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After a big week, ESPN is becoming cool again

  • ESPN announces it has hired Katie Nolan from FS1.
  • It's working with branded content creation outlet Cycle.
  • It has won rights to Formula 1 racing.
  • It is rumored to be nearing a deal with Pardon My Take hosts for a late-night show.
McLaren Formula 1
Getty Images

Disclosure: Affiliates controlled by the writer of this column have long positions in Disney.

It was a pretty good day for Disney's ESPN — a dinosaur, according to its critics — even though it's the leading and most profitable sports cable channel.

On Wednesday, it:

In addition, various reports, including this one from Bryan Curtis, said that the Pardon My Take guys (Big Cat and PFT Commenter) from Barstool Sports were close to signing a deal with ESPN to do a late-night show on ESPN2.

And don't forget ESPN re-upped its deal with Altice on Sunday.

Rich Greenfield of BTIG had been counting down to the expiration of the deal, expecting ESPN, Disney, and ABC to go dark across major parts of New York.

Except it didn't. The deal increased affiliate fees and brought carriage of the SEC Network to New York, according to The New York Times. This was the first of many new distribution deals that need to be worked out this year and now gives a good template for those to follow.

Here's a deeper look at each of these bits of news:

Katie Nolan hire

Katie Nolan
Noam Galai | WireImage | Getty Images
Katie Nolan

Nolan is seen as one of the biggest up-and-coming on-air sports stars. She could have stayed at Fox for big money or joined Bill Simmons' "The Ringer." (He's said for many years that he's a fan.) She chose to go to ESPN.

Why? There's likely comparable money for her at any digital or linear outlet.

In my view, what likely makes ESPN most attractive for Nolan is that it's still the biggest sports network with the biggest audience with the most "platforms" (i.e., TV and digital). And she likely got assurances that she will get lots of chances to shine, which wasn't always the case at Fox.

Cycle Media deal

Simmons has constantly criticized ESPN for not "getting" digital, despite the fact that its digital numbers are better than anyone else in the sports vertical. To try to make his point, Simmons has repeatedly called out Bleacher Report's House of Highlights Instagram account. It has 7 million followers. It is a new way of watching highlights versus the SportsCenter way. It's easily shareable. Simmons has also complimented Bleacher's Game of Zones as an example of a new type of digital content that ESPN doesn't have.

Yet, with this Cycle Media partnership for branded original content and programming, ESPN has leap-frogged House of Highlights and Game of Zones. More than just creating shareable content, Cycle has connections to all the big ad agencies.

I've known Cycle's founder and CEO, Jason Stein, for over 5 years, so I'm biased, but he and his team are brilliant at finding the sweet spot of content that engages fans, athletes and advertisers. ESPN is lucky to have Cycle in its stable. And don't just take my word for it. Simmons had Stein on his "smart-guy" Friday podcast a few weeks ago, getting the former's blessing of truly "getting" digital.

Formula 1 rights

The deal is notable in that critics have been complaining that ESPN has too many rights for which it overspent.

Yet, it's getting these mostly Sunday morning rights for Formula 1 from NBC Sports. The calculus for new rights seems to be: Can I make more money from this versus our existing Sunday morning programming? The answer appears to be yes.

Pardon My Take coming?

Finally, the PMT news is interesting from a couple of angles.

In late August, I wrote this piece for CNBC about how — in my view — the Pardon My Take show was the most valuable part of Barstool Sports. Many of the 191 Barstool commenters (before comments were shut off) to this post from the Barstool president seemed to agree that Big Cat and PFT are big-time stars.

I indicated how that's both a huge strength for Barstool but also a potential risk. The risk is that they "pull a Crooked" (as in the Crooked Media co-founders who left "The Ringer" at the start of the year to start their own firm and successful business/podcast) and leave Barstool to do their own thing or join someone like ESPN.

No deal has yet been formally announced, but — in reading the tea leaves in the Curtis article and other reports this week — it appears that this is more of a pact between ESPN and PMT specifically for a show produced by Embassy Row, rather than a general partnership with Barstool.

If it happens, it should be good for ESPN, the PMT guys, as well as Barstool. Start-ups are cool, but reach is really cool and profitable.

If ESPN is the dinosaur of the sports world, it's now using its strength of reach to attract two of the coolest up-and-comers in the world of sports.

With Nolan and the PMT guys bringing their pixie dust of coolness to ESPN, as well as the cool snackable video content from Cycle Media, suddenly ESPN is starting to "get it" — whatever "it" is — overnight.

Disclosure: NBC Sports and CNBC are owned by NBCUniversal, a division of Comcast.

Commentary by Eric Jackson. Sign up for Eric's monthly Tech & Media Email. You can follow Eric on Twitter @ericjackson .