ESPN has held talks with some of the most powerful leagues in professional sports, including the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball, about taking a minority stake in its business.
The cable network, controlled by the Walt Disney Company, has had exploratory talks with the leagues as it tries to figure out its way forward in the streaming age, three people with knowledge of the matter said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions.
Disney declined to comment.
Disney’s chief executive, Robert A. Iger, said in a CNBC interview last week that the company was “looking for strategic partners” that could help ESPN with either distribution or content. “But we want to stay in the sports business,” said Mr. Iger, whose contract with Disney was recently extended through 2026.
Selling a stake in ESPN could give Disney a cash infusion as it faces pricey renewals with sports leagues including the N.B.A., which is sure to demand a premium for the rights to show its games in the coming years. Hearst, the owner of magazines like Cosmopolitan and information services like Fitch Group, owns a minority stake in ESPN.
ESPN — long a profit center for Disney, which acquired the network in 1995 — has come under pressure in recent years as viewers cut the cable cord in favor of streaming services. The cost of sports rights, meanwhile, has been driven up by newer entrants including Apple, Amazon and YouTube. Trying to outbid deep-pocketed tech companies is a daunting prospect for cable networks, whose businesses are in irreversible decline.
Disney executives have been emphatic that ESPN’s future lies in streaming. Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the sports network was laying the groundwork to make its primary channel, which has long existed only on cable, available to streaming viewers. That would create a turning point for traditional TV distributors, which have staved off decline by offering live sports to cable subscribers.
CNBC earlier reported that professional sports leagues were in talks to take a stake in ESPN.
Disney has also faced pressure from a series of activist investors, including Trian Fund Management. The firm’s founder, Nelson Peltz, who planned to push for Disney to improve its succession planning, called off a fight for a board seat this year. The firm has roughly 6.4 million shares in Disney, said a person familiar with the size of the holdings, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters.
Brooks Barnes contributed reporting.