After rolling out the fruits of a recent partnership with The Walt Disney Company, Apple could have its sights set on a partial buyout of the House of Mouse–a buyout that could be a massive win-win scenario for both entities involved.
Recent Disney-Apple Partnership: Just the Beginning
Disney has generously shared its content with Apple in the duo’s rollout last week of the Apple Vision Pro VR headset, and now, it looks like Apple could have its sight set on a broader partnership–one that involves the buyout of part of Disney’s assets and could benefit both companies greatly.
ESPN has long been a problem for Disney, and Apple’s recent moves within the world of sports could signal the beginning of talks leading to the buyout of the sports network by Apple.
Why Would Such a Buyout Be Good for Disney?
In mid-2023, Disney CEO Bob Iger said he was officially seeking distribution partners to help with ESPN.
When Bob Iger returned to the helm of Walt’s beloved company in November 2022, he was met with a deluge of challenges, not the least of which was the question of what to do with ESPN. The network was once considered the sports juggernaut at Disney.
In August 2023, CNBC published a report by Alex Sherman and Lillian Rizzo that suggested Iger was hopeful about the possibility of developing strategic partnerships with Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and other major league sports entities.
Such partnerships would likely yield cash infusions or the infusion of assets, such as content, both of which would ultimately save Disney billions when it comes to ESPN.
Disney is considering ways to save cash as it tries to shore up its balance sheet. The media giant’s streaming division continues to lose money — with $512 million lost in its most recent quarter — and the company would like to pay down its $44.5 billion in debt. Disney also likely owes at least $9.2 billion to Comcast for its minority stake in Hulu. Agreeing to a deal where ESPN trades equity for sports rights could potentially save Disney billions of dollars that it can then use for other strategic ventures. ESPN struck a deal earlier this weekwith Penn Entertainment, which will provide it with $1.5 billion in cash over the next 10 years.
ESPN’s Plummeting Revenue
Revenue at ESPN seemed unbothered by its continual nosedive. After all, Disney’s other cable networks were experiencing a similar scenario in late 2022 and early 2023.
At the time, Disney’s cable networks were down 6% to $14 billion and 29% to $3 billion, respectively, during the first six months of Disney’s fiscal year 2023 (October 2022 to March 2023). And though Iger has been all-in with the possibility of partnering with the four major sports leagues, it hasn’t been his only thought about ESPN.
According to Peter Csathy at The Wrap, Iger is hoping the business acumen and ingenuity of two former Disney execs to help him make a decision about ESPN.
Iger has retained former top lieutenants Kevin Mayer and [his business] partner Tom Staggs in a ‘consulting capacity’ to help decide ESPN’s fate. This intriguing development followed Iger’s recent uncharacteristically frank and gloomy comments that pointed to the notion of Disney shedding some of the assets it built up under his first run as CEO.
So far, no official decision about ESPN has been announced by The Walt Disney Company, but such an announcement might be on the horizon, thanks to some recent partnerships solidified by Apple.
A Formal Apple-Disney Partnership Takes Shape, But More is on the Horizon
In June 2023, Disney announced a formal partnership with Apple in the form of content provider for the tech giant’s first virtual reality (VR) project, called the Apple Vision Pro. Apple describes it as a “spatial computer that transforms how people work, collaborate, connect, relive memories, and enjoy entertainment,” and Disney is responsible for a large part of that entertainment.
The Apple Vision Pro rolled out to the general public on February 2, and the new $3500 gadget from Apple comes with loads of Disney, Marvel, Star Wars, and Pixar content. And now that such a partnership is in place, Apple and Disney can theoretically focus on a different partnership–one that could result in Apple acquiring a chunk of The Walt Disney Company’s assets–namely, ESPN.
Why Apple and Why Now?
Apple could ultimately be the perfect entity to help solve Disney’s ESPN problem.
First, Apple has the resources with which to purchase ESPN. On November 10, 2023, Bloomberg predicted Apple would buy ESPN for $35 to $40 billion, and three months earlier, in August 2023, Bloomberg noted Apple’s notoriety for not acquiring other companies but suggested Apple should make an exception when it comes to ESPN.
That may be due in part to the fact that in March 2022, Apple CEO Tim Cook oversaw a deal that resulted in the company buying media rights to Major League Baseball. Then, in June 2022, Major League Soccer sold all of its global media rights exclusively to Apple, making it the first major league sports group to go all-in for a partnership with a digital media company. At the time of the partnership with Apple, MLS was still in negotiations with ESPN.
Per a report from Reuters in December 2023, Disney and Apple could have a very symbiotic relationship, set into motion by Apple’s buyout of ESPN. Disney has what Apple needs, and the opposite is true as well. As such, Apple’s buyout of ESPN could be a near-perfect scenario for both the entertainment giant and the tech giant.
Should ESPN serve as the primary outlet for Major League Baseball games and Major League Soccer games, the premise could give Apple quite the advantage. The purchase of ESPN by Apple could also mean that the tech giant would inherit deals already in place with the four major U.S. men’s leagues, as well as the WNBA, the WTA, the ATP, college football’s Big 12 and SEC conferences, and more.
Though there’s been no announcement so far about specific plans for such a buyout by either Disney or Apple, such a transaction could also solve Iger’s issue of the negative effect ESPN has recently had on Disney’s bottom line. For now, however, whether the two giants will move forward toward an ESPN-focused partnership remains to be seen.