Disney Upfront Features a Kelce Hire, NFL Chatter and a Knicks Nix

If you’re an advertiser whose connection with Disney’s TV business is primarily a function of the live sports carried by ESPN and ABC, you had to sit through a lot of celebrity walk-ons before the company’s upfront presentation got around to the good stuff.

Long after Emma Stone gave way to a pre-taped Family Guy bit co-starring an animated version of Disney ad sales chief Rita Ferro, Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney launched into their we-own-Wrexham-A.F.C. bit. (While their FX show Welcome to Wrexham plays in the sports sandbox, it doesn’t quite scratch the “live” itch; per Nielsen, the Season 3 premiere averaged 153,000 linear-TV viewers on May 2.)

Following a cameo by Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts, ESPN got the first proper piece of sports news out of the way by introducing his former center Jason Kelce as the new hand on Monday Night Countdown. Kelce, who kept his shirt on throughout his stint at the Javits Center, signed a multiyear deal with ESPN after fielding offers from a number of rival networks.

Speaking to the crowd of buyers and advertisers who’d gathered Tuesday afternoon in what Jimmy Kimmel referred to as New York’s “Abandoned Shopping Cart District,” Kelce said that while he’ll miss suiting up now that his 13-year NFL career has come to a close, the studio gig is the next best thing to strapping on the pads on fall Sundays. “I am more than psyched to participate in all the shenanigans that are going to happen this year in the NFL season,” Kelce said. “It hurts very bad that I won’t be able to go out there with Philadelphia this year, and a lot of emotions get baked into it. … But yeah, I’m happy to finally be here.”

In addition to the Kelce news, SportsCenter anchor and ESPN jack-of-all-trades Scott Van Pelt joined Kelce and ESPN analysts Marcus Spears and Ryan Clark to fire off a few more announcements. While it’s still a ways off, Van Pelt advised the crowd that ABC will be hosting the Super Bowl for the first time in 19 years when it airs the 60th installment of the Big Game on Feb. 14, 2027. ESPN will simulcast the game.

The last time Disney carried a Super Bowl was on Feb. 6, 2006, when a then-23-year-old Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers to a 21-10 victory over the Seahawks. (Well, sort of. His stats line tells a different story.) At any rate, that long-ago ABC broadcast averaged 90.7 million viewers, with advertisers paying some $2.5 million for each 30-second increment of in-game airtime. Ferro’s team will charge at least three times as much for a single unit in Super Bowl LXI, and if the juiced out-of-home deliveries are anything to go by, ABC’s turnout should be at least 30% higher than the 2006 results. 

The ESPN crew went on to give their upfront guests an advance look at the 2024 Monday Night Football schedule, as Spears revealed that the Jets will open the season in San Francisco. This marks Gang Green’s second MNF opener in two years, as Aaron Rodgers & Co. hosted the Bills last fall in front of a crowd of 22.6 million viewers. While Rodgers only lasted four snaps before sustaining a season-ending Achilles injury, the Jets prevailed in overtime by a score of 22-16.

Boosted by a contingency effort that saw ABC simulcast nearly every game of the strike-blighted fall TV campaign, MNF last season averaged 17.3 million viewers across the linear networks, good for a 29% increase versus the year-ago period, and marking the biggest turnout for the window since 2000. While ABC won’t be quite as hands-on this season, Ferro said the broadcaster will air as many as 10 MNF games in 2024-25.

After the burly lads left the stage, it was time for Disney to trot out a bunch of A-listers with no conceivable ties to sports, a Who’s Who that included the likes of Ryan Seacrest, Bruce Springsteen and ABC News anchor David Muir. Shortly after former ESPN mainstay (and 20-year Good Morning America co-anchor) Robin Roberts talked up the news division with Muir, Stephen A. Smith emerged from backstage to do his part to bum out all the Knicks fans in the house.

“The NBA Finals are scheduled to tip off on June 6,” Smith said, just hours before the hometown team was set to take on Indiana in Game 5 of the conference semis. “Now, if it looks like I got an attitude, there’s a reason: The Knicks ain’t going, OK? Too daggum injured.”

Given that ESPN and ABC will be hosting the Eastern Conference Finals, Smith’s friends in the ad sales division had better hope he’s wrong.

Once Stephen A. had dispensed with his oracular musings, it was back to the non-sports crowd: Selena Gomez, Steve Martin, Martin Short, Chewbacca, the main Grey’s Anatomy lady and someone who showed up briefly to introduce the worldwide premiere of a trailer for the upcoming season of FX on Hulu’s The Bear. (The show, which is about a restaurant, has zero bears in it.)

Taking one last bite of the sports apple, Disney rolled out college football analysts Desmond Howard, Adrian Peterson and Vince Young, who talked up the Red River Rivalry. Thanks to realignment and a decade-long exclusive SEC contract that kicks off this fall, ESPN/ABC is now the exclusive home to the annual showdown between Oklahoma and Texas. As a Sooner, Peterson in 2004 ran for a jaw-dropping 225 yards as Oklahoma blanked the Longhorns 12-0.

As Young was quick to point out, Texas owns the series by a 63-51 margin. Last year’s game, a 34-30 Oklahoma win, averaged 7.87 million viewers across ABC and ESPN2.

Perhaps the biggest topic that remained unremarked-upon had to do with Disney’s impending renewal of its NBA rights deals. But in the absence of a signed contract, even Disney CEO Bob Iger wouldn’t touch that topic with a 10-foot pole; after all, the upfronts are essentially just very expensive and well-coordinated sales pitches. Even if there’s only an infinitesimal chance that Disney won’t be partners with the NBA following the end of the 2024-25 season—and let’s just say the Mouse House has a Creamsicle’s chance in Hades of not following through with a renewal—it’s bad form to sell something that doesn’t belong to you.

An additional lack of NBA-related news is expected when Warner Bros. Discovery holds its upfront presentation on Wednesday morning.

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