ESPN president expects Silicon Valley to bid for NFL rights

Entertainment

In this photo provided by Starpix, James Pitaro speaks at the Paley Center for Media in New York, Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019.
ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro expects competition from Silicon Valley when the NFL’s television contracts come up for renewal. The cable network’s $15.2 billion, eight-year contract with the league for Monday night games runs through 2021. CBS, NBC and Fox and NBC have deals with the NFL that extend to 2022. Amazon, Google and Facebook could be among the bidders. (Patrick Huban/Starpix via AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro expects competition from Silicon Valley when the NFL’s television contracts come up for renewal.

The cable network’s $15.2 billion, eight-year agreement with the league for Monday night games runs through 2021. CBS, NBC and Fox and NBC have deals with the NFL that extend to 2022.

New media companies such as Amazon, Google, Facebook, DAZN, Hulu and YouTube could be among the bidders.

“I have no idea if they’re going to be interested specifically in ‘Monday Night Football,’ but I do believe that several new media companies are going to be interested in acquiring more NFL rights,” Pitaro said Thursday during a discussion at the Paley Center for Media.

“I still very much like ESPN’s hand, if you look at what we offer in terms of production expertise, in terms of the scale and scope, in terms of what we can do with the game, around the game, ‘SportsCenter,’ all of our original programming, how we can drive value for our league partners I think is really the differentiator.”

The NFL announced an expanded highlights deal with Facebook on Thursday, started an agreement this season for its Thursday night games to be streamed on Amazon Prime and also has deals with Twitter, Snapchat and YouTube.

“We’re navigating through a very complicated world right now where new competitors … are popping up every single day,” Pitaro said. “When we sit down with the NFL, yes, we bring a cable channel, but we also bring a broadcast channel (ABC). We bring the power of the theme parks, for example. We just opened up an NBA experience in Orlando. How many of our competitors can bring the theme parks to the table?”

Disney, in partnership is Hearst Communications, launched its ESPN+ digital service in April 2018. ESPN has declined to provide viewership figures for games on ESPN+, making it hard to gauge the audience size for each sport on that service.

To expand its audience, ESPN has expanded to esports and gambling-oriented programming and launched parallel broadcasts — such as televising the NFL draft on ABC with an emphasis on player families and on ESPN with focus on football details.

The company tried to attract younger audiences by partnering with Second Spectrum for coach mode, player mode and mascot mode streams during this year’s NBA playoffs; instituted a kidscast for the Little League World Series with teenage announcers from Bruce Beck’s sports broadcasting camp; offers “SportsCenter” on Snapchat; and uses Twitter, Instagram and TikTok.

“We can’t say audience expansion and mean that we’re only going to be investing in our owned and operated platforms,” he said. “We have we have to be open. We have to go to where our customers are.”

Interviewed by ESPN broadcaster Hannah Storm, Pitaro was not asked about the decision for ESPN commentators to avoid politics on the air, a change from the policy under his predecessor, John Skipper.

Pitaro was head of media at Yahoo! when he moved in 2010 to The Walt Disney Co. as co-president of Disney Interactive. He was installed as president of ESPN, a Disney subsidiary, in March 2018 following Skipper’s resignation. He reports to Robert Iger, the Disney CEO.

Pitaro revealed some behind-the-scenes detail of ESPN’s decision-making, showing the detail of executive involvement in production decisions.

When viewers complained on social media during Monday’s Houston-New Orleans game that the yellow background for down and distance on a graphic made them think a flag had been thrown on the field, ESPN’s production staff changed the graphic for the second half before he sent a note he was typing up on his couch at home.

“I think your description of ‘holy cow, there’s something wrong’ was kind,” he told Storm. “By the way, I’m color blind, so I didn’t quite understand what was wrong.”

Pitaro said during the 2018 U.S. Open tennis women’s final, when Serena Williams started confrontations with chair umpire Carlos Ramos, he had just moved from California to a house in Westport, Connecticut, and was trying to retrieve the family dogs, who inadvertently were let out of the house by movers.

“I found the dogs, got back to my couch, I literally had 350 emails during that period,” he said, then describing texts from Iger. “Bob wanted to understand whether this was a one-off for this umpire and should we have more cameras on the coach right now. There were a lot of details.”

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