During his extraordinary tenure as C.E.O. of The Walt Disney Company, Bob Iger methodically and dexterously transformed the organization from a single brand to a brand of brands, stringing together an M&A trophy shelf perhaps unparalleled in modern media history: Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and, in the final years of his tenure, the majority assets of 21st Century Fox. In sum, the accumulation of these extraordinary creative companies positioned a bulked-up Disney to enter the streaming business in a full-throated, double-barreled manner. It took Reed Hastings ten years to get Netflix to one hundred million subscribers. Disney+ achieved that feat in a year-and-a-half, and it continues to gain on Netflix every quarter.
As Iger grew the company, Disney was also buttressed by another set of assets: the linear television businesses, particularly ESPN, which came over in the 1995 Cap Cities deal that brought Iger to the mothership in the first place. For a generation, stars like Keith Olbermann and the late Stuart Scott turned ESPN into a synonym for the global sports business. The company competed aggressively for the live rights to franchises such as Monday Night Football and the College Football Playoff; SportsCenter, among other shows, seemed as much a part of the cultural firmament as Disney I.P., from Star Wars to Toy Story to Frozen. Not only was ESPN core to the overall business, but Iger also appeared to personally cherish it. After all, he came of age as a stage manager on ABC television sets and got his break as a senior program executive on the 1988 Winter Olympics. Today, he remains a loyal Packers, Yankees, and Clippers fan, and is friendly with the likes of Aaron Rodgers and Chris Paul. He even tried, and failed, to bring two NFL teams to Los Angeles. (The rival bid won.)
Even as consumers began cutting the cord on cable years ago, Iger remained steadfastly supportive of ESPN. For years, private equity firms have reached out to Disney and ESPN leadership to encourage them to spin off the sports channel, current and former high-level Disney sources told me. Industry analysts have similarly been beating the drum for the company to go all-in on streaming. By freeing itself from the stagnation and costs of the linear business, they argued, Disney could become a direct-to-consumer “pure play” and be valued at a far higher multiple, like Netflix. Iger spent years listening to this argument, the sources said, but assured his colleagues that ESPN would never leave Disney under his watch.