An ESPN Team-Up With NBC Sports Called “Very Improbable” By Comcast President Mike Cavanagh; Exec Teases Potential NBA Rights Bid

Comcast President Mike Cavanagh called the notion that the company could enter the picture as rival Disney looks for a strategic partner for ESPN “very improbable.”

Speaking on the company’s second-quarter earnings call, Cavanagh said the scenario would involve too many complications to be feasible.

“I’ve been asked about and read about speculation that in some way we might be interested in swapping businesses as part of what’s going on in the sports space, and I would just say that that’s very improbable,” the exec said.

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Disney CEO Bob Iger initiated a round of armchair quarterbacking earlier this month when he laid out his thinking about ESPN’s future during an interview with CNBC. While the company remains bullish on sports, he said, “We’re going to be open minded about looking for strategic partners that could either help us with distribution or content.” A team-up will be especially advantageous as ESPN gets set to roll out a more robust streaming offering outside the pay-TV bundle in the coming years.

Media observers and Wall Street analysts have noted that Disney and Comcast are currently involved in a negotiation over the latter’s one-third stake in Hulu. Instead of parting with upwards of $9 billion in exchange for Comcast’s part of the entertainment streaming service, why not just cut the company in on the ESPN action? While regulatory flags would likely be thrown, Cavanagh identified other concerns.

“As you’d imagine, there are tremendous issues around tax, minority shareholders and structuring generally,” he said. “So, I would put aside the probability that there’s anything inorganic that’s likely to happen around ESPN in particular.”

As far as the state of the sports business at Comcast-NBCU, Cavanagh said the company has “one of the best portfolios” out there, with Sunday Night Football, Premier League, the Big 10, the Olympics and many other properties. NBA rights, a linchpin for NBC in the 1990s as Michael Jordan took the league to new heights just as “Must-See TV” was also reaching its peak, are up for renewal after the 2024-25 season. Cavanagh volunteered that NBC Sports would look to get in the mix as a potential bidder. Disney-ESPN and Warner Bros Discovery are the current rights holders in the U.S.

“We’re always looking to see if there are ways to add more value to our business,” Cavanagh said. “Obviously, the NBA is coming up. That’s a terrific property. We don’t necessarily need it given the portfolio we have, but given its strength and our historical involvement in the sport, it’s something I’d like to see us take a look at.”

Cavanagh emphasized the strength of sports on NBCU streaming service Peacock. As the NFL and Major League Baseball have done, the NBA is believed to be likely to entertain a streaming partner as a rights holder, cutting the pie into more pieces. Amazon, Apple and YouTube have recently been the most aggressive in terms of spending on sports.

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