How ESPN Went From Disney’s Financial Engine to Its Problem

2023-08-02 - Scroll down for original article

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ESPN has been Disney’s financial engine for nearly 30 years, powering the company through recessions, box office wipeouts and the pandemic. It was ESPN money that helped Disney pay for acquisitions — Marvel, Lucasfilm, Pixar, 21st Century Fox — and build a streaming service, transforming itself into a colossus and perhaps traditional media’s best hope of surviving Silicon Valley’s incursion into entertainment. Those days, ESPN’s best, are over. With its dual revenue stream — fees from cable subscribers and advertising — the sports juggernaut continues to earn billions of dollars for Disney. In the first six months of the 2023 fiscal year, Disney’s cable networks division, which is anchored by ESPN and its spinoff channels, generated $14 billion in revenue and $3 billion in profit. The problem: Wall Street is fixated on growth. Revenue for those six months was down 6 percent from a year earlier, as profit plunged 29 percent. Disney is now exploring a once-unthinkable sale of a stake in ESPN. Not all of it, Robert A. Iger, Disney’s chief executive, has made clear. But he wants “strategic partners that could either help us with distribution or content,” he said during an interview with CNBC last month. Disney has held talks with the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball about taking a minority stake.