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Ousted Disney CEO Bob Chapek rips Bob Iger’s plan to find strategic partner for ESPN

Former Disney CEO Bob Chapek is breaking his silence in his first public comments since being fired in 2022 — by ripping current boss Bob Iger’s move to find a strategic partner for ESPN.

Chapek told CNBC that he sees no reason for the Disney-owned sports channel to add any minority partners.

“Strategically, I don’t really see a benefit in bringing on yet another minority partner into ESPN,” Chapek said as part of the CNBC documentary “ESPN’s Fight for Dominance,” which chronicles the network’s digital strategy, published Thursday.

After Chapek was fired in November 2022, former CEO Iger returned to the helm and simplified the structure of Disney, splitting ESPN into its own segment. Chapek said he believes Disney is planning on selling all or part of ESPN, and that Iger’s move to split it from other entertainment is the first step.

Former Disney CEO Bob Chapek broke his silence on Thursday when he criticized Disney’s strategy for ESPN. REUTERS
Former Disney CEO Bob Chapek broke his silence on Thursday when he criticized Disney’s strategy for ESPN. REUTERS

He continued: “The brand is so central. It is so powerful. It is so beloved by so many sports fans. At the same time though, I do believe we have to recognize that the transition from a cable universe over to a streaming world is going to be one that’s gonna probably be fraught with challenges.”

CNBC asked Chapek why he didn’t sell ESPN when he was CEO. At the time, ESPN was bringing in cash Disney needed so selling it wasn’t feasible, Chapek said.

The former exec pointed out Disney was in debt from acquiring Fox — a costly deal cut by Iger during his previous stint at the helm — and the COVID-19 pandemic had just hit, leaving the company scrambling to devise a strategy to stop losing money.

When he returned to the helm, Disney CEO Bob Iger said he was looking for a minority partner for ESPN, as part of his strategy to expand its footprint. Getty Images
When he returned to the helm, Disney CEO Bob Iger said he was looking for a minority partner for ESPN, as part of his strategy to expand its footprint. Getty Images

Last summer, Iger expressed interest in bringing on more minority partners for ESPN in addition to Hearst. Chapek said he doesn’t see a strategic benefit to this, however.

Chapek said he envisioned ESPN becoming a hub for sporting events, similar to Apple TV’s hub for movies and shows. AP
Chapek said he envisioned ESPN becoming a hub for sporting events, similar to Apple TV’s hub for movies and shows. AP

The ex-Disney boss said that instead, ESPN should become a central hub for many sporting events. He compared this potential version of ESPN to Apple TV, which gives users the ability to search for a movie or show and then directs them to the streaming service where it is available.

“I always look at the business through a consumer-first lens,” Chapek said. “And as the number of outlets that broadcast sporting events has grown and as the complexity and the schedule of those broadcasts gets more and more spread out, I sometimes think that we have a very suboptimal experience for consumers.”