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Report: 78% of Cable Viewers Say ESPN is a ‘Must-Have,’ What Does That Mean for Standalone ESPN Streamer?

David Satin

It’s a precarious time for the owners and operators of cable companies. Streaming is continuing to proliferate across the globe, and linear TV is falling further and further behind as a means of watching content. One area in which streamers have not yet caught up to linear TV, however, is that of live sports. With the tangled web of distribution rights that come with the major American sports leagues, it’s no wonder that ESPN+ is one of the only successful standalone sports streaming services in the marketplace, and that is in no small part because of its inclusion in the popular Disney Bundle.

Although there was speculation that the company might try to sell ESPN to the highest bidder, Disney has more recently been exploring ways to launch ESPN as a standalone streaming service. The company has repeatedly said that such a launch is a question of “when” rather than “if,” and recently clarified how the company might determine when the time was right for such a move. This week, at the Goldman Sachs Communacopia + Technology Conference, Disney CEO Bob Chapek reiterated that Disney is trying to find the best strategy for launching a standalone ESPN.

“Our whole approach is to sort of proactively prepare for that moment without prematurely disrupting and unnecessarily disrupting sort of the business that is what it is today,” he said. “I mean everybody knows that the cable bundle is deteriorating over time. And we’re preparing for the moment that the consumer tells us that they’re ready for such a step.”

That’s a moment that cable providers will be looking toward with some foreboding. ESPN is a cornerstone of cable packages, an assertion backed up by a recent study from the Beta Research corporation. That study found that 78% of adults rate ESPN as a “must have” channel in order to justify a cable subscription. ESPN2 also got high marks with 71% of respondents rating it as a “must have” as well.

Forty-two percent of those surveyed also said that ESPN was important to their enjoyment of cable as a whole. These numbers naturally lead to the question, “What will happen to cable when ESPN becomes a standalone service?”

That answer lies in the broadcast rights for major sports leagues. If Disney continues acquiring rights, and truly makes a streaming ESPN the home for all major league sports, it could be the final death knell for cable. That will involve a lot of time and money on Disney’s part, so in the near term, linear providers don’t need to worry about a full, streaming ESPN, but the writing appears to be on the wall, and when that eventuality happens, it will undoubtedly shake up the entire industry.

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