Apple’s Likely NFL Sunday Ticket Win Signals Bigger Problem For ESPN, Traditional Networks

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The streaming wars are raging on in 2022 as companies battle to get big-name properties onto their various platforms. A realm that was once owned by Disney and ESPN – live sports – is no longer.

And lest you think it’s only the traditional networks in the market. No, gone are the days when the bidding war for sports rights was between FOX, CBS, ESPN, and NBC. Now, they have to battle with the deep-pocketed tech companies.

When news came out that Apple looked to be the winner for the NFL Sunday Ticket package, it sent shockwaves across the industry. The deal with Apple is not done, though, and Google is also reportedly still in the mix as they try to bring Sunday Ticket to YouTube.

With Amazon snapping up Thursday Night Football for a cool $1 billion, it’s become clear that the major players are the new tech kids on the block with their deep reserves of cash.

“It’s hard when you’re competing with entities that aren’t playing by the same financial rules,” said Bob Iger, the former CEO and chairman of the Walt Disney Company — parent company of ESPN.

Disney CEO Robert Iger visits FOX Business Network’s “Markets Now” at FOX Studios (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

ESPN Needs New Content To Justify New Price Tag

With the recent news that ESPN+ was upping its subscription price to $9.99 per month (a 43% increase over the previous $6.99 price tag), Disney and ESPN need a reason for subscribers to cough up $10/month.

But it’s going to be extremely difficult for them to compete, given how much money they already have tied up in the NBA and Monday Night Football. Losing out on the Sunday Ticket – in which their bid was reportedly woefully short of Apple’s – would be a massive blow to the company’s hopes to make their streaming platform – and price tag – worthwhile for fans.

Adding to their issues, ESPN’s all-in strategy on woke programming has completely backfired, as sports fans are increasingly turned off by the network’s far-left political stances.

In the past few months alone, ESPN has had hosts advocate ON-AIR for abortion, question The Supreme Court, make false claims about January 6th, call MLB players “bigots” for not wanting to wear a gay pride flag on their uniforms, and compare state voting rights bills to genocide in China.

ESPN’s slogan, for as long as one can remember, has been “Serving Sports Fans. Anytime. Anywhere.” Please tell us which sports fans are served by these political stances, ESPN. We’re waiting.

Ultimately, Nothing Matters More Than Live Sports

But no matter the politics of the network, nothing trumps live sports in today’s increasingly streaming world. Very few TV shows can garner the massive audience because people are content to watch it later, without commercials. That’s something that’s very difficult to do with sports.

Take a look at the top-watched programs of 2022 through June. It’s nearly all sports-related content, with football taking up the vast majority:

ESPN’s three biggest properties, currently, are the NBA, Monday Night Football, and the College Football Playoff. ESPN pays $1.4 billion per season for the NBA (which is due to go up after 2025), $1.1 billion per season for MNF, and around $550 million for the College Football Playoff.

Based on the TV ratings, the College Football Playoff is likely a moneymaker, drawing over 20 million fans for half-a-billion dollars.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – JANUARY 10: Georgia Bulldogs QB Stetson Bennett (13) celebrates and holds the national championship trophy after the Alabama Crimson Tide versus the Georgia Bulldogs in the College Football Playoff National Championship, on January 10, 2022, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, IN. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

But with 19 of the top 25 programs viewed being NFL games, ESPN accounted for just three of those and none fell inside the top 15 broadcasts. That’s not ideal when you’re shelling out over $1 billion.

Don’t even try to look for the NBA; it’s nowhere to be found. The only basketball game in the top 25 was the Final Four contest between Duke and North Carolina, and that’s owned by Turner Sports. The return-on-investment for the $1.4 billion price tag certainly isn’t coming from US audiences.

Perhaps that’s why the NBA and ESPN seem so eager to bow down to China – they’re the only ones paying for the NBA.

What’s next for ESPN in the live streaming realm is unclear. They’ve shown they don’t have the money to compete with big tech and they’re already massively tied up in current deals. It would probably behoove them to move on from the NBA when the deal expires in 2025 and sink that money into football.

You know, giving sports fans what they want. “Serving Sports Fans. Anytime. Anywhere.” That’s the goal, right ESPN?

Written by Dan Zaksheske

Dan began his sports media career at ESPN, where he survived for nearly a decade. Once the Stockholm Syndrome cleared, he made his way to Outkick. He is secure enough in his masculinity to admit he is a cat-enthusiast with three cats, one of which is named “Brady” because his wife wishes she were married to Tom instead of him.

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