NFL Media’s Hans Schroeder, ESPN’s Jimmy Pitaro and Burke Magnus Discuss the Future of NFL on ESPN

Recently announced rights deals cover a mix of broadcast, cable, digital, and social

If anyone was curious about the future of sports-content delivery, yesterday’s string of NFL distribution deals made it clear that, for at least the next 10 years, TV’s largest traditional players expect over-the-air broadcast, cable TV, streaming, OTT, and social-media services to be a potent mix ensuring that all sports fans, regardless of favorite platform, are served.

ESPN’s Jimmy Pitaro is excited about the multi-platform possibilities the ESPN and ABC can offer around the Super Bowl in 2026.

“While digital is growing, the traditional TV ecosystem is still incredibly rich, incredibly deep, incredibly broad,” said Hans Schroeder, EVP/COO, NFL Media. “We reach over 200 million people a year through television. We’re getting 40 telecasts a year with over 20 million people watching. And what I think partners like ESPN and Disney do so well is continue that wide reach, which has always been really important to us, but look for ways to add to and augment that.”

Schroeder made the comment during a conference call with Jimmy Pitaro, chairman, ESPN and sports content, and Burke Magnus, EVP, programming and original content, ESPN. During the call, they discussed the deal, the mix of digital and broadcast, the possibility of a Super Bowl MegaCast, and more.

“First, Super Bowls are back,” said Pitaro. “We’ve also secured direct-to-consumer rights and content, including exclusive national games for ESPN+. We have 35% more regular-season games, including end-of-season games with significant playoff implications, plus additional playoff matchups, a better schedule, increased flexibility, and, of course, vast highlight rights.”

Said Magnus. “This is bringing the full array of [ESPN parent] The Walt Disney Company’s distribution platforms to bear, from over-the-air television to multichannel subscription to cable television to digital and social and now direct-to-consumer. Every single one of them is important in their own way, and that’s the way we’re looking at deals at this moment in time. You saw it last week with our NHL deal.”

The NFL has always been forthright that the reach of over-the-air broadcast has been a key driver of its ability to stay closely aligned with NFL fans of all ages, and Schroeder said that having ABC back in the partnership for a number of exclusive games, playoffs, and the Super Bowl is just the tip of the iceberg.

“At the heart of it, too, is an expansion on digital,” he added. “I’m not sure there’s anybody in the media landscape in this country today that is growing, innovating, and evolving their approach and their business in the way that Disney is.”

Schroeder noted that the NFL is excited about the possibility of a Super Bowl MegaCast similar to the one ESPN did during Wild Card weekend this past season (and for the College Football Championship Game).

“Over the last decade,” he pointed out, “our concentrated focus [has been] on continuing to grow availability and grow the different experiences with how fans can engage with NFL live games. That’s both the game itself and the content around the live game.”

The NFL’s Hans Schroeder says the mix of traditional delivery and digital is key to the league’s media strategy.

The NFL fan base, Schroeder noted, is big enough that many fans will engage in new experiences, not only on different screens but with different forms of delivery. “We couldn’t be more excited about what they’re going to do with the Super Bowl when they get it in a few years.”

Pitaro said that it is too early to talk about specifics for a Super Bowl that is five years away but the idea of doing an alternative broadcast is something that ESPN will want to talk to the league about.

Many in the traditional broadcast and cable industry breathed a collective sigh of relieve yesterday. Only two years ago, rumors abounded that new-media companies would sweep in and make a big play for the NFL rights (rumors that most of those companies denied).

From the NFL perspective, the media landscape is not an either/or situation. “We look at it very much as, how do we add distribution in a way that’s complementary, that is reaching fans through new screens and new opportunities and is growing the way and opportunities they have to engage with our game,” Schroeder explained. “You’ll still see ESPN and now ABC be very much the core. You’ll see authenticated access and digital access that you might get through pay TV to those products. It will still be a core. Disney and ESPN in particular have led the way on that.”

He also envisions new forms of digital distribution and mobile distribution and partnerships as another additive way to engage a fan on the best screen available and whatever screen they have in front of them. “We don’t think about its being either/or. We think about how we pull these different platforms and models together.”

One thing not mentioned in the string of deals was the role the NFL Network will play, and Schroeder said the network will continue to be a key part of the league’s overall media strategy and will definitely have games.

“We have seven games today, and that will continue,” he said. “They’ll continue to offer the Red Zone, and our team will continue to, in my humble opinion, do maybe the best job of bringing the NFL 24/7. I think you’ll see NFL Media continue to be a really important part of everything we do, and we’re continuing to make sure there is an opportunity to grow and build our own assets.”

Pitaro added that, although live-game rights are the centerpiece of the deal, expanded footage rights for highlights are also extremely valuable.

ESPN’s Burke Magnus sees ancillary rights as essential for the broadcaster’s coverage of the NFL. (Photo: Melissa Rawlins/ESPN Images)

“If you look at what we do every day, from a studio perspective to the ESPN+ side, these ancillary rights are more important than they’ve ever been to us,” he explained. “We look at this deal in two ways: first, from a live-game perspective, but, second, from a highlights-and-footage perspective.”

Magnus added that the ancillary rights are essentially oxygen for ESPN on a 365-day basis to cover the league, cover the stories, promote the game, and then pay it off with a nice games package.

Pitaro described the NFL deal as a reflection of the overall approach that Walt Disney Company brings to sports-rights deals, using the power of multiple linear networks, direct-to-consumer, digital, and social.

“As we sit at the table and speak to our [distribution] partners,” he said, “they understand very quickly that we’re looking to acquire rights for all of our platforms, and, over the past couple of weeks, we’ve been successful in that regard. You can expect that spirit to continue.”

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