A Conversation With Burke Magnus, ESPN Executive Who Oversees Rights Acquisitions


I did an ESPN carwash speaking to talents and executives earlier this week. Yesterday we posted a podcast with 6PM SportsCenter co-host Kevin Neghandi. This is a Q&A with Burke Magnus, EVP of Scheduling and Programming, who oversees sports broadcasting rights acquisitions. There will be more conversations with ESPN executives and talents, including Norby Williamson, Ryan Spoon, Marcia Keegan, Will Cain, Matthew Berry, and Scott Van Pelt, published tomorrow.

RG: If WWE and UFC rights cost the same per hour, which would you prefer?

Magnus: Well, I’d prefer UFC because I have UFC. I went to the 25th anniversary of Raw. I hadn’t been [in a long time]. We know those guys pretty well. Stephanie has done a great job with outreach to ESPN. We’ve sent SportsCenter to WrestleMania. We’ve had people up here for carwashes. We do some on digital. We do a lot of Make-a-Wish Foundation work with them.

We’ve been close with them, so when the rights came up it was only logical given the significance of Raw and Smackdown’s audience delivery that we’d take a look. It’s one of those things where there’s a bunch of stuff flying around at one time and you can’t have it all.

How does ESPN plan to utilize UFC’s library, which is part of the deal?

Magnus: It’s in there. It’ll be a combination of linear and digital on ESPN+. I actually love the versatility of the library for linear on a slow night where there might not be much going on. In primetime we could throw on an old or even fairly recent PPV cards or just make a compilation event. It’s in the deal. Because they have Fight Pass and that’s the one place you can get it all, our library rights will have many hours, but it will rotate so you won’t have it all at one time.

UFC and Top Rank are both often on Saturday night. Could there be evenings with dual promotion between the two, or will they remain distinct?

Magnus: I could easily see that. What I’m fond of saying to people is if the genie came out of the bottle and granted me one wish it would be for 104 Saturday nights per year. I think there’s no doubt that we’ll look to pair the two. In both cases, because of the staging aspects to it, we could also use timezones to our advantage. Like we did this year with Top Rank coming out of an SEC football game on a Saturday night with a big lead-in, we can do that kind of scheduling as well thanks to the fact that these things can be scheduled accordingly.

What is the subscriber goal for ESPN+ 18 months from now?

Magnus: We’re not really making any projections. This is a new thing altogether. Like Bob Iger said on the earnings call, so far so good. I’ll agree with that sentiment. By the time we get to the fall with the college rights we have as a part of ESPN+ — not necessarily Power 5, but a bunch of leagues like Ivy League and Sun Belt and Missouri Valley — I think that’s gonna be a real moment in time for us to see just what the content proposition of ESPN+ is going to be. We’re cautiously optimistic but I’m staying out of the prediction business.

I’m going to ask you about the prediction business again. In a few years when EPL rights are up, do you envision going after those? That package would make a lot of sense for the combo of linear and streaming and they have a very passionate audience. Do you envision being in the conversation? So many rights are up in a few years — NFL, MLB, NHL, EPL, and more.

Magnus: A big portion of premium rights are going to cycle through in the next 4-6 years. All the major professional leagues spare the NBA. A lot of the major college deals. A lot of global soccer. I would put EPL in the category of premium. I’m certain we’ll take a look at it like we would anything like that.

I would argue that there’s a couple — and I’m not the John Skipper-esque level of soccer expertise, that was his category — I would say there’s a couple leagues around the world that have that same or similar rabid fanbase. Whether it’s La Liga or Bundesliga or Serie A in Italy, we would obviously take a look at it.

If you could have the NHL package that NBC has, and add MLB playoffs and the World Series, would you rather have those two together or the Monday Night Football package if it was an either/or thing?

Magnus: This is a fun game to play. Can I have them all? It definitely has to be zero? At the moment, I don’t envision a world without Monday Night Football, or an NFL package. That being said, hockey is something that a lot of people on this campus — it’s one of the most frequently asked questions in our staff meeting town halls: When are we going to get back into hockey? I should probably just wear a shirt that says ‘this is when the contract ends, so don’t ask me again’.

We did do the World Cup of Hockey and now with ESPN+ where the NHL is an equity partner in BAMTech and having Stanley Cup coverage and all the playoff games re-airing on-demand there, it’s great to have.

This is the one time of year, for those scheduling wonks like myself, where if you really pay attention you figure out that the oddity of the NBA playoff schedule is that in the early rounds our games are limited to Friday through Sunday and Turner has all the week. That is still a vestige of us leaving the mid-week available to do the NHL playoffs. Now, it goes back two deals in the NBA so it’s not looking ahead it’s a vestige from the past, but this is a long way of saying we could schedule the NHL playoffs pretty easily even with our NBA commitment right now.

And it is just a great sport. I personally love it. I think the NHL playoffs and Stanley Cup is one of the great competitive sport properties on television. It just seems like the number of series that go seven games, the number of games that go to overtime, the fact that it’s the one sport where home/road seems to matter less than any other, it’s just really compelling.

I don’t think you’ll answer this question, but I’ve got to ask. You were pretty conspicuously a proponent of Barstool Van Talk, which met its untimely fate after one episode. Was there anything that could have been done differently so that it could have endured at ESPN, or was there just no way to handle it once some of the women at the company really started pushing back against it?

Magnus: Once that started, I really think we needed to be mindful of those concerns. Now, PFT and Big Cat and Pardon My Take and the reason we were so interested in those guys in particular was we had already had talent making regular appearances on the podcast. This was really going to be a television extension of their podcast. We believed we could thread the needle there, perhaps naively, based on the brand, but I don’t have any regrets about the effort. It just didn’t work.

A couple months ago, John Ourand wrote that you and Justin Connolly were working without contracts. Has that been resolved?

Magnus: I don’t want to talk about my personal situation.

The acquisition of the Fox Sports RSNs is in limbo. I know you guys plan several years at a time, so how difficult is it to be thinking about what you’d be doing with the RSNs if you had them, but not knowing if the deal is going to ultimately go through?

Magnus: We actually can’t do anything while it’s in the regulatory approval phase. We’re very careful not to jump the gun on any assumptions on what we might or might not do. We’re kind of just sitting, waiting for the deal to be approved, but there’s very little if anything we can do now.

If it did go through, right now they kind of use the RSNs where they just air the games and shoulder content. There might be fishing shows or things like that but there really isn’t a ton of content on them. Could you envision ESPN using them as a farm system for things like radio simulcasts, or do you think ESPN would probably leave them as is?

Magnus: It’s really hard to say. I think all of those things would be great assets to have in the portfolio. If you layer in broadcast network, national cable networks, regional cable networks, digital properties, direct to consumer, it’s a really compelling proposition. They’re very successful businesses right now so it’s really hard to say how we might change them to better them, but we’ll definitely take the look if we get the chance.