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Would ESPN Ever Ditch Cable and Go DTC?

Jeff Kotuby

Would one of cable’s most in-demand networks ever think of skipping the middle man and going direct to consumer? If they do, when would they consider doing so?

ESPN has been near the top of cable subscribers' most desired channels for years now but the Worldwide Leader in Sports has seen its cable subscriber numbers drop steadily since 2011. Recently, ESPN lost another 10% of its cable subscribers as more sports fans cut the cord on cable. Interestingly enough, another aspect of ESPN’s business happened to grow as its linear offerings faltered — ESPN+, the company’s dedicated sports streaming service.

ESPN+ reached 17.1 million subscribers as of last month and the platform has steadily grown since its launch in 2018. ESPN+ is home to a wide variety of live sports content, ESPN-themed studio shows, documentaries, and more, with new content (and a new hockey/collegiate athletic league) added regularly. Disney has also said it will invest in streaming throughout 2022 and beyond, meaning we could see even more from ESPN+ moving forward.

So would ESPN ever do the (seemingly) unthinkable and ever ditch cable and go DTC? It could happen, but not that soon.

A recent Axios Sports report showed ESPN’s current situation compared to Disney’s other properties. While Disney generates more revenue from non-sports fans through streaming services compared to its linear platforms, the opposite holds true for ESPN, where the linear platforms generate more cash than the streaming entity. Granted, ESPN’s 76 million linear subscribers dwarf the 17.1 million ESPN+ subscribers, but that number could change over the next few years. Axios says ESPN, “probably won’t consider a direct-to-consumer service until the pay-TV bundle falls below 50 million U.S. households, which could happen in the next five years (according to CNBC.)”

If ESPN lost 8 million cable subscribers per year (the drop from 2020’s fiscal year total of 84 million compared to the most recent numbers), they’d be under that 50 million number by 2025. This assumes, of course, cord-cutting doesn’t accelerate and cause numbers to drop even faster in the future. It looks like that while ESPN won’t be looking to cut out on its own just yet, the standalone ESPN content offering may not really be that far away.

ESPN+

ESPN+ is a live TV streaming service that gives access to thousands of live sporting events, original shows like Peyton’s Place, the entire library of 30 for 30, E:60, The Last Dance, as well exclusive written analysis from top ESPN insiders.

The service can be subscribed for $6.99 / month per month or annually for $69.99 / year.

You will get a daily out-of-market game from MLB, and every out-of-market NHL and MLS game with NHL.TV and MLS LIVE.

The service has some of the most attractive soccer coverage including Bundesliga, LaLiga, FA Cup, UEFA Nations League, EFL Championship, EFL Carabao Cup, Eredevise and more.

College sports fans will be able to watch thousands of games and events including football, basketball, baseball, softball, soccer, track & field, gymnastics, swimming & diving, lacrosse, wrestling, volleyball, golf, and more.

For boxing and UFC fans, the service offers Top Rank boxing and will be the home of 15 exclusive UFC events.

ESPN+ now includes exclusive insights from analysts like Mel Kiper and Todd McShay (which used to be part of ESPN Insider), as well as premium Fantasy Tools & PickCenter.

What it does not include is most live sports that air on ESPN and ESPN2.

To get access to those channels you have to subscribe to a live TV streaming service. We suggest reading our guide on How to Watch ESPN without Cable.

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