ESPN put heat on Fox Sports for NRL rights


ESPN executives have told the NRL there is a strong appetite to open discussions when the code is ready to negotiate its next television rights deal for 2023 and beyond – which was meant to be later this year.

While the NRL would struggle to get a look-in on the television network in the US while the NBA, MLB, NFL and NHL are back up and running, there is a huge opportunity to form a partnership with the digital side of the business that impacts on local broadcasters – including the owner of this publication, Nine.

NRL chief commercial officer Andrew Abdo recently visited the United States and will be pivotal to the NRL’s broadcast negotiations.Credit:Janie Barrett

ESPN, which is majority owned by the Walt Disney Company, launched the subscription-based ESPN Plus in April 2018 to focus primarily on overflow sports content from around the world that isn’t usually aired on the network’s main broadcast channels.

ESPN Plus’ entrance into the NRL’s broadcast negotiations, which could have a heavy digital streaming component to it, would be in direct competition with Kayo – a subsidiary of Foxtel.

It was hoped that opening discussions with ESPN, which has resorted to airing documentaries and talk shows as all of the major US sports have shut down, would provide the NRL with an opportunity to take advantage of a global shortage in live sport and gain worldwide exposure.

However, discussions could prove far more beneficial than just a short-term sugar hit.

Foxtel powerbrokers in Australia are far more concerned with ensuring the NRL continues to play games, given the Pay-TV giant’s heavy reliance on the 13-man code for subscriptions, than they are with whatever opportunities the NRL may pursue overseas.

But if ESPN encroaches on their domestic audience, that would prove a far greater challenge.

The NRL is well aware of how the digital landscape has evolved, with ARLC chairman Peter V’landys and chief commercial officer Andrew Abdo recently visiting the US to meet streaming and tech giants Facebook, Amazon Prime and Google.

The Herald spoke with ESPN director of international production, Sergio Verdu, on Monday in light of the NBA, Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League – as well as many college sports – suspending their seasons.

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Verdu hinted that ESPN was interested in more than just what lies ahead over the coming weeks.

“You have to consider that there will be a monetary issue and the opportunity for long future relationships that come into the conversations,” Verdu said from Connecticut on Monday.

When ESPN Plus hit the market almost two years ago, its launch content included international cricket matches, Major League Soccer and rugby union matches, including the Bledisloe Cup.

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