV with MLB, offer streaming access but with limited content selection.

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The reason: Money. Global sports media rights revenue hit $51 billion in 2019, and is projected to reach $56.1 billion by 2022, according to the Sport Business Global Media Report 2019.

New data from MediaKind suggests the next five years could see live sports increasingly migrate away from the current pay-TV distribution model to a hybrid option including streaming video.

The report contends sports rights holders have four options for consumers: free access; free access featuring content as part of, or an alternative to, pay-TV (i.e. ESPN+ and Amazon Prime Video); free companion services — those provided as a free adjunct to pay-TV; and subscription-based access (i.e. MLB.tv, NBA League Pass and NBC Sports Gold).

“With a handful of exceptions, most sports D2C services are still dealing with a low number of simultaneous live streams, but this is set to change,” read the report. “D2C services will become more central to fans’ media consumption as more rights-holders carve out content from traditional linear broadcast agreements or use them to light up dark markets. More fans will consume live video streams simultaneously, and rights-holders need to be prepared.”

John Stankey: Live Sports Could Play Limited Role in HBO Max AVOD Rollout

With HBO Max looking to expand its presence in Latina America and Western Europe in 2021, WarnerMedia’s subscription streaming VOD platform will also tackle an ad-supported option going forward — that could include live sports.

Speaking on AT&T’s recent fiscal call, CEO John Stankey addressed a host of questions on Max and its relation to the existing pay-TV ecosystem, and its main draw: live sports. WarnerMedia’s TNT networks has major distribution agreements with the NBA, Major League Baseball and the NCAA Men’s Basketball National Championship Tournament.

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Stankey said that live sports will remain a unique pillar of pay-TV, which he contends will be the distribution channel’s key advantage when  cord-cutting reduces the pay-TV household footprint to around 50 million to 60 million in the coming years.

“Sports content is important to our linear business, our cable networks business to make sure we have enough of it that sustains that business and keeps it at attractive must-have offering, an offering that our customers want to have in that cable bundle,” Stankey said.

At the same time, AT&T’s online TV  platform, AT&T TV, and Max aim to push WarnerMedia content beyond premium television. And live sports could be part of the mix — as professional soccer, cycling is doing in Europe. Stankey said the concept of adding live sports to streaming video distribution is appealing.

“You’ll probably see as we move through AVOD, maybe we do some additional live work that we have coming forward,” he said.

But Stankey cautioned that any move would be complementary to pay-TV and not involve growing the company’s sports footprint to include additional leagues beyond e-sports and gaming. WarnerMedia recently launched “TNT Bets,” an online companion show available through the TNT app that features live-streamed feed of the games, commentary on betting analysis and odds.

“ELEAGUE,” the interactive gaming show that airs on TBS, just partnered with Amazon’s Twitch for “Super Punch,” an interactive show where fans can discuss the most relevant gaming topics of the day and week.

“Our goal is not to become known as the sports company,” Stankey said. “I don’t see going deeper in sports is the direction for WarnerMedia.”

Comcast and ESPN Announce Launch of Sports Networks on Xfinity X1

Comcast and ESPN Sept. 5 announced the launch of ESPN3, ACC Network Extra and SEC Network + on Xfinity X1, giving sports fans the ability to stream over the Internet, directly on their television, coverage of college football with more than 150 live games, and more than 5,000 live events annually, including international soccer, Grand Slam tennis matches, college basketball and other collegiate athletics.

All content from across the three networks will be searchable with Comcast’s X1 voice remote and integrated into the same screens and menus as the other sports programming that comes with a customer’s Xfinity TV subscription, according to the announcement.

“Simplicity continues to be essential in today’s dynamic media landscape,” said Sean Breen, SVP, affiliate sales, Disney and ESPN Media Networks, in a statement. “We’re fortunate to have relationships with Comcast to seamlessly serve customers and sports fans on a platform that delivers the best of both traditional and digital video viewing experiences, and the addition of ESPN3, ACC Network Extra and SEC Network + are perfect examples of that.”

“From football and soccer to volleyball and field hockey, this launch gives college sports fans incredible access to live events from schools including Florida State, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh in the ACC, Alabama, Georgia and Texas A&M in the SEC, and dozens more from across the entire country on ESPN3,” said Vito Forlenza, executive director, TV Everywhere content and product strategy, Comcast Cable, in a statement. “ESPN3, ACC Network Extra and SEC Network + add a new dynamic to the already deep catalog of sports programming that’s currently available on X1. Combined with universal voice control and the X1 sports app, we are providing customers with the richest, most immersive sports viewing experience in the country.”

With the three new networks customers can:

  • find live coverage from ESPN3, ACC Network Extra and SEC Network + intermixed alongside other live sporting events showcased within X1’s sports destination;
  • get access to the Xfinity Sky Cam’s live game feeds providing exclusive angles and commentary;
  • by saying “ESPN3,” “ACC Network Extra” or “SEC Network +” into the X1 voice remote discover everything available to watch live from the networks;
  • by asking for a specific team such as “Clemson Football” quickly access a team summary, including its current record and conference standing, and see a list of upcoming games airing across any network;
  • while watching the networks’ live online coverage on X1, follow along with real-time updates and data via the platform’s sports companion app for more than a dozen conferences such as the Atlantic Coast Conference, Southeastern Conference, American Athletic Conference, Mid-American Conference and Conference USA; and
  • by saying, for example, “University of Connecticut Huskies Basketball Score,” get real-time scoring updates of the current game and the ability to tune-in live if it’s available to stream;

ESPN3, ACC Network Extra and SEC Network + are available on all eligible X1 set top boxes with Xfinity TV and Internet service.