ESPN+ breaks new ground for soccer streaming in United States

Launched in April 2018, ESPN’s premium over-the-top streaming product recently cleared the 1,000,000 subscriber mark in less than six months since its inception. The service is proving dynamic and flexible for ESPN’s parent company Disney who has both moved existing soccer content such as ESPNFC and the EFL Championship to the OTT service while also acquiring new rights including Serie A and the FA Cup, among other properties, to bolster the network’s offerings.

The price point for ESPN+ – $4.99 a month – continues to be attractive for consumers including both cord cutters and those who continue to pay for cable and satellite packages. Last week, World Soccer Talk spoke with John Lasker, ESPN’s Vice President for Digital Media Programming at his Bristol, CT office.

Soccer fans throughout the United States have long been digitally savvy and capable of searching to find content, notes Lasker. This has allowed ESPN to move programming originally on linear channels and move it to the OTT service without creating much controversy.

ESPN + is designed to be complementary to website and linear networks though as cord cutting continues it’s entirely possible the service will be consumed by some soccer fans as a standalone product. Lasker however told us to this point the data ESPN has received from plus subscribers shows a high percentage of overlap with customers who have authenticated using their cable or satellite subscription information.

To this end, ESPN has redesigned its app and instead of launching a new and separate app for ESPN+, they’ve folded the OTT service into ESPN’s main app. Lasker explained why this was done saying, “the best opportunity to engage sports fans was to serve [content] up to them directly. We essentially did a teardown and rebuild of the ESPN app to make it richer video wise and dynamic individually.” Using an algorithm based on use of the app and personal preferences, ESPN delivers the most useful personalized recommendations for digital, OTT and linear content to each individual user.

ESPN’s flagship soccer program, ESPNFC, has been moved from its previous homes of ESPN2 and ESPNEWS to ESPN+ giving the program a reliable, consistent home and time slot, Lasker noted. The migration of ESPNFC to the OTT service has given fans an opportunity to access the archive of content from the show and Lasker noted that ESPN’s team have seen impressive numbers of people binge viewing the program where fans watch previous archived episodes in tandem. The move to ESPN+ has also prevented ESPNFC from being preempted or moved due to live events running over its allotted schedule. The program has provided a gateway for soccer fans on ESPN+, bringing those who see the show as a must-watch news and commentary program into the OTT service to explore its other offerings.

The biggest news for core soccer fans beyond the ESPN+ change has been the acquisition of Serie A and FA Cup rights from IMG by ESPN, largely for airing via ESPN+. While one Serie A match a week is shown on linear television, the other nine matches on a given matchday are offered exclusively in the United States via ESPN’s OTT product. Lasker said ESPN has noted a “nice uptick in engagement and sign-ups (since beginning to air Serie A).” As has been previously reported, Lasker confirmed to us ESPN was in active discussions regarding a broadcast deal with Serie A international rights-holder IMG before Cristiano Ronaldo signed with Juventus.

ESPN bolstered its Italian soccer offering with acquisition of the Coppa Italia and Italian Supercoppa this past week.

SEE MORE: Schedule of Serie A games on US TV and streaming

The launch of ESPN+ allowed Major League Soccer to move its MLS Live product for out-of-market matches to the new OTT service, giving it more exposure and a less expensive price point than in the past. This transfer caused some heartache among a few fans but the overall change has been well received.

Similarly, the United States’ second division, USL, moved its live streaming match content to ESPN+ from its previous home of YouTube. ESPN+ has been able to “amp up the offering (both in terms of availability of matches and production quality of streams)” vis a vis USL according to Lasker and the feedback on that particular product has been nothing but positive from fans.

Last summer, BAMTech, now a subsidiary of Disney, acquired the rights for the EFL Championship, League One and League Two as well as the EFL Cup. For much of the 2017-18 season, this content was streamed via ESPN3 on the WatchESPN app but moved to ESPN+ since its launch. Last season, multiple EFL Cup matches including the final between Manchester City and Arsenal were moved to linear channels, but since the launch of ESPN+ no content from this particular package has been placed either on linear channels or ESPN3.

The relationship with BAMTech has been beneficial to ESPN, Lasker claimed. Eventually, Disney bought a majority stake in the company. BAMTech is “the best in the business for live (sports programming) high class production from a streaming perspective, some of the functionality in there is also very DVR-like, it’s been fabulous,” added Lasker.

SEE MORE: Schedule of Championship games on US streaming

Regarding the distinction between ESPN + and ESPN3, while both are not offered on linear channels, they occupy different spaces in terms of the company’s digital strategy. ESPN3, which is still distributed within the WatchESPN app as well as via the ESPN app, is positioned between the linear channels and ESPN+, offering additional streaming content for authenticated cable and satellite subscribers without forcing an OTT subscription.

Lasker noted that WatchESPN was the first app for authenticated linear channels in the US. It still provides that service along with ESPN3 content. Globally, the app provides regional content and remains an integral part of the strategy of the company even if it has now been obscured in the minds of some by ESPN+. “We have now core three distribution business, the linear channels, the WatchESPN app and ESPN+,” Lasker told us to clarify any confusion.

Perhaps most importantly for fans, Lasker perhaps surprisingly told us that no discussions have been undertaken to change the price of ESPN+ even as they acquire more and more content including soccer leagues and competitions from across the globe. “We’ve had no conservations about changing the $4.99 (per month) price,” he said.

That price makes ESPN+ cheaper, in some cases significantly cheaper than other OTT offerings, and the content provided is of greater depth and variety.

The evolution of ESPN+ is likely to be dynamic over the next few years. As properties come up for bid, Disney now has another spot to place inventory of soccer leagues. The launching of ESPN+ has allowed ESPN to re-engage in a big way with the European club soccer fan, after years of retrenchment on this front. The addition of Serie A, the BAMTech properties in English football, the migration of ESPNFC as well as the acquisition of several other leagues and cup competitions, has put Disney’s network front and center again with soccer fans throughout the US.

This trend shows no signs of abating anytime soon, with soccer a major focus of ESPN+ strategy to bring as much meaningful content as possible to its customers.

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