Longtime Walt Disney Co. chief Michael Eisner has a prediction: Major sports properties like the NFL and NBA will eventually leave broadcast television.
That means waving goodbye to CBS, NBC, Fox and Disney's own ABC. And saying hello to Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google.
Tech companies will come in "like Jim Brown for the Cleveland Browns in 1960 — they're going to be breaking through the line," Eisner, who led Disney for more than two decades before leaving in 2005, said on the Bloomberg Business of Sports podcast.
Some technology companies are already experimenting with live sports. Amazon.com Inc., for instance, pays about $65 million a year for "Thursday Night Football." Facebook Inc. shows Major League Baseball games, as does Google's YouTube, which distributes NBA games in Africa and also carries several Major League Soccer teams.
But so far, the money involved hardly compares to what traditional networks are paying for their packages of live sports rights. CBS, Fox and NBC, for instance, are shelling out $3.1 billion annually for NFL rights that expire after the 2022 season.
"Sports lights up your platform," said Eisner, who owns Portsmouth, a third-division English soccer team that he often watches play online. "With the financial wherewithal of Apple, the aggressiveness of Amazon, the creativity of Netflix, the existence already of ESPN and ESPN+ — you're going to see a very difficult time ahead for the U.S. broadcasters. I wouldn't be surprised if all sports of that level eventually leave broadcast television."
Eisner didn't offer a timetable for such a migration, predicting that it wouldn't happen all at once. Nor does he pay much attention to executives who deny any interest in showing live sports. As an early investor and advocate for Netflix Inc., Eisner recalled company executives Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos telling him they would never do original programming.
"Then they did original programming. Then they told me they would never do animation — and they did animation. Then they said they would never do sports — and now some of them are doing sports," the 77-year-old said.
Eisner said his experience with Portsmouth, whose games are digitally distributed around the globe, is a microcosm of what'll happen with leagues and teams — all of which are seeking ways to reach a worldwide audience.
International sports will bring "a whole new era of value for sports," Eisner said.