Over the last year, Disney has talked a few times about offering ESPN as a stand-alone service. At first, they said it was just a what-if for someday down the road. Now according to the Wall Street Journal, Disney is not just talking about it but actively preparing to pull the plug on cable TV and offer ESPN directly to consumers.
A dream of all sports fans for years has been to subscribe just to the sports networks they want. Now it seems, at least for ESPN, someday you will be able to do just that without the need for a massive cable TV bundle or live TV streaming service.
Now thanks to a Disney project code-named ‘Flagship,’ Disney staff are actively working on turning ESPN into a streaming service. Exactly how that will work is still unknown.
Recently when asked about the future of ESPN as a direct streaming service during Disney’s 1st quarter 2023 earnings call, CEO Bob Iger said, “Regarding ESPN and when we might make the shift, if you’re asking me, is the shift inevitable? The answer is yes, but I’m not going to give you any sense of when that could be, because we have to do it, obviously, at a time that really makes sense for the bottom line. And we’re just not there yet,” Bob Iger said. “And that’s not just about how many subscribers we could get, it’s also about what is the pricing power of ESPN, which obviously ties to the menu of sports that that they’ve licensed.”
Not that long ago, ESPN Chairman Jimmy Pitaro once again made it clear that ESPN will be a streaming service but just not yet.
“We’re going to get to a point where we take our entire network, our flagship programming, and make it available direct to consumer,” Pitaro said in an interview with Bloomberg. “That’s a ‘when,’ not an ‘if’….We’re only going to do it when it makes sense for our business and for our bottom line.”
This is not the first time Disney has hinted at offering ESPN directly to consumers, but this is the most forceful we can remember. Clearly, Disney and others are looking closely at when and how to jump off of the cable TV bundle and go a la carte. The question now is not if they will but when is the right time to do it.
What’s holding Disney back from pulling ESPN off of cable TV and offering it as a streaming service has been the lucrative deals it has with cable companies. The ability to bundle its Disney channels with ESPN has allowed ESPN to make $28 billion in revenue for Disney from traditional TV channels. This means if cable TV companies want the very popular ESPN networks, they have to carry other Dinsey-owned networks.
ESPN reportedly gets, on average $9.42 from each cable TV subscriber. Pricing the service at $15 a month could mean Disney will get a larger profit for each subscriber.
According to Forbes, ESPN plans to keep their content on cable TV, but it is very easy to see how this move will start a domino effect in sports. FOX, Paramount, and NBC could all easily follow in ESPNs footsteps and make their content available through their streaming services like Paramount+, Peacock, and the Fox Sports app. Raising a very real question of why anyone would pay for 100+ channels of content they don’t want when they can get the sports programs they do directly from the providers.
ESPN+ seems to be the future of Disney, though. Recently it was reported that Disney is pushing to get part of the NBA’s new TV rights deal that will start in 2025. Disney hopes to put select NBA games on ESPN+ to help drive up subscribers to its sports streaming service. If that happens, it would be one more massive sports deal to help drive ESPN+’s growth.