Disney has successfully pivoted from pay-TV to a DTC model — so why can’t ESPN do the same? It’s mostly because of subject matter, where live sports are still one of the only guaranteed money makers on linear TV, but there may be other factors at play here.
A recent CNBC report analyzed Disney’s successful pivot from linear to digital with its Disney+ service but wonders aloud why ESPN can’t do the same with ESPN+. They seemingly answer their own question, as it comes down to content over anything else.
“With sports, there’s a guaranteed built-in audience,” said David Levy, the former president of WarnerMedia’s Turner Broadcasting who now heads data firm Genius Sports. “It’s much different than entertainment. With entertainment, every show is hit or miss, and you always have to market content. You never know what will succeed and what won’t. That’s why sports is the best content to invest in, and it will be no matter what the distribution model is.”
Levy told CNBC he thinks Disney can get 30 million customers to pay $30 a month for streaming ESPN — double the cost of a standard Netflix subscription. That would bring in $10.8 billion annually — more than Disney makes today from pay-TV affiliate revenue — but that’s assuming subscribers actually pay $30 for an ESPN DTC service and ditch their TV subscriptions.
Granted, it could work. ESPN is also commonly regarded as the “most must-have channel” offered on linear platforms. A recent Beta Research poll showed 40 percent of surveyed consumers said ESPN was a must-have in their cable package, the highest across all stations. A top executive at one of the largest U.S. pay-TV operators told CNBC that about 15% of video subscribers are heavy sports viewers. That would equal just over 11 million U.S. households. “Even if ESPN could double that number for a streaming app at $30, the service would make less than the $9 billion ESPN takes in today.”
Disney pulls in $10/month if someone subscribes to a cable package that includes ESPN. But its ESPN+ subscribers only provide a profit of around $5/month. Granted, a standalone ESPN option could charge more, but there would likely be a breaking point.
When comparing ESPN+ to Disney+, it comes down to this — why would 30 million people pay $30 a month for a “limited,” (according to CNBC) streaming service, when Sling TV includes ESPN and more for $35 per month? With that in mind, Disney’s strategy with its mainline content and their strategy with ESPN & ESPN+ look to be apples-to-oranges. If any one media entity can pull this off, it’s Disney, but it looks like ESPN will be a linear stalwart for at least the near future, and a fellow linear network exec seems to agree.
“We believe strongly that the traditional pay-TV bundle will remain intact for a long time,” said Sean McManus, chairman of ViacomCBS’s CBS Sports. “I don’t think it ever whittles away to zero. And while it’s certainly possible the number of subscribers will continue to decline, I don’t think the decline ever reaches a point in the coming years that it won’t support the current rights deals that we have, both for NFL football and our other sports.”