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What Would Happen If ESPN Ditched Cable and Went DTC?

Jeff Kotuby

If you’ve been following the saga of live sports and ratings over the past few years, then the information presented to you in this article will not be surprising. Rather, it would reinforce the trends we’ve seen over the past few years — cable needs ESPN more than ESPN needs cable. The numbers don’t lie — and they could spell disaster for linear cable if ESPN decides to go DTC at some point.

Earlier today, ESPN posted its “Year in Review,” a look back at its productive 2021. What may wind up being the most important info disseminated here are the ratings numbers provided by ESPN:

  • The current quarter will be the 34th consecutive in which ESPN has been the No. 1 full-time basic cable network among Men 18-34 (starting in Q3 2013).
  • Looking at the streak in terms of years, ESPN has been 1 for at least 30 straight and also 22 consecutive in primetime among Men 18-34. Also, ESPN2 is right behind ESPN among cable sports networks among M18-34; it has been #2 every year (once tied) since its 1993 launch.
  • This year will mark the 30th straight ESPN finishes No. 1 among Men 18-49.
  • ESPN will finish No. 1 among People 18-34 and 18-49 for the 12th straight year.
  • ESPN will be #1 in primetime among all key adult demos (P18-34, P18-49, P25-54) for an eighth straight year.

The numbers here are staggering and show the power that ESPN, and live sports in general, has in the modern age of broadcasting. Recently, ESPN reported that 95 of the top 100 broadcasts in the country were sports-related, a daunting figure for networks that don’t carry live sports. For the ones that do, though, it has no doubt triggered a complex not unlike frenzied Black Friday shoppers jamming gifts into their cart — the need for more.

This leads to the other key set of info ESPN provides in the report — all the lives sports coverage it added this year.

While ESPN doesn’t make it clear just how much they spent, we know the number is in the tens of billions, if not just for the NFL rights alone. We also know that prior to the start of 2021, the NHL and LaLiga were not a part of ESPN’s library of content. ESPN and the NHL agreed to a seven-year rights deal back in March, while it added LaLiga to an eight-year deal back in May. ESPN also reached agreements with the Big Sky, Big West, and Western Athletic Conferences, the Horizon League, and the Central Intercollegiate Athletics Association (CIAA).

But ESPN didn’t grab all of these to populate its linear broadcast airwaves. Sure, we see the NFL on Monday Nights, the NHL on Tuesday and Thursday nights, and a spattering of other leagues across its array of platforms. But it grabbed most, if not all, of these rights deals to power ESPN+, its live sports streaming service. Which begs the question — what would happen to cable if ESPN decided to take its ball(s) and go home, leaving cable in favor of a DTC service?

According to recent reports, we might not be that far away from it happening, as CNBC reported that ESPN would consider a DTC option if its linear cable subscriber base fell under 50 million. Based on our projections, that could occur sometime between 2024-25. Linear cable companies would hardly let ESPN leave without a fight, knowing that if they do, one of the stalwarts of cable broadcasting — and the source of so much revenue — leaves with it. ESPN leaving could be the nail in the coffin for cable as we know it.