Self-dubbed as the “Netflix for sports,” ESPN Plus, a new streaming service from Disney is set to make its debut this spring. Beyond the recycling nomenclature once used by ESPN to brand syndicated college sports broadcasts on regional sports networks and local over-the-air channel, this concept is entirely new. The service will cost just $4.99 a month, but serves as a hybrid of sorts — giving access to ESPN and ESPN programming if you have a cable or satellite subscription to those channels, but also offering a slew of niche sports which are exclusively available via ESPN Plus but don’t require a cable/satellite subscription.
With declining ad revenue and subscriptions to cable, Disney seems to have little choice but to launch this service, though it appears its appeal may be more to followers of non NFL, NBA or MLB-based content on the ESPN networks.
As cord-cutting continues and Disney’s losses mount on its ESPN division, the launching of an all-econcomposing pay service makes perfect sense. Tied to long-term deals for US sports, especially college conferences and dealing with the law of diminishing returns in terms of how rights-holders benefit from deals signed for a period of more than three or four years, recouping losses is a key to understanding why ESPN is now launching this service.
Soccer programming will be a key component of ESPN Plus’ lineup. It was announced that MLS Live will be folded into ESPN Plus. This will also likely include lots of domestic content including, according to our sources, matches from the second division USL and both men’s and women’s college soccer content currently thrown on ESPN3 to fulfill contractual obligations to the conferences.
For Major League Soccer (MLS), the long-standing online pay service MLS Live has worked well for hardcore fans of the league. But a product like this, which appeals simply to a niche fan base, has done little to grow the accessibility to MLS matches beyond the very narrow base of support the league has currently. Fans of individual teams in local markets tend to eschew MLS Live because of the availability of games from the team they support on regional cable networks or even in some cases in-market over-the-air channels.
The shift of MLS Live’s programming to ESPN Plus can only help grow the footprint of MLS. Being featured on a platform that will include other sports and presumably other soccer leagues should help exposure for the league. It could also in theory help the teams that don’t get much national exposure like Columbus, Colorado or San Jose.
While it’s possible MLS could get lost in the shuffle with so much programming on the ESPN Plus platform, the move should be beneficial. It is true that in the past, MLS has had trouble breaking through on platforms that cater to mainstream sports audiences. Despite consistent shuffling of time slots, shifting in thought-processes as to what attracts viewers and a continued presence on the top national all-sports cable channels, the league simply hasn’t done well on television by any truly objective measurement.
MLS television ratings continue to underwhelm. But the cord-cutting demographic fits soccer coverage perhaps better than the traditional TV model, and if MLS’ goal is to capture more core soccer supporters than mainstream American sports fans, ESPN Plus being a platform that has other soccer properties could benefit MLS. With 30% of sports viewers in the US consuming content on phones and tablets rather than through the traditional broadcast means, MLS could be well-positioned to take better advantage of a pay service like ESPN Plus than most other domestic sporting properties. ESPN Plus at least initially feels like a service that will cater to multiple niches, be it soccer fans, fans of smaller college sports programs, lacrosse fans, those who like volleyball or tennis, auto racing fans or whatever. The service may not appeal at least initially to NFL, MLB, NHL or NBA fans, but that shouldn’t impact how it benefits MLS.
It is largely assumed the BAMTech license to broadcast Football League and League Cup matches from England will lead to a shift of these properties to the new pay streaming service. The availability of both products on ESPN3 this season has increased the interest in these competitions in the US market. Additionally, other soccer properties such as the DFB Pokal, UEFA Nations League and many international friendlies are likely to be placed on ESPN Plus, giving further incentive for soccer fans to sign up.
To a large extent, ESPN Plus might serve certain niche’s rather than a full complement of mainstream sports fans. But for soccer fans in the US, accustomed for years of paying additional to get access to the (non-Premier League) matches we want to see, ESPN Plus’ low price point might be a boon. This can only help MLS whose appeal to hardcore soccer fans continues to disappoint while the league’s appeals to win over masses of mainstream sports fans have also fallen flat, at least from a television perspective.