ESPN Acquires Soccer, Boxing Rights for ESPN+, Adding Subscribers Faster Than Expected

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ESPN has announced a multi-year deal with Italy’s Serie A to broadcast league matches in the U.S. Most games will air on the WWL’s subscription streaming service ESPN+ (340+), but a Match of the Week will be broadcast on ESPN or ESPN2; those matches also be available in Spanish on ESPN Deportes. The exclusive rights agreement with the Italian futbol league is set to begin on August 18th with Ronaldo’s Juventus debut (8.18.18) on ESPN+.

ESPN also signed a new 7-year deal with Top Rank Boxing to replace the 4-year agreement the companies agreed to back in the summer of 2017. The new pact calls for ESPN to bring fight fans 54 cards/year, 36 of which (includes 24 international cards) will be exclusive to ESPN+ subscribers.

Howie Long-Short: ESPN’s television subscription base continued to dwindle in fiscal Q3 (though not as fast as it had been), ad revenue declined (see: NBA Finals sweep) and programming costs increased, but the company still managed to post mid-single digit revenue growth (to $15.23 billion) for the quarter thanks to rising affiliate fees and “rapid growth in digital MPVD subscribers.” CEO Bob Iger added that ESPN+ is adding subscribers faster than projected. As for Disney, their cable networks business in aggregate reported a 5% decline in operating income (to $1.4 billion); their investment in ESPN+ was among the reasons given for the regression. DIS shares have fallen 2.5% since Tuesday’s earnings call, closing Wednesday at $113.98.

For those wondering about the 22 Fox RSNs, Iger did mention that “the process of selling them” is underway. We wrote on June 29th, that an “established linear player” was most likely to acquire the RSNs (minus YES); mentioning CBS (think: CBS Sports HQ), Turner Sports (T, B/R Live) and Discovery Communications (DISCA, which has made a significant push for rights in Europe) as possible landing spots. Add Sinclair Broadcast Group (SBGI) to that list. CEO Chris Ripley expressed interest in the assets on their earnings call this week, calling them, “a good fit with the broadcast footprint and operations.”

Fan Marino: ESPN’s EVP of Programming & Scheduling Burke Magnus has been vocal about making “ESPN+ home to the world’s best soccer leagues” and by proxy, “an indispensable destination” for domestic soccer fans. While it’s an admirable goal and one that would certainly grow subscriptions, it’s certainly not representative of the splintered market we have today. In fact, with rights spread out amongst so many broadcasters U.S. soccer fans are likely to have to choose the leagues/games they’re willing to forego. It’s certainly not reasonable to expect fans to sign up for ESPN+ ($4.99/mo.) B/R Live ($7.99/mo.) NBC Sports Gold ($50/season) etc. and still carry a $80+/mo. cable bundle to watch games on ESPN, Fox Sports and BeIN.

It needs to be noted that Top Rank will not be promoting the 24 international cards contained within their deal with ESPN. Bob Arum & Co. acquired the U.S. broadcast rights from Frank Warren (U.K.), Zanfer Promotions (Mexico) and Teiken Boxing (Japan).

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X Games Experiences Massive Growth Across All Channels

X Games

X Games Minneapolis 2018 experienced double-digit growth on linear television and triple-digit growth across digital/streaming services and social networks. Long considered to have a niche audience, television viewership for the 4-day action sports competition rose +38% YoY across ESPN, ESPN & ABC (DIS); it was the 2nd straight X Games (X Games Aspen 2018) to experience double-digit growth. On digital/social, X Games’ YouTube Channel subscribers streamed over 26 million minutes of extreme sports competition (+646% YoY), Facebook fans tallied 4 million video views (+210% YoY) and the number of Instagram videos watched rose +225% YoY; authentic “behind the scenes” access (i.e. not staged) and instant highlights of tricks, made usage of the that app a must for second screen viewers.

Howie Long-Short: The 38% YoY increase in television viewership comes with a caveat. The 2017 Summer X Games were the lowest rated Summer X Games in history; a -35% decline from 2016. With that said, the double-digit increase is noteworthy because pay television trends are going in the wrong direction. Demo reported that Q1 ’18 viewership declined -56% within the 12-17 age demo, -48% in the 18-24 demo viewership and 34% between 25-34 year olds. When you consider those figures, you must applaud ESPN for growing X Games viewership with fans in both the 18-34 (+34%) and 12-34 (+21%) demographics.

Fan Marino: Rising attendance (+8% to 119,000) can be attributed to X Games placing a greater focus on the “X Games Experience” (i.e. giving fans entertainment options beyond just the competition). What was once solely an action sports showcase has morphed into an experience that blends action sports with art, food and music; Ice Cube, Kaskade and Zedd headlined at this summer’s Games.

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Comcast Out of Fox Bidding War, Focused on Landing Sky

Comcast

Comcast has dropped out of a bidding war with The Walt Disney Company (DIS) for 21st Century Fox’s (FOXA) film and television assets to focus its efforts on acquiring Sky Plc (SKYAY), the “crown jewel” of the Fox portfolio. By pulling out of the competition for Fox’s entertainment assets, Comcast avoids bidding up the implied value of SKYAY; the consequence of an “arcane provision in U.K. takeover rules”. Back on July 11th, Comcast (CMCSA) improved its cash offer for the European cable provider by 18% (to +/- $19.50/share, $34 billion); a 5% premium to the latest FOXA offer. Disney has indicated in regulatory filings that it will determine if FOXA is to continue with its pursuit of SKYAY; no decision has been made and one is not expected prior to the DIS shareholder vote on July 27th (re: Fox acquisition).

Howie Long-Short: Comcast’s decision to drop out of the bidding all but ensures that The Walt Disney Company (DIS) will take down the Fox film and tv assets. Of course, DIS had always been considered the front-runner for those FOXA properties having submitted the highest offer ($71.3 billion vs. Comcast’s $65 billion) and maintaining the support of both Rupert Murdoch and President Trump. Comcast shares popped 3% on the news, but nearly all gains realized were lost by Friday’s close ($34.30).

CMCSA appears to be willing to split the spoils with DIS, taking SKYAY and leaving the balance of the Fox assets for Disney’s taking. Comcast is now well positioned financially to outbid Disney should they make an aggressive play for SKYAY. BTIG Analyst Rich Greenfield expects that to happen saying, “while it is certainly possible that Fox (and in turn, Disney) is going to walk away from Sky and not match/exceed Comcast’s offer, it does feel hard to believe.”

SKYAY is the asset that Comcast really wants. The British pay-TV service could bring both the original content and distribution (satellite & broadband) capabilities to make the alliance “a mini Comcast-NBCU”. Adding 23 million subscribers across 7 countries, also give CMCSA the international expansion it seeks as the company strives to keep up with Amazon and Netflix in the global streaming race. While Comcast seeks 100% of Sky (including FOXA’s 39% stake), the company appears willing to settle for majority ownership; it’s unclear if Disney intends on selling its stake.

I asked Dan Cohen, Octagon SVP, Global Media Rights Consulting Division which deal (SKYAY or Fox Film/TV assets) contains the most valuable sports media rights?

Dan: Sky is the stronger sports specific acquisition with a robust portfolio not only in the UK, but other significant European markets. The crown jewel is obviously Premier League, but F1, Cricket and Golf are significant as well. Sky Italia offers up premium content after just renewing Serie A rights in Italy and Sky is a player in Ireland Spain, Germany and Austria.

Editor Note: Fox assets include Star India and Fox International channels, but no domestic rights. Comcast (had they continued pursuit of Fox assets) also intended on divesting the 22 RSNs to avoid anti-trust concerns.

Fan Marino: As Dan notes, SKYAY’s portfolio of sports broadcast rights is impressive (particularly the EPL), but the control over and value of those rights remains tentative. Exclusive broadcast deals cannot be counted on to last and as MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett astutely pointed out, “absent these exclusives, Sky is, well, just satellite TV.”

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Comcast Preparing to Divest 22 Fox RSNs, To Submit 2nd All-Cash Bid by July 27th  

Comcast

Comcast (CMCSA) is reportedly lining up buyers for 21st Century Fox’s (FOXA) regional sports networks to alleviate anti-trust concerns, as it prepares a bid that would be favorable to The Walt Disney Company’s (DIS) $71 billion dollar offer (cash and stock) for FOXA film & TV assets. CMCSA is open to divesting all 22 RSNs, but believes just 8 overlap with the existing Comcast sports footprint. Reuters is reporting that the company has held conversations with publicly-traded buyout firms Apollo Global Management (APO) and Blackstone Group (BX). Just 2 weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Justice approved DIS’ bid after reaching a settlement with the mouse house to rid itself of the regional sports networks.

Howie Long-Short: It’s been assumed that the RSNs will fetch $20 billion+ (Comcast’s first bid placed a $24 billion valuation on them), so selling them off will help Comcast coffers as the company prepares to submit a 2nd all-cash bid (no dollar amounts given). FOXA shareholders are scheduled to vote on the DIS bid on July 27th, Comcast will submit their bid prior.

Rumors of P.E. firms taking down the RSNs is relatively surprising as most of the discussions surrounding potential landing spots having focused on telecom and media companies. Everyone from Amazon (AMZN) and YouTube (GOOGL) to AT&T (T) and Dish Network (DISH) has been mentioned.

I asked T.K. Gore, sports media consultant, advisor and professor, for his thoughts on who lands the RSNs?

T.K.: The RSN world is a tricky business and experience — coupled with deep pockets — matters. Look for groups like Liberty Media and AT&T to get involved given their experiences.

MSG is among the companies that has been associated with having interest in the regional networks. James Dolan has said that he’d be interested in acquiring the assets “at the right price”, noting they’re highly profitable now but a “slow, declining revenue stream.”

Fan Marino: The 22 RSNs collectively control exclusive broadcast rights to 44 NFL, NBA, MLB & NHL franchises, including teams in Detroit, Southern California, Dallas, Cleveland and Miami. The YES Network is the most valuable of the lot, worth an estimated $4 billion; the Yankees are likely to re-acquire that network.

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Disney Agrees to Divest 22 Regional Sports Networks

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The Department of Justice has approved The Walt Disney Company’s (DIS) $71.3 billion ($38/share, increased bid from $52.4 billion, includes +/- 50% in cash) acquisition of 21st Century Fox (FOXA) television and film assets, after reaching a settlement with DIS that calls for the company to divest FOXA’s 22 regional sports networks. U.S. A.G. (Anti-Trust Division) Makan Delrahim, concerned DIS’ control of the RSNs would create a potential monopoly, said that the settlement ensures “sports programming competition is preserved in the local markets where Disney and Fox compete for cable and satellite distribution.” The settlement, which requires DIS to divest the RSNs within 90 days of closing, requires approval from a judge; but that is a formality. DISintends on pursuing a 3rd party buyer for the RSNs, as opposed to submitting a new offer; FOXA is not thought to be interested in retaining the assets.

Howie Long-Short: DOJ approval gives DIS an advantage over Comcast (CMCSA) in the competition for the Murdoch empire, just two weeks after Comcast submitted an all-cash bid worth $65 billion ($35/share). While the approval alone won’t win DIS the assets (Comcast is expected to submit a counter offer), it won’t hurt considering it’s been thought the FOXA board has long preferred to sell the assets to DIS in the belief the Comcast bid is bound to face anti-trust concerns. That’s debatable. CMCSA would also divest the RSNs and FOXA’s stake in Hulu is really the only asset that might draw anti-trust concerns; and that doesn’t appear to be a major hurdle. It’s been thought FOXA assets could draw upwards of $43/share.

It should be noted that if the DIS deal goes through as is, FOXA shareholders would own 19% of the joint company. FOXA shares are up +11% (to $49.79) since DIS submitted their latest offer on June 20thDIS hasn’t fared as well, the stock is down -1.25% (to $104.77) over that same period.

Fan Marino: While the Yankees are likely to repurchase YES Network, that still leaves 21 RSNs and a lot of regional sports broadcast rights for taking. Sure, it’s possible that FAANG will pursue exclusive broadcast rights, I would bet on an established linear player making a play to acquire the 5th most important channel on a subscriber’s cable package. CBS (think: CBS Sports HQ), Turner Sports (T, B/R Live) and Discovery Communications (DISCA, which has made a significant push for rights in Europe) are all possible landing spots.

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Yankees Seek to Re-Acquire YES Network, Hold Buyback Option

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The New York Yankees have expressed interested in re-acquiring the 80% of the YES Network controlled by 21st Century Fox (FOXA), if FOXA is to proceed with the sale of its film and TV assets (including 22 RSNs). The team reportedly holds a buyback option in the event the network (the most valued/viewed RSN among FOXA lot) goes up for sale. Last week, we wrote that Comcast (CMCSA) had submitted a $65 billion all-cash offer for 21st Century Fox’s (FOXA) assets that trumped the $52.4 billion all-stock offer that The Walt Disney Company (DIS) placed in December; DIS is expected to submit a counter bid. Yankee Global Enterprises, the holding company that owns the baseball club and NYCFC, controls the remaining 20% of YES.

Howie Long-ShortFOXA initially purchased a 49% stake in the YES Network for $1.862 billion in 2012. In 2014, the company acquired an additional 31% at roughly the same $3.8 billion valuation. The 1st place Yankees are drawing the network’s highest ratings since ‘12 and YES also controls the rights to broadcast both Brooklyn Nets and NYCFC games, so it’s certainly not unreasonable to expect FOXA to sell the asset at a valuation north of $4 billion. This means the team would be re-acquiring the network at a loss. That may not be of concern for the franchise though, as they likely value the ability to own/distribute their content with the recent proliferation of direct to consumer platforms/services.

According to Moody’s Investor Service, if Comcast were to acquire FOXA assets the combined entity would carry +/- $170 billion in pro-forma debt; more than every company in the world not named AT&T/Time Warner (which just completed a $85 billion merger).

Fan Marino: Back in April, Forbes released its rankings of the most valuable Major League Baseball teams. The Yankees topped the list with a $4 billion valuation, making them the 2nd most valuable team in all of sports; behind only the Dallas Cowboys ($4.2 billion). The team generated $619 million in revenue last year, 96.5% more than the league average ($315 million). Forbes has the NYY valued at +/- 6.5x revenue, slightly higher than what the Houston Rockets sold for in 2017; for comparison purposes, the Carolina Panthers recently sold for less than 6x revenue. I continue to maintain that David Tepper got a good deal.

The Yankees have signed the PBP voice of the YES Network (for Yankee games) to a 3-year extension (network option for 2 more years) worth more than $1 million/year. The deal makes Michael Kay the highest paid local broadcaster in MLB. Kay takes home a higher annual salary than some of the team’s biggest stars; Luis Severino, Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge will make $604K, $620K and $622K respectively this season.

Fun Fact: The value of the NYY has compounded 15% annually since George Steinbrenner group bought the team for $8.8 million in 1973.

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Comcast Submits $65 Billion All-Cash Offer for Fox Film/TV Assets, Including 22 RSNs

CMCSA

Just 24 hours after the announcement that a federal judge had approved AT&T’s $85 billion takeover of Time Warner, it was reported that Comcast (CMCSA) submitted a $65 billion all-cash bid for 21st Century Fox’s (FOXA) film and TV assets (including 22 RSNs); trumping the $52.4 billion all-stock offer that The Walt Disney Company (DIS) had placed in December. Comcast’s interest largely surrounds FOXA’s 30% stake in Hulu, as the acquisition would give CMCSA controlling interest in the OTT service (already own 30%). NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke stated, “we would be very very interested in growing that business.” In fact, it’s possible that if Comcast’s offer were to be selected, the company wouldn’t even end up controlling the RSNs; language within their bid indicated the company would match any regulatory commitments made by DIS; including to “divest… any of the RSNs.”

Howie Long-Short: FOXA shares rose +7.7% (to $43.66) on Wednesday following report of the Comcast bid. DIS closed up +2% (to $106.30), while CMCSA shares remained flat ($32.32) as investors expressed skepticism about the company increasing their debt level to 4x earnings; necessary to finance both the Fox deal and their purchase of Sky PLC (SKYAY).

It’s certainly worth noting that Comcast’s bid places a +/- $24 billion valuation on the 22 RSNs.

SKYAY is another name to watch. If DIS counters CMCSA’s bid, it’s possible that Fox will up its bid (currently $14.38/share) for the European pay-tv provider. Fox currently owns 39% of the company and was planning to acquire the remaining 61%, with the intention of flipping the asset as part of the proposed $52.4 billion transaction. Should a bidding war arise, John Janedis, an analyst at Jefferies LLC said it wouldn’t be unreasonable for the winning bid to reach $80 billion. For reference purposes, Comcast bid $16.72/share for 61% of Sky. The domestic cable/internet provider wants the asset (and Star – India) to expand its business overseas.

Fan Marino: AT&T’s (T) acquisition of Time Warner (TWX) includes several sports-related properties including Turner Sports, Bleacher Report and the newly launched Bleacher Report Live service; an untethered (i.e. no subscription needed) premium sports streaming service. T also takes controlling interest in the country’s largest pay television distributor, DirectTV. TWX shares rose 2% on Wednesday to $97.95, while T shares declined 6.2% (to $32.22) on the news.

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BT Sport, “New Online Player” Land EPL Broadcast Rights at Discount Rates

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Less than four months after Sky (SKYAY) and BT Sport (BT) agreed to spend a combined $6.194 billion on the English Premier League’s five most valuable domestic broadcast rights packages, BT Sport and a “new online player” have agreed to purchase the rights to the last two available packages (F & G) at a discount rate. EPL clubs have decided to sell the rights bundles at a cut-rate price after each failed to meet their reserve prices in February’s auction and concluding that Executive Chairman Richard Scudamore overestimated the interest from non-traditional broadcasters (think: FAANG). Financial terms of the deals have not been disclosed, but the new broadcaster’s identity will be revealed at a club meeting on Thursday; speculation surrounds both Facebook and Amazon.

Howie Long-Short: Despite the decline in the value of domestic rights, Scudamore is confident overall media rights will increase “by a decent amount” during the next cycle (’19-’20 through ’21- ‘22). Any lost domestic revenue will be offset by skyrocketing international rights. NBC (in U.S. market), ESPN (Brazil) and SuperSport (Sub-Saharan Africa) have all committed to paying a significant increase for the rights to broadcast EPL games.

As we know, NBC is owned by Comcast (CMCSA), while ESPN is property of The Walt Disney Company (DIS). SuperSport is a subsidiary of the South African based internet and media group, NASPERS. The company trades on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange under the symbol NPN or OTC with the symbol NPSNY. Shares rose 71.34% in 2017 on the back of Tencent (TCEHY), as NASPERS owns 31.2% of the Chinese internet giant. NPSNY hasn’t performed as well in 2018 though; the stock is down -7% YTD, despite being +8% (to $52.38) since last Thursday’s close.

Fan Marino: Back in February, the EPL announced BT won package A ($409.3 million/season, which includes 32 games played on Saturdays at 12:30p GMT), while SKYAY took home packages B, C, D & E ($1.655 billion/season). Packages F & G each carry 20 live midweek and bank holiday matches per season. The addition of 20 more games will give BT 52 live broadcasts/season, up from 42 under the expiring agreement.

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College Rugby Sevens Make ESPN Debut, Pac-12 Goes for 6th Straight Title

Rugby

Niche college sports, particularly non-varsity club sports, have historically fallen out of the purview of athletics sports rights holders and into a gray area of content replete with official logos and representation, but lacking mainstream coverage. That trend will end this weekend as the fastest growing sport in the country makes its way to ESPN linear and ESPN digital platforms for the first time; College Rugby Sevens. Army, Navy, Air Force and Notre Dame will headline The Penn Mutual CRC field, as 24 teams compete for a National Championship. 30,000 people are expected to attend the two-day event at Talen Energy Stadium (Philadelphia).

Howie Long-Short: Disney (DIS) reported fiscal Q2 ’18 profits increased 23% YoY (to $2.94 billion), with Black Panther ($1.3 billion in box office sales) and theme parks (+13% to $4.88 billion) spearheading revenue growth (+9% to $14.5 billion). Operating income for the company’s cable networks businesses (including ESPN) declined 4% YoY to $1.73 billion. Brook Barnes at the NYT attributed the decline to “higher costs – notably spending on unprofitable streaming services like ESPN+ and hulu – and subscriber declines at ESPN.” ESPN would not disclose the number of subscribers who have signed up for the ESPN+ service, but CEO Bob Iger said “a number of people have signed up for the trial and our conversion rates have been good so far”; adding “basically, I give it a so far, so good.”

21st Century Fox Shareholders (FOXA) have scheduled a date (July 10) to vote on the proposed $52.4 billion asset sale (including regional sports networks) to The Walt Disney Corporation (DIS). Comcast, which said it was preparing a cash offer (as opposed to DIS’ all-stock offer) for the FOXA film studios/cable networks/entertainment businesses, has +/- 6 weeks remaining to submit the bid. Should DIS lose out on the RSNs that are expected to boost the ESPN+ offering, Bob Iger won’t panic; he says the platform is “not reliant at all on the assets”. That’s true right now, as all the local MLB, NBA and NHL broadcast rights are tied up under contract; but, as those deals begin to expire, DIS will want to add the 5,500 games they currently carry to ESPN+. As I’ve previously explained, when a fan in St. Louis can get all the Cardinals and Blues games for $4.99/mo., they’ll subscribe to ESPN+.

Fan Marino: The Pac-12 has dominated the collegiate rugby landscape over the last eight years. The conference has won six of the last eight CRC Championships, with California winning the last five years (Utah won in ’10). This year, Arizona and UCLA are among the tournament’s favorites. Bill Walton would like to remind you that it is, in fact, the “Conference of Champions”.

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