ESPN made a bad deal at the wrong time.
In 2014, The Worldwide Leader and Turner Sports signed a nine year, $24 billion deal with the NBA. While both media companies overestimated the value of NBA broadcasts and underestimated the future of cord cutting, it was ESPN who suffered the most once they signed the dotted line.
The expensive NBA deal helped accelerate layoffs in Bristol, and hurt Disney stock. The deal also increased the cost of sports bundles in cable packages. A high monthly cable price for ESPN led many subscribers to cut the cord and watch sports elsewhere, or just binge Netflix.
Over the years, NBA ratings have also suffered. As of January, the league’s Nielson ratings have fallen 11% from 2019 to 2020. And the game six of the 1998 Finals between Jordan’s Bulls and the Utah Jazz is still the NBA’s most watched game.
The drop in ratings has been blamed on cord cutting, as young viewers illegally stream games, the league’s so called ”progressive” political stances, and load management, the practice of sitting marquee, such as LeBron James, to give them a day off.
Regardless of what’s to blame, NBA viewership is down. And one thing is clear, ESPN is losing on its investment.
But the NBA’s new Disney World idea to save the season is intriguing, especially when it comes to the future of sports media.
Last week, The Athletic reported that Disney World in Orlando, Fla., could be the ideal place for the league to finish its season.
A day after the report, Lebron James took to twitter to say he wants to finish the season.
The NBA season may be magically saved by The Magic Kingdom.
The Disney resort in Orlando has adequate housing and facilities to meet the needs of the athletes and their families.
Compare that to the other option for the league, Las Vegas. But the NBA is reportedly not interested in separating athletes from their families.
I’ll let you be the judge over which destination seems more family friendly and likely to keep players out of trouble.
If the NBA season were to continue, Disney World makes sense for many reasons. But perhaps the biggest benefactor of an NBA season and playoffs would be ESPN, a Disney company.
Since ESPN and Turner signed their NBA deal in 2014, online streaming platforms like Amazon, Facebook Watch, and Hulu have all entered into the sports broadcast bidding wars. In 2018, ESPN launched their own streaming platform, ESPN+, to bring cordless sports content to the consumer for $4.99 a month. And last fall, Disney+ launched, with ESPN+ part of its bundle package.
Who knows if Disney+ will be the home of the 2026 finals. But signs across the digital landscape predict that streaming services will own the rights to sports content in the future.
A saved NBA season at Disney World could be the leverage ESPN needs to get a better broadcast deal when their current contract is up in 2025.
There is a desire for live sports content, especially now. The media makers who capitalize on a sports-starved nation could be the ones with the momentum moving forward.