Following the surprising return of once and future Disney CEO Bob Iger last November, much of the talk quickly became not just about what Iger would do in his second stint at the helm, but who would eventually replace him. On Friday, Charles Gasparino of Fox Business offered an interesting report on that identifying three top candidates as per “media execs.” The candidates he lists are Adam Silver (the NBA commissioner since 2014), Kevin Mayer (a former Disney exec, now co-founder and CEO of Candle Media and chairman of DAZN Group), and Dana Walden (currently co-leader of Disney Entertainment, one of the company’s three divisions):
SCOOP: Media execs say @Disney has unofficial short list of internal/external candidates to replace @RobertIger includes @NBA commish Adam Silver @KevinMayer $DIS Entertainment's Dana Walden. Silver suggests $DIS having second thoughts about ditching @espn 345pm @FoxBusiness
— Charles Gasparino (@CGasparino) March 3, 2023
Iger’s current deal with Disney runs through the end of 2024, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that will be the exact timing of his exit. The 72-year-old Iger first took the Disney helm in 2005, but was initially set to step down from it in 2016, then 2018, then 2019. He finally left the CEO role in February 2020 (talk about timing!) to make way for successor Bob Chapek, but stayed on as executive chairman through the end of 2021, and then served as a strategic advisor before riding back in as CEO last November. So the timing here could depend on a number of factors, from the company’s performance (and the board’s satisfaction or lack thereof with it) to his own health, and it could go shorter or longer than December 2024.
That December 2024 target is a particularly interesting one when it comes to Silver’s candidacy in particular, though. The 60-year-old Silver’s current contract was extended through the 2024 NBA Finals in 2018. So if the NBA doesn’t want to bring him back, or if he wants to move on, the fall to winter of 2024 would be a logical time for him to find something new.
Also, as Gasparino notes, Silver being mentioned as a candidate at all given his sports experience is yet another blow to the “Disney will spin off ESPN” theory. That theory has already been taking its lumps lately. And Mayer’s candidacy can be considered a bit of a blow there too; he did a lot of different things over the years at Disney, but he was heavily involved with sports especially around the launch of ESPN+, and his DAZN role is definitely sports. So, if this report is accurate on Disney targets, two of the three having significant sports backgrounds is a further indication they see a strong future role for sports at the company. It’s not conclusive proof; sports executives handle many different areas of business, and some of them later find lots of success outside the sports realm. But it is a suggestion Disney may value sports experience in their next leader.
The other notable thing there is that while the NBA’s current national TV contracts expire after the 2024-25 season, ESPN parent Disney and TNT parent Warner Bros. Discovery have exclusive negotiating windows that expire in April 2024. So it’s quite possible the next NBA deal gets done while Silver is in office. And given that ESPN is expected to make at least a strong play for NBA rights (and perhaps even more than they currently have), with Iger’s return to the CEO role widely seen as boosting that, it’s possible that Silver could be negotiating with his next employer.
That doesn’t necessarily mean impropriety. Commissioners are far from the only one involved in rights deals, with league teams working on them and owners needing to sign off. And it’s hard to picture a below-market deal with ESPN getting approved. And the next CEO of Disney may not be decided at that point. And so far we have only Gasparino’s report that Disney is considering Silver, which doesn’t include if Silver has interest in the role and doesn’t state how he’s seen relative to those other two listed candidates. But Silver negotiating a deal with ESPN and then leaving for Disney would definitely be at the least awkward from a perception standpoint. It’s not unprecedented for execs to move between places where they’ve previously had work connections, though; Pete Bevacqua went from PGA of America CEO to NBC Sports Group president in 2018, and many media execs have moved into sports roles, including John Wildhack leaving ESPN for Syracuse in 2016 and Mary Anne Turcke left Bell Media for the NFL in 2017.
The reported candidacies of Mayer and Walden are also worth some discussion. Mayer had a notable run at Disney from 1993-2000 (capped by running Disney Internet) and 2005-2020 (capped by running the Direct-to-Consumer & International division, which was key to their over-the-top strategy, including ESPN+). He played major roles in several Disney acquisitions, including the pickup of a controlling stake in BAMTech in 2017 and the purchase of Fox assets (announced in 2017, completed in 2019). Meanwhile, Walden spent 25 years at 20th Century Fox, including as chair and CEO of Fox Television Group, then joined Disney in 2019. She was named chair of Disney General Entertainment last June, and is now co-chair of the larger-still Disney Entertainment with Alan Bergman, a division covering everything the company does outside of sports (ESPN division) and parks/hotels/cruises/consumer products (Parks, Entertainment, and Products division).
Of course, Disney CEO is one of the most important media jobs out there. So there will be lots of interest in that role, and lots of pressure for Iger and the board to find the right successor (especially after their last pick, Chapek, didn’t work out). And it seems likely they’ll consider more candidates than just three, even if this is the “shortlist.” And a lot could change between now and when that decision is made. But it’s certainly notable to see Silver, Mayer, and Walden mentioned as short-listed here.