As discussed in November and January, ESPN’s next MLB deal will indeed feature far less TV games and somewhat less money, and will focus on exclusivity. ESPN and MLB both announced details of that deal Thursday, with ESPN putting those out around parent corporation Disney’s earning call. The new deal will start in 2022 and run through 2028, and will feature 30 regular-season games on TV per year (down from around 90 under the previous deal), but all of those games will be exclusive (at least two-thirds of ESPN’s games under the previous deal were not exclusive, and were also carried on the participating teams’ regional sports networks). As per John Ourand of Sports Business Journal, this new deal is for $560 million a year, a drop-off from the $700 million a year ESPN was paying previously, but that seems fine for MLB considering that they saw increases from Fox and Turner and that they now have a midweek package (the old ESPN games) to shop elsewhere:
ESPN has renewed its MLB deal through the ’28 season, keeping exclusive rights to “Sunday Night Baseball,” but walking away from a weekday schedule where games ran side-by-side with local telecasts. The seven-year deal is worth around $560M per year, sources said. That’s down from the current $700M annual average that ESPN is paying MLB. ESPN will get less content with this deal, so its rights fee dropped — though its cost per game increased. MLB is currently shopping rights to those midweek games, with a source saying that an announcement is coming. It is likely that a digital media company will pick up those games.
Even with the lower rights fee from ESPN, MLB has found success with its rights renewals. Fox signed an extension that also runs through ’28, worth an average of $730M per year — a 40% increase over Fox’ previous deal. In September, Turner Sports renewed its deal through ’28 at an average cost of $470M per year — a 65% increase.
This deal also comes with further playoff games for ESPN, at least potentially. If the playoffs expand to a full best-of-three Wild Card round (as used in 2020) the way MLB wants in 2022, ESPN will exclusively broadcast all those games on its platforms, with their release noting that that will include ABC. That’s similar to what happened last year, when ESPN had all but one series in that round. If the playoffs do not expand (the MLBPA has to sign off on that), then ESPN will receive additional regular-season games. Here’s more on that from the MLB release:
As for the postseason, ESPN will have the rights to exclusively broadcast all MLB Wild Card Series starting in 2022, if that format is revived. If the current Wild Card format remains in place, ESPN will exclusively carry one of the two Wild Card Games, and it will gain eight additional regular-season games.
And, as you’d expect for a deal done in 2021, there’s a streaming component. Here’s more from the ESPN release on what this will mean for ESPN+, including rights to simulcast the exclusive games ESPN airs on TV:
In addition to the new live event simulcast rights, ESPN has gained the rights to create new MLB content for ESPN+, including studio and highlight-driven programming. The streaming service will also continue to televise a Major League Baseball game, subject to local blackout restrictions, nearly every day of the regular season, as well as select Spring Training coverage.
It’s interesting to see ESPN go through with dialing down its MLB tonnage (on linear TV, at least) significantly and focusing on exclusive games. There’s some logic to this; the non-exclusive weeknight MLB games often weren’t drawing great, and ESPN now has more competition for those slots, especially with their new NHL deal (which will start this fall). Meanwhile, MLB’s still getting $560 million of the $700 million they were bringing in annually from ESPN, and now they have the ability to take those games that ESPN didn’t particularly want elsewhere. So this could work out for both sides. But it is a significant difference from the way the old ESPN-MLB deal was structured.