Disney, the owner of ESPN, is reportedly preparing to make the sports channel a stand-alone streaming service, available only to subscribers. This move would untether ESPN from the cable model that it has been propping up for years. Live sports, along with award shows and coverage of breaking news events, have been one of the few salvations of the cable world, the rare television genre that needs to be watched in real-time. That’s a major reason the NFL has so thoroughly dominated television ratings, and why those carriage fees were so high compared to other stations.
ESPN Plus, which only hardcore fans subscribe to, allows access to ESPN.com’s online content, lower-level college sports, and the network’s catalog of documentaries, most notably those from the 30 for 30 series, but it doesn’t give you ESPN proper or the premium sporting events on ESPN, ESPN2, and the family of cable networks. “Flagship,” according to the Wall Street Journal, would give viewers everything in one package. But this will have huge ramifications for the cable business model; some think it could be the death knell for the entire enterprise.
However, for years, non-sports fans have been subsidizing sports fans by paying for a channel they didn’t watch, allowing sports fans to pay the same amount for channels they watched obsessively. If ESPN separates from the cable model, then that eight bucks a month will have to be made up from somewhere. The plan appears to be charging sports addicts a lot more.
For example, ESPN+ is $9.99 a month, but The Big Lead estimates that ESPN could charge $45-50 bucks a month with no problem. Or, Disney could package this new product with, say, Disney Plus and Hulu Live TV and potentially charge as much as $99 bucks a month. That sounds about right. ESPN isn’t the only channel airing sports many fans deem essential viewing, and some sports fans might be paying $400-500 a month or more to watch all the sports they could once (mostly) access through a single cable subscription.
This is an excellent way to turn off the next generation of fans. How high can streamers and leagues push the price point until fans have no choice but to walk away? If you are not currently a sports fan, it’s too late to start watching now. But if you’re not into sports already, you should stay away unless you’ve got limitless disposable income to spare. The high times are over. Save yourself.