Game Plan 2023 highlights: Kevin Durant says his money is on Zuckerberg in Musk cage match, but he likes both X and Threads


Watch Kevin Durant discuss when he went to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s office to discuss cannabis

The NBA has made its peace with marijuana, unlike some other sports leagues, but along the way to the league easing up on the drug that is now legal in a growing number of U.S. states, Kevin Durant paid a visit to the office of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to press the case for a more liberal policy. When asked at Game Plan how he delivered the message to Silver, Durant said words weren’t required. Just the scent that trailed him into the commissioner’s office.

Colorado Rockies co-owner on how women in the front office and A.I. will be a ‘game changer’ for the sport, and fans

Colorado Rockies Co-owner on A.I. and fan engagement

As the first Hispanic co-owner of a major league team and CEO of her own construction company, Linda Alvarado is no stranger to pioneering new paths. One thing that holds people back, she said, is getting bogged down by conventional thinking — sticking to the status quo simply because they’ve always done things a certain way.

“Embracing change is difficult sometimes for people to do,” she said. “But the mindset has been changing.”

Alvarado sees artificial intelligence and other new tech as an exciting opportunity for sports business, and she believes those currently changing the game and driving change are women.

“It’s playing by the rules — not cheating, but making sure that we can compete. And the leaders of this in the Rockies organizations are women.”

Celebrity, athlete investment has legitimized pickleball: Major League Pickleball founder

Major League Pickleball Founder on the roots of the fastest-growing sport in America

While many view pickleball as the hottest sports property, Major League Pickleball founder Steve Kuhn still recalls that there was once a “hushed embarrassment” around the sport.

“There was a time when it was considered a sport that really only older people played or that it had a weird name,” Kuhn said.

But after a series of investments from investors, celebrities and athletes ranging from Marc Lasry and Gary Vaynerchuk to Kevin Durant, Tom Brady and LeBron James, Kuhn said the climate around pickleball has drastically changed.

“When Kevin Durant says it’s ok and when Tom Brady says this is pretty cool, I think that everybody’s ears picked up,” he said.

However, Kuhn said that if he could, he might pick a different name for the sport.

But given this wave of momentum around pickleball, “it doesn’t matter.”

—Ian Thomas

Kevin Durant says his money is on Zuckerberg in Musk cage match

Kevin Durant on "running NBA Twitter”: ‘I like engaging with the fans’

Sports betting is getting more creative, and based on comments from the head of the Professional Lacrosse League at Game Plan, it is going to get more creative yet. If the much-hyped cage match between Meta CEO Mark Zuckberg and Tesla CEO and X owner Elon Musk ever becomes real, that’s one sports gamble that Kevin Durant said has an obvious capitalist to bet on.

Durant, who stressed how much he has had to prepare throughout his life for success and that he wasn’t in any sense “born” to be a basketball player, is placing his bet on the CEO who actually does more than smack talk on social media when it comes to training.

“”I would take Zuckerberg because he actually practices, so I think he would win pretty easily.”

When it comes to the social media empires run by both, though, Durant, known for his presence on the formerly Twitter now X, remains agnostic.

“I’m on everything bro. Threads, Instagram. … Threads, it’s cool, another way to get the thoughts off.”

“If you’ve got the urge to post, just post,” Durant said. “I like all of it, no different for me, we are all connected.”

Gamma Co-founder, CEO on social media: ‘The only thing that matters is your craft’

While several young NBA players at Game Plan had said earlier they prefer to remain entirely off social media, Durant says that when he thinks about how much he would have loved the interaction as a young person with a famous athlete, it makes him want to remain active.

Durant, though, has at times in the past attempted to cut the social media connection when negativity was running high. But he said any time he turned his phone off or deleted a social media app, “I was still thinking about what they might say.”

So he decided to just deal with it.

“Whatever you got to say about me, let me hear every joke you got to say about me, criticize my game,” he said. And as a result, “I became more at peace as an NBA player,” Durant said. Diving into the negativity helped him to learn to manage it. And for the most part, “we’ve had some good dialogue and they’ve grown to know who I am a bit more,” he added.

He does have burner accounts — on all the major platforms he uses, “not findable,” Durant said — but it’s not for the reason people might assume. “Think I am just going on and being a demon-like troll. … I have so many followers, it’s hard to talk to the people I really want to talk to,” he said. 

Eric Rosenbaum

‘No simple answer’ to NFL salary structure criticisms: Rams owner Stan Kroenke

While the discrepancy between the salaries being handed out to running backs and other offensive positions has raised concerns this NFL offseason among the player base, Los Angeles Rams owner Stan Kroenke said, “there’s no simple answer as to why the running backs don’t get paid and why quarterbacks do.”

While quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson and Jalen Hurts signed deals paying them more than $50 million per season and wide receiver Tyreek Hill signed a deal last year that pays upwards of $30 million per season, only five running backs have deals paying them more than $12 million per year.

Saquon Barkley is the latest example, where after months of negotiations trying to score a long-term and lucrative deal with the New York Giants, he ended up signing a bonus-laden one-year deal that could reach up to $11 million.

Last week, several top NFL running backs met via Zoom to discuss the depressed market and how they could potentially reverse it.

Kroenke said it’s “a very complex question” as to how it ended up this way, pointing to things like the injury probability for running backs compared to other positions, and running back usage in modern NFL offenses. “Guys that are running these offensives … think they can get somebody out of the draft that maybe can do the job as well,” he said.

While he noted that “on paper, would the Rams love to have say, Barkley? Absolutely, we’d love to have him.” But he also noted in that scenario it would depend on if the team could fit a move under the salary cap.

“So there’s just a lot of complexity,” he said.

 —Ian Thomas

NBA Rookie of the Year Paolo Banchero on getting paid at a young age

Watch NBA Rookie of the Year Paolo Banchero discuss what it was like to be paid for his time as an athlete in college, courtesy of @cnbcevents.

Men need to ‘show up’ for women’s sports

Gotham Global's Ashlyn Harris to male sports allies: We need you to show up

Former NFL player Duke Ihenacho asked a crucial question during Game Plan – what can men do to help uplift women in sports?

A panel made up entirely of women in sports was ready with answers.

“Make way for us,” said Jessica Holtz, CAA Sports co-head of basketball.

The idea that men need to take an active role in creating space for women in sports business and leadership was echoed by Ashlyn Harris, a former U.S. Women’s national team soccer player and Global Creative Advisor for Gotham FC. “For me, it’s showing up and investing your time into supporting women. We need really strong men who see the importance of doing that to sit at a game, to invest in a women’s team. [Kevin Durant] is one of our owners of Gotham FC, he shows up, him and Rich [Kleiman] show up, and that is so important for us to continue to be successful and grow and to have powerful men in our corners.”

According to Harris, it is crucial that men not only show up, but also know when to step back.

“I’m very grateful to have such incredible men who understand sometimes they have to take the backseat and push me forward to continue to grow women in sports,” she said.

Natalie Rose Goldberg

‘Lots of smart people looking at that,” says LA Rams owner Stan Kroenke of foreign investment in NFL teams

Los Angeles Rams Owner on Saudi global sports growth: ‘It's not as easy as you think’

NFL team values are skyrocketing, but a new co-owner of the Washington Commanders, David Bitzer, defended his $6 billion deal and said the value of pro teams will only go up.

Scarcity value is a factor he cited, and Los Angeles Rams owner Stanley Kroenke agreed that it’s a factor in driving the value of NFL teams up, in addition to strong revenue streams today and new revenue opportunities, including an international opportunity he didn’t see as very big for the NFL not that long ago.

But the NFL team values are reaching the level where there is more talk about how many people exist in the world to afford teams in future deals. The NFL has never allowed foreign direct investment or institutional investment in its teams.

Kroenke, who was inspired as a graduate student to think he could to buy a pro sports teams when the St. Louis Hawks moved to Atlanta in a $1.5 million deal, said the values getting out of reach of even billionaires is an issue the league is watching and where he has been among owners pressing for new thinking.

For now, he says, the NFL is “a little bit lucky” watching other leagues like the NBA, which has been more creative, he said, under the direction of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. Kroenke also owns the Denver Nuggets, as well as the Colorado Avalanche and Arsenal F.C., and noted he has built relationships with owners in football including Middle Eastern owners in the U.K.

But Kroenke says that for 20 years he has been of the opinion that the NFL needs to relax some of its rules. “I’ve told them we will have to relax some of the rules. … The NFL is a league of rules, we have lots and lots of rules, and lots of people agree with me, but won’t do anything,” Kroenke said.

While the NFL does allow non-U.S. citizens to own teams, such as the Jacksonville Jaguars owners, every of the other three major leagues allows private equity firms and sovereign wealth funds to invest now.

The sky-high valuations will put more pressure on the league to find a solution, he said, because the NFL valuations are so different today than when he first got into the league.

“Lots of smart people are looking at that. Lots of interesting structures will come in,” Kroenke said.

He seems ready to continue to be among the owners pushing the NFL to take more risks, after having built a $5.5 billion stadium (SoFi Stadium) that came in double the original budget. “Somebody had to stick their neck out,” he said.

Eric Rosenbaum

Every single conversation with brands about tennis turns to pickleball, top agent says

Tennis star Nick Kyrgios on pickleball: 'I love it and it is getting more people active'

Pickleball has exploded in popularity across the globe, and it’s estimated that more than 36 million people played the sport last year.

That quick rise has led many to speculate about what that means for other paddle-based sports, mainly tennis.

But for tennis star Nick Kyrgios, the answer is pretty simple: “I love it.”

Kyrgios noted the difficult challenge that many face when they try to pick up tennis later in life, a difficulty curve that is not seen in pickleball comparatively. He also noted the benefit of people of all ages and skill sets playing a sport.

“What’s good is just genuinely getting more people active and playing,” he said.

Stuart Duguid, the top tennis agent who cofounded the EVOLVE agency in 2022 with Naomi Osaka and represents Kyrgios, said that even when he’s talking to brands about tennis, the end of nearly every single conversation turns its focus to pickleball.

“No one wants to miss out, everyone wants to know about it,” Duguid said.

Last year, Kyrgios and Osaka became co-owners of a Major League Pickleball team in Miami, alongside other investors like Patrick Mahomes.

Duguid said some of that excitement around the sport and growing amount of investment in it comes from the energy around the sport live, especially compared to the atmosphere at a tennis match.

“I went to an event in Arizona, and it was unbelievable; the energy was electric, music was playing,” he said. “People were having a good time and it’s something we have to do in tennis in many ways.”

But while it remains to be seen if pickleball can maintain its momentum or if padel can also replicate its success, Duguid said tennis is not losing out.

“All these sports are bringing more people in, which is only good for tennis,” he said.

–Ian Thomas

Major League Pickleball Founder on the roots of the fastest-growing sport in America

No tennis player will ever repeat what Nadal-Federer-Djokovic did, says Nick Kyrgios

Tennis star Nick Kyrgios on pickleball: 'I love it and it is getting more people active'

Tennis pro Nick Kyrgios accomplished a feat only two players ever did: he beat Rafael Nadal, Roger Federal and Novak Djokovic the first time he played all three.

And he didn’t even grow up paying much attention to the sport. Vince Carter and the NBA stars were the guys he loved. He was “stumbling” on the court against the greats at the start, and now with some hindsight what stands out to Kyrgios isn’t so much his rare feat but the “immortal” feats of the top three players of the current, sort-of ending tennis generation. Federer has already retired and it is Nadal’s last year, though Djokovic is still in his prime, even at 36.

“They’ve just dominated,” he said.

Serbia’s Novak Djokovic is presented with the trophy by former player Ken Rosewall after winning his final match against Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas.

Hannah Mckay | Reuters

Stuart Duguid, co-founder of tennis agency EVOLVE, said as the three greats are replaced by a new generation, there is a chance that the winner’s list gets more diverse and that helps to elevate the sport, but the recent results from the women’s game, where there have been many more winners of recent Grand Slams, doesn’t back up that idea yet. What a new men’s tennis star like Carlos Alcaraz may have as an advantage is the chance to make serious money outside the sport itself, Duguid said.

And he may need it, according to Kyrgios. “Carlos Alcaraz gets the 274th-best NFL salary and he’s the best player walking on the planet,” he said.

Alcaraz is a level above everyone else, according to Duguid, and there has “never been a better time to be him,” he said.

He noted that Federer made the most money he ever made in his last two deals and the players coming in now with so much potential and runway will have many opportunities.

But no one will touch what Nadal, Federer and Djokovic have done on the court, according to Kyrgios.

“They are cemented there. We won’t see what those three have done, I think, ever again,” he said.

Each won at least 20 Grand Slam titles.

Alcaraz, in the view of the only player to beat all three of those greats first time out, may get to 10 or 15 Grand Slams, Kyrgios said, but he added, “what those three guys did is immortal.”

Eric Rosenbaum

Pro lacrosse nears betting deal with FanDuel, with a focus on a new, ‘imaginative’ ways to gamble on sports

Premier Lacrosse League Co-founder, President on FanDuel deal and the sports betting landscape

The Premier Lacrosse League is set to announce a sports betting partnership with FanDuel, said co-founder Paul Rabil, a deal where the PLL could look to be creative about some of the ways you can bet on sports.

Due to the structure of the PLL — it’s a single-entity league where the players have equity — Rabil said it gives the league “more agility” in a sports betting deal where it could potentially work closely with an operator like FanDuel to be “imaginative” with its approach, especially around prop bets.

For example, Rabil said, there could be a way that fans could bet on metrics related to on-field biometrics tracking — he used the example of betting on the heart rate of an NFL kicker as they walked out for a game winning field goal.

Rabil joked that in his case, perhaps there could be a prop bet based on the amount of singing he does on the field.

–Ian Thomas

Athletes Unlimited has turned sports ownership model on its head, say WNBA’s Lexie Brown

Lexie Brown at the CNBC Boardroom Game Plan: The Ownership Game Panel, July 25. 2023.


How women’s sports is changing the equation in sports business has been a focus of Game Plan, from WNBA NY Liberty owner Clara Wu Tsai on the exponential growth opportunity to the next big media deal for women’s soccer.

But Lexie Brown, a star with the WNBA’s LA Sparks, said the biggest change of all may be the women’s sports league Athletes Unlimited. Athletes Unlimited, of which Brown is a founding member, is a league to promote women’s sports in the United States, including professional softball, volleyball, basketball and lacrosse.

“Athletes Unlimited turned the ownership model on its head,” Brown said. Unlike NBA and WNBA teams, Athletes Unlimited teams have a player-centric ownership structure – each league has a Player Executive Committee (PEC), which is made up of players who provide input on league rules, regulations, and even players. Brown says that the freedom and opportunity afforded to her by Athletes Unlimited has been “life changing.”

The women’s basketball arm of Athletes Unlimited thinks of itself as complementary to the WNBA, giving players the opportunity to remain in the United States during the off-season as opposed to feeling forced to go abroad, an issue which was raised to a new level of awareness amid Brittney Griner’s detention in Russia. The WNBA has recently allowed Athletes Unlimited to stream their games on the WNBA app, as the app gets limited use during the off season.

Ashlyn Harris on helping women tell their stories and transcending sports

NY Liberty owner Clara Wu Tsai says WNBA teams can be exponential growth opportunity

Brooklyn Nets Co-Owner on emerging leagues and measuring risk

Clara Wu Tsai’s husband Joseph, of Alibaba fame, bought the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, but was their deal together to buy the WNBA’s NY Liberty the better sports franchise opportunity?

The Game Plan event has had a lot of talk about the scarcity value of pro sports teams in a world where many sectors have been commoditized, especially in media. David Blitzer, co-owner of two pro teams, said the $6 billion recently paid for the NFL’s Washington Commanders wasn’t anywhere near a bubble.

But emerging leagues are a big opportunity, according to Wu Tsai.

“The NBA is a prime asset, but with emerging leagues there is potential for exponential growth,” Wu Tsai said.

She compared the investment opportunity to venture capital, so not without big risks, but she said when the Tsais were evaluating the NY Liberty one thing that stood out was a big advantage it had over the Nets scarcity value wise: no competing team in the same league in the same city.

Clara Wu Tsai, Boardroom Game Plan: The Ownership Game Panel, July 25, 2023.


There a few basic criteria: the league has to have the world’s best players, there has to be the possibility to attract a passionate and loyal fan base, and owners have to be able to see how the team becomes commercially successfully. “But in the case of the WNBA, we saw an advantage we did not have with Nets, two NBA teams in New York City, but only one professional women’s team,” she said.

“So we saw this great business opportunity to showcase the best women’s basketball players in the largest media market in the world.”

Wu Tsai described the WNBA, even 26 years into its history, as a startup compared to the NBA. “Look at almost all the economics, from revenue to player salaries. It is one-one-hundredth of the NBA. So if the WNBA just grows to 10 percent, it’s a 10x investment.” 

Eric Rosenbaum

NWSL looks towards next media rights deal that has league “all places, all times”

National Women's Soccer League Commissioner on the future of women's sports

The start of the 2023 Women’s World Cup last week is helping once again put a global spotlight on female soccer stars, something that NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman sees helping build momentum not only for the league, but also as it negotiates a new media rights agreement.

The NWSL’s current deal with Paramount Global‘s CBS, which was a three-year deal signed in 2020 reportedly worth $4.5 million over the length of the deal, expires after this season, and Berman said the league is currently in the market talking to potential partners.

“As we think about next year, and where we need to be, we think about it being in all places at all times,” Berman said. “We really need high discoverability, and we need to make sure that we’re serving our content in ways that our fans know how to find us.”

That points to the NWSL considering both a traditional linear broadcast element as well as a direct-to-consumer strategy as well – the league currently also has a deal with Amazon‘s Twitch to broadcast games on the streaming platform, and some are on CBS’s Paramount+ platform.

Berman did not comment on which media or tech companies the league is talking to but noted that the NWSL is a “perfect property to be able to demonstrate the value of direct-to-consumer, and we want to think about ways to expand our audience.”

DTC is a big focus at the sports business event, with ESPN chairman James Pitaro saying that it is not an if, but a when, for Disney flagship TV channels to go direct-to-consumer via streaming.

Finding where NWSL games are being broadcast has been a challenge in the past for fans, and Berman said the league needs a way to “make sure that we’re serving our content in ways that our fans know how to find us.”

Women’s sports are surging in popularity, especially amongst millennials and Gen Z, but the Women’s Sports Network, the first network to ever focus solely on women’s sports, launched less than a year ago.

That is not an uncommon feeling historically for fans of women’s sports, Berman said. “There hasn’t been a role for a complacent women’s sports fan, and for anyone in this audience who follows women’s sports you know you had to work really hard to identify where to look and when to watch because it’s been everywhere and nowhere all at the same time.”

— Ian Thomas and Natalie Rose Goldberg

CNBC x Boardroom Game Plan is on Twitter

Follow CNBC on Twitter for more real-time coverage of Game Plan.

Sports franchise valuations are not in a bubble and will only grow, says new Washington Commanders owner

Washington Commanders fans celebrate after NFL team owners unanimously approved Josh Harris’s purchase of the team from Daniel Snyder, at The Bullpen’s “Burgundy and Sold” party on Thursday, July 20, 2023.

Julia Nikhinson | The Washington Post | Getty Images

The value of major professional sports franchises keeps setting new records, which could lead one to conclude it’s a bubble, but according to David Blitzer, co-owner of the NJ Devils and Philadelphia 76ers, and Global Head of Tactical Opportunities at Blackstone, owners aren’t overpaying.

Less than a year ago the Denver Broncos sold for $4.6 billion. The Washington Commanders just sold for $6 billion with Blitzer’s peer private equity titan Josh Harris as managing partner, but Blitzer among others also in on the deal as a co-owner.

“I get asked all the time, I still remember not long ago, 2014, when Steve Ballmer paid $2 billion for the [Los Angeles] Clippers and people said the last team that traded was $650 million … “what’s going on here?’ Now I hear a similar dynamic with the Broncos and Commanders.”

David Blitzer at the CNBC Boardroom Game Plan: The Ownership Game Panel, July 25, 2023.


Blitzer says the scarcity value of pro sports teams is a huge factor and isn’t that hard to explain.

“At the end of the day, I come back to they are not making any more of them,” Blitzer said of pro sports franchises. “And they are growing,” he said. Teams are growing off existing fan bases, while also creating a new fan base and international growth.

Of the NFL specifically, Blitzer said, “The NFL is one of best business models I have ever seen in my life.”

He said every team generates significant free cash flow and that is one reason the numbers are getting bigger.

As an investor, he noted it is also a non-correlated asset with respect to other investment asset classes. “Franchise values have been growing since inception, and the rate of growth has increased over the past decade, and we can all debate over the next 10 to 20 years, but they are going to grow. … the live content is most valuable in the world. … revenue is growing.”

Eric Rosenbaum

Amazon bullish on NFL viewership growth for Thursday Night Football, Black Friday game

Amazon Global Head of Sports: 'We're playing the long game'

The 2022 season was the first year of Amazon‘s 11-year deal with the NFL, one that Jay Marine, Global Head of Sports at Prime Video, said left the e-commerce giant “extremely excited” but was also just the start of an investment for the “long term.”

Amazon is paying the NFL roughly $1 billion per season for the rights to “Thursday Night Football.” In the first year of its broadcast, which was available to most viewers only through streaming, it averaged roughly 11 million viewers, according to Amazon. In the previous year, when “Thursday Night Football” was not only available on Prime Video but also the league’s NFL Network, broadcasts averaged about 15 million viewers, according to Nielsen data.

Marine said Amazon felt it was a “great first year” for its broadcast, noting that those 11 million average viewers were younger and had higher income levels compared to other NFL broadcasts.

Amazon expects to grow that audience in year two, as not only more NFL fans recognize that Amazon is the exclusive “Thursday Night Football” broadcaster, but also as more consumers in general move towards streaming. “You can debate that rate of change, but you can’t debate the macro trajectory,” Marine said.

On top of that, the opportunity around the new Black Friday game that Amazon will exclusively stream – the first time the NFL will play a game on the day after Thanksgiving, historically a big day for NFL ratings – is “perfect” for the ecommerce giant, Marine said.

“I think it’s a testament to the NFL’s trust in us to help launch a new NFL holiday and tradition,” he said.

— Ian Thomas

ESPN shift to direct-to-consumer streaming won’t upend traditional TV model, Pitaro says

SportsCenter at ESPN Headquarters.

The Washington Post | The Washington Post | Getty Images

Disney leadership has said publicly in recent years it’s only a matter of time before ESPN and its TV channels shift to direct-to-consumer streaming.

Chairman Jimmy Pitaro reiterated Tuesday “it’s not if, it’s when,” that happens. But, he noted, that when that day comes it wouldn’t leave pay-TV distributors behind and nix the traditional TV model that has supported the business for so long.

Media companies have been shifting toward streaming as more consumers cut their traditional TV packages. Still, while these companies bleed pay-TV customers, the business remains a cash cow while streaming is still looking for a route to profitability.

“The [traditional TV] model has been very good to Disney,” Pitaro said. 

He debunked what he called “a perception in the industry” that when ESPN offers its channels a la carte via streaming to consumers it would flip a switch and leave behind the traditional TV bundle. 

Pitaro said ESPN would still live through the traditional model, even when the shift to direct-to-consumer streaming happens.

-Lillian Rizzo

ESPN conversations ongoing with potential partners, says Chairman Jimmy Pitaro

CNBC Boardroom Game Plan: The Business of Live Sports panel


ESPN and its parent company Disney have been in discussions with potential strategic partners, ESPN Chairman Jimmy Pitaro said Tuesday.

Pitaro said Tuesday he and Disney CEO Bob Iger had started the discussions with potential partners in light of accelerated cord cutting from the traditional cable TV bundle. 

Last week, CNBC reported ESPN had talks with professional sports leagues including MLB, NFL and NBA. Pitaro wouldn’t comment on potential partners and discussions. 

“I will emphasize the fact we believe there are parties out there that can help us on the content side,” Pitaro said. He noted potential partners could come from the tech, marketing, content and distribution sides of the business. 

ESPN conversations ongoing with potential partners, says Chairman Jimmy Pitaro

Earlier in July, Iger said on CNBC that the company is interested in selling an equity stake in ESPN, and is looking for a strategic partner. The admission came after Iger noted the company was rethinking its traditional cable-TV channel portfolio and would be open to selling the networks or exploring other options.

-Lillian Rizzo

Disney and ESPN are attempting a business pivot few companies have ever made

The Disney+ website on a laptop computer in the Brooklyn borough of New York, US, on Monday, July 18, 2022.

Gabby Jones | Bloomberg | Getty Images

There have been plenty of headlines about Disney CEO Bob Iger‘s search for strategic partners for ESPN, but Aryeh Bourkoff, Chairman & CEO of investment banking firm LionTree, says one aspect of the story many have not focused on enough is just how rare this kind of business pivot is in the recent history of the markets.

After ESPN chairman James Pitaro said conversations were ongoing with potential partners, and early, when it comes to migrating its flagship channels to direct-to-consumer (DTC) platforms, Bourkoff said we are now in a world were companies like Amazon and Disney and other parts of ecosystem have to come together in the shift to a DTC model, and media players and tech players are both competitors and partners, and the leagues which ESPN has been rumored to be in talks with, are potential partners that have been part of the cost structure of ESPN.

“There is a way to bring it all together that preserves the cash flow model during these transitions, and to do it as pubic company in front of shareholders is virtually unheard of,” Bourkoff said. Whether Reed Hastings with DVD to streaming or Amazon from books to Prime, and now ESPN from linear to DTC, there have been few parallels, Bourkoff said.

And in the current regulatory environment, what used to work — M&A — is no longer an option. “You need to do it with partnerships,” he said. “Partnerships are the new M&A with leagues or private equity or rights holders. Otherwise, there will be too much pressure.”

Eric Rosenbaum

We’re here live in Los Angeles

The CNBC x Boardroom Game Plan sports business conference in Los Angeles on July 25, 2023.

Ian Thomas, CNBC

Athletes, sports executives, owners, investors and other sports and entertainment leaders are arriving now in Los Angeles for the start of the Game Plan sports business conference.

There should be plenty of discussion around the future of sports and the challenges that lie ahead, whether that’s the integration of technology, reaching fans or creating new revenue streams – and where all three intersect.

— Ian Thomas

The big questions for ESPN and Disney

ESPN reportedly approached NBA, NFL and MLB about strategic partnership

A little more context ahead of Game Plan’s first session:

The migration from linear TV to streaming has placed enormous pressure on the financial strength of legacy media companies, Disney as much as any media giant. Its marquee cable asset, ESPN, has suffered for years as Americans cut the cord. In a recent interview with CNBC’s David Faber, Disney CEO Bob Iger said the linear TV business has degraded over the past year more than he expected. “If anything, the disruption of that business has happened to a greater extent than even I was aware,” he said.

Iger told Faber of potential ESPN deal-making, “We’re going to be open minded about looking for strategic partners that could either help us with distribution or content. I’m not going to get too detailed about it, but we’re bullish about sports as a media property.”

Shortly after that, CNBC media reporter Alex Sherman reported that the MLB, NFL and NBA were in discussions with ESPN and Disney to take minority stakes. The NBA said it is always interested in discussions about “the future of its partnership” with ESPN. (Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery have exclusive negotiating rights with the NBA until next year.) The NFL has been interested in extending its ownership of NFL-related media in a variety of ways.

One of the key executives in those discussions, ESPN chairman James Pitaro, is up first at Game Plan and all eyes and ears will be on his comments about the future of the sports network.

Eric Rosenbaum


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