ESPN's Burke Magnus

There are big changes afoot in the executive ranks at ESPN. Long-time key rights executive Burke Magnus (seen above), who has held the title of president (programming and original content) since 2021, will now be president of content. Meanwhile, Disney Parks executive Rosalyn Durant is returning to ESPN (where she previously worked for almost two decades, including as vice president, programming and acquisitions, and as senior vice president of college networks) to oversee rights as executive vice president of programming and acquisitions.

This move is somewhat strange from a title perspective, as Magnus’ new title is less comprehensive than his old one, but this is still being billed as a promotion in most writeups. And that’s despite it listing many of the same content responsibilities as his old job. Consider Variety Wednesday (“Magnus…will supervise studio shows, live events, newsgathering, investigative journalism, original content/ESPN Films, talent, audio, digital, and social media”) and The Hollywood Reporter in 2021 (“In his expanded role, Magnus will oversee all programming and content for ESPN’s linear channels as well as the ESPN+ streaming service, including ESPN Films and the 30 for 30 franchise. He also oversees rights acquisition (such as Disney’s blockbuster NFL deal announced earlier this year) as well as program scheduling.”)

Update: AA obtained some clarity on this from a source. The “content” in Magnus’ previous title was about the original content and ESPN Films division, under senior vice president Brian Lockhart, which reported to him after this change (and used to report to former ESPN content figure Connor Schell, who left at the end of 2020). The rest of Magnus’ previous role was about supervising rights acquisition, managing day-to-day relationships with leagues (including which specific games ESPN got), supervising ESPN’s college networks and ESPN Events, and scheduling content across ESPN platforms. Durant is now taking over much of that previous acquisitions, programming, and scheduling role, and Magnus will now be focused on a much wider variety of ESPN content; Lockhart’s films and original content division will still report to him, but he’s now adding responsibility for the rest of the content side, including who produces and calls games, studio programming, digital, social media, and more. So he’s now firmly focused on the content side, and Durant is handling the acquisitions and programming side.

As that previously-linked Variety writeup (from Brian Steinberg) notes too, this is also about ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro playing a larger corporate role at Disney these days following last month’s reorganization to make ESPN a standalone unit. Thus, some of the things Pitaro might previously have overseen directly will now go to Magnus or Durant first, as Steinberg writes: “Iger has charged Pitaro with a greater share of senior corporate responsibilities and the shuffle at ESPN will help streamline some of the executive’s direct reports.” And on the content side, many of the key content executives will now be reporting to Magnus rather than Pitaro, as John Ourand writes at Sports Business Journal:

A major reorg was announced at ESPN today with Burke Magnus taking on an big new role as president of content and seemingly solidifying his place as number two to ESPN Chair Jimmy Pitaro.

… Head of Event & Studio Production Stephanie Druley, Head of NBA and Studio Production David Roberts and Exec Editor & Head of Event & Studio Production Norby Williamson all will report to Magnus. Previously, Druley, Roberts and Williamson reported to Pitaro. Magnus’ other direct reports will include [Senior Vice President, Original Content and ESPN Films] Brian Lockhart and [Vice President, Social Media] Kaitee Daley. 

This is a big change on the rights side as well, and it’s coming at an interesting time. The key next big deal for ESPN is the NBA, with the current contracts there expiring after the 2024-25 season. Magnus has previously spoken about the importance of the NBA to the company. But there are likely to be lots of bidders there, including potentially NBC, Amazon, and Apple in addition to current rightsholders ESPN and TNT (with their parent companies Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery both having exclusive negotiating rights with the league through April 2024). Now, there’s a new figure likely to play a key role in those rights talks on the ESPN side.

Of course, rights negotiations aren’t new to Durant. She has a lot of experience there given her past ESPN work in programming and acquisitions and college networks. And she even has some recent NBA connections from her Disney Parks work, which saw her play a key role in the 2020 season restart in Orlando. And, as per Steinberg, Pitaro’s memo mentions that Magnus “will continue to be involved in certain negotiations during this transition period,” so it’s possible he could still play a role in early stages of the NBA talks as well.

But it’s definitely interesting to see someone else taking a key role there for ESPN, as Magnus has been generally cited as a crucial part of their rights deals. And the timing here is also interesting considering that there will be new figures for WBD as well, with WBD Sports U.S. president Lenny Daniels leaving last November, WBD Sports EVP/GM Tina Shah leaving this week, and WBD CEO David Zaslav and WBD Sports CEO Luis Silberwasser both new to the Turner side (and expressing some different opinions about how crucial the NBA is to them).

The shift of Magnus to more actual content supervision is highly notable too. And along those lines, Ourand’s note that this has Magnus “seemingly solidifying his place as number two to ESPN Chair Jimmy Pitaro” feels important. Magnus was probably number two there already, but this gives him more direct influence on the content side, certainly in terms of who’s now reporting to him. And that maybe is a step towards preparing him to run all of ESPN, which could happen if Pitaro keeps moving up at Disney. Magnus has had some influence on content since getting that president (programming and original content) title in 2021 (which came after key content figure Schell, perhaps the old number two, left in late 2020), but now he’ll be the key figure on the content side. And if that goes well and he does wind up running the whole ESPN unit at some point, they could then talk up his background in both rights and content.

[Variety, Sports Business Journal, ESPN Press Room]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.