Apple's Potential ESPN Bite: Sports Leagues Or Sports TV Network Focus?

Selling all of Disney to Apple?

Nah!.. Think more strategically. How about just ESPN?

Dan Ives, managing director of equity research at Wedbush Securities on CNBC, believes live sports is the real attraction for big digital media companies, and possibly for a major branded sports TV network.

Apple, for one, might be interested in ESPN.

This isn't to say that the likes of Amazon, Google, or other big digital heavy hitters won’t be pursuing more sports-related business as well -- Amazon with "Thursday Night Football" and Google (via YouTube) with "NFL Sunday Ticket," seem like obvious candidates.

This kind of interest could call the dogs off in interpreting the remarks for Disney CEO Bob Iger about seeking “strategic partners” -- which many look to mean minority partnerships with the league themselves; the NFL, MLB, NHL, or others.



The trouble is that if those leagues buy into a sports TV channel, that might not be seen as a good thing for those sports leagues' other media partners -- TV networks, stations and digital platform distributors.

So for Apple it makes sense to move up to more competitive digital media/communications companies -- Amazon and Google -- to an extent in terms of impact, especially with advertisers.

Still, all that becomes more complicated as ESPN looks to find ways to transition to a full 24/7 streaming platform from the still profitable -- but decreasing -- financial metrics of its linear TV cable network business.

Disney and Apple have had a longtime relationship: In 2006, Disney bought Pixar Animation Studios for $7.4 billion. More recently, Disney has partnered with Apple to bring its Disney+ streaming service to the new Apple Vision Pro headset, launching early next year. 

All this would seem to make it an easier transition for ESPN staff and consumers.

In the meantime, ESPN still needs to keep going -- and pay more for key live sports programming -- with new deals such as the NBA, UFC and College Football Playoffs on the horizon to get down. 

All this comes as distribution revenues, hurt by cord-cutting, continue to decline, says Richard Greenfield, partner/media & technology analyst at LightShed Partners. 

This “grim” outlook, says Greenfield, came as ESPN made a recent quick turnaround to grab a $2 billion deal with Penn Entertainment to place its name on an online sportsbook, ESPN Bet.

But is new brand building for ESPN right now what possible buyers want to see going forward? Even then, critics say, the ESPN Bet deal comes too late -- something that should have happened around 2019.

Apple, among other digital players, would want a better idea of where new, real digital/streaming dollars could come from. Perhaps the answer is to just buy up more sports rights -- not to buy into a seemingly aging sports TV network.

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