ESPN touts reach of ABC, other platforms as it explores more opportunities with live sports content
This fall, Fox will fill three of its nights with sports programming: the NFL on Thursdays, WWE on Fridays and college football on Saturdays.
Fox’s move is a nod to the fact that advertisers covet live sports programming more than traditional entertainment. The move also takes out some ratings uncertainty. Fox executives do not have to worry about NFL games being a bust. Plus, they generally know what sort of viewership to expect for college football Saturday nights — give or take a couple of ratings points.
What’s interesting about Fox’s move is that other networks are not following suit — at least not yet. ABC carries college football and the NBA on Saturday nights. It also carries sports programming in the Saturday and Sunday afternoon windows. And ABC has produced events such as the NFL draft.
But ESPN executives say they have no short-term plans to increase the amount of sports the broadcast network carries, especially in prime time.
“There are going to be special events and opportunities that come along like the NFL draft and other things that we’ll consider,” said Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming and scheduling. “It’s not like Fox, which is stripping out nights and dedicating them to things like ‘SmackDown.’”
ESPN has multiple platforms that can house sports programming — a broadcast network, multiple linear channels, its ESPN+ streaming service and its social media channels, not to mention the other media outlets corporate parent Disney runs.
“[We can work] across the Walt Disney Co. to figure out ways to bring things to life and reach audiences across all these platforms,” said Connor Schell, ESPN’s executive vice president of content. “Every conversation that we’re collectively having is evaluating both the desires and needs of a rights holder and the availability of our platforms and reach, and thinking dynamically around what makes the most sense here for our audience and our business.”
ESPN executives use the prospect of ABC as an added enticement during rights negotiations. Magnus hinted that ABC will be part of the mix when the company starts its NFL negotiations.
“I don’t think we’ve been shy about this,” Magnus said. “It’s not an active conversation with the NFL. They are still devising how they are going to bring their rights to market next time. But we have said generally that … the Walt Disney Co. is very interested in NFL content for any possibility. … We’d be foolish to say, ‘No, we’re not interested for ABC.’ The Walt Disney Co. is interested in NFL content. There are many different ways that could manifest itself. ABC certainly is one of them.”
ESPN gave the NFL a taste of what ABC can deliver earlier this spring when it carried an exclusive production of the NFL draft that targeted casual football fans.
“We’re really proud of what we did with the NFL draft,” Schell said. “It was a really smart way to engage a different audience on ABC. Working with the NFL, it helped grow the event. Opportunistically, if we can find other events to think about in similar ways, we want to be engaged.”
ESPN also used ABC to help close its recently announced XFL deal. The XFL crafted its schedule around time that ABC had available on weekend afternoons.
“[The XFL] is a brand-new property,” Magnus said. “Using the AAF’s demise as a perfect example. … It was the perfect combination of available schedule, consistent schedule, broadest reach platforms to try and ensure that it gets off the ground.”