ESPN Plus’ niche audiences could help increase MLS exposure
Self-dubbed as the “Netflix for sports,” ESPN+, 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+ 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+ 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.