by. Patrick Longhitano

ESPN has been synonymous with live sports since the first episode of SportsCenter aired in September of 1979. Over the years it has launched the careers of countless legendary broadcasters and on-air personalities such as Chris Berman, Stuart Scott, and Dick Vitale. What started out as a simple idea from a fired professional hockey executive, has now grown into one of the most recognizable names and brands in the history of broadcast television. The network has continuously changed the way fans consume sports for more than 50 years, and has never once been irrelevant over that timeframe. Their forward thinking and innovation has most recently been on display with their subscription streaming service, ESPN+.

Debuting in Q1 of 2019 to 1.4 million subscribers, ESPN+ last reported 26 million subscribers in Q4 2023. Just to clarify, that’s an increase on 24.6 million in just 4 years. But first, let’s look into a few business moves that put the service into development.

Disney, the parent company of ESPN, purchased a stake in an MLB streaming tech business for one billion dollars in the summer of 2016, with the intentions of using that technology for their own future uses. ESPN initially announced it would be developing an “exploratory OTT project”, which would primarily use the rights of events that were not nationally broadcasted on television. Disney CEO Bob Iger unsurprisingly cited cord-cutting as the reason behind the initial development, and believed that live sports would continue to thrive in the changing times. He was not wrong.

By Q1 2021, ESPN+ was already up to 12 million subscribers, but were once again ready to make another big splash. On March 9, 2021, ESPN announced a 7 year partnership with the NHL, beginning in the 2021-2022 season. The deal included the rights for ESPN to nationally televise 75 regular season games, and allowed ESPN+ users access to all out-of-market games. In other words, this deal was huge. ESPN+ subscribers would go on to grow by 9 million to 21 million total over the next year into Q2 2022, which is when the first NHL season of the partnership concluded. The streaming service had already been growing up until that point through its continuous UFC and European soccer coverage throughout Covid, but the NHL partnership is what took it to the next level. What ESPN+ offered was simply a far superior upgrade to the previous NHL Center Ice package. Not only could you watch west coast games with a start time of 10PM, but you also had access to classic ESPN 30 minute shows like Pardon the Interruption and Around the Horn.

With the success of ESPN+, naturally there have been some competitors and alternative offerings over the past few years. Some include options via DirecTV Stream, FuboTV, YouTube TV, and Hulu Plus Live. Even Peacock and Paramount+ have partnered with sports broadcasters in recent years. ESPN+ is in a unique position due to the fact that it is already a cable network that broadcasts live sports every single day. Most of the other competitors do not have this advantage. ESPN+ also has package deals through traditional cable subscriptions, direct subscriptions, and bundles. There is simply no stopping the self-proclaimed “worldwide leader in sports”.

Disney reported that ESPN produced $4.4 billion in advertising alone over fiscal year 2022, and is now exploring options for a strategic partner to help lead them further into the streaming era of sports. Despite the success of ESPN+, Disney has been in a tough spot the last few years, and is leaning on the success of ESPN more than ever. Recently there have been reports about a streaming partnership deal between Disney, Fox, and Warner Brothers, which sounds like it could be bad for competition in the market. With Disney looking to be as aggressive as possible with their ownership of ESPN and the developing sports streaming space, this may be just the beginning of things to come.



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