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Can Warner Bros. Discovery Rival Disney's ESPN in Sports?

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Can Warner Bros. Discovery Rival Disney’s ESPN in Sports?

Combining Turner and Eurosport assets will make newly-formed company an international sports player

One of the more under-the-radar aspects of Discovery’s deal with WarnerMedia to create Warner Bros. Discovery is its potential to become a force in international sports.

On the surface, both WarnerMedia and Discovery complement each other in sports rights. Turner, a WarnerMedia property, holds rights to the NBA, MLB, the NCAA’s March Madness basketball tournament and starting this coming fall, the NHL, which includes a handful of Stanley Cup Finals broadcasts. Discovery, meanwhile, owns Eurosport, which holds pan-European rights in 50 markets for the Olympics through the 2024 Paris Summer Games.

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Discovery and WarnerMedia combined as a way to challenge Disney and Netflix in the all-important streaming wars, but can Warner Bros. Discovery combined sports assets surpass Disney’s ESPN for sports supremacy? The answer so far: not yet.

“While adding Eurosport to the Turner nets makes Warner Media-Discovery an international sports media company, it’s still not anywhere near Disney’s worldwide distribution platform reach and rights heft,” Pat Crakes, a former Fox Sports executive who works as a consultant, told TheWrap.

“Overall, Turner has strong U.S. rights and distribution but no international presence. Eurosport operates in Europe and other places internationally, such as India, but the rights are disparate and fractionalized and most are not of a Tier 1 nature,” Crakes said, noting that the company’s European rights to the Olympics is a rare exception. “Disney, by contrast, has robust distribution world wide under the ESPN brand and others, and in nearly all countries has Tier 1 rights that Disney purchased from Fox.”

Even with an impressive list of domestic sports rights, Turner still lags behind ESPN in the U.S. Disney’s sports network shares with Turner rights to the NBA (the NBA Finals air on ESPN’s broadcast sibling, ABC), MLB and the NHL. What ESPN has that Turner does not is the NFL, which includes “Monday Night Football” — and the Super Bowl in 2026 and 2030.

“ESPN is still far and away the owner of both higher volume and more preeminent sports rights in the U.S.,” said Michael Nathanson, an analyst at MoffettNathanson. “The one set of rights that ESPN would desire is the NCAA men’s Basketball Tournament.” ESPN would also love to have more playoff baseball — Turner splits games with Fox and carries one of the League Championship Series each year. But aside from those events, Nathanson argues, the competition between the two companies “isn’t close.”

Internationally, the difference is starker. Eurosport’s Olympics rights are noteworthy — but they only matter for two weeks every other year. Outside of that, Eurosport mostly has lower tier rights, which vary by country. Since Discovery bought Eurosport for more than $500 million in 2015, it has refused to engage in bidding wars for more popular sports, particularly major soccer leagues.

“Outside the U.S. and outside of India, Discovery may hold a stronger hand with the Olympics in Europe,” Nathanson said, adding that the lack of major European soccer rights is a detriment to its overall value. Eurosport holds rights to smaller soccer leagues, including Eliteseiren (Norway), Allsvansken (Sweden), English Football League (U.K.) and Super Liga (Denmark) .

Despite the combined size of WarnerMedia and Discovery, Nathanson argued that the economics of professional soccer will make it difficult for Eurosport to upset the established rights holders like Sky, BT Sports in the U.K. and France’s Canal+. “European soccer is a very economic model, I am not sure what they can do differently,” he said. “It benefits the distributors like Sky because the rights cycles are very short term and thus hard to build a business against an incumbent.”

Crakes sees an opening for Warner Bros. Discovery to become a player international sports player. “The table is certainly set for Warner Media-Discovery to expand its international content portfolio and distribution reach to better compete with Disney,” he said. “It just won’t happen overnight.”

Tim Baysinger

Tim Baysinger

TV Reporter • [email protected] • Twitter: @tim_bays

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