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ESPN breaks new ground for soccer streaming in United States

ESPN breaks new ground for soccer

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+ – $5.99 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+

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.

ESPN breaks new ground for soccer streaming

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.

BAMTech

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.

Raising the price?

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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32 Comments

32 Comments

  1. John Tran

    October 7, 2018 at 6:11 pm

    *typical Gafffer and Kartik Podcast discussion* –> “BR Live/Fox/NBC coverage is terrible with no deep dive analysis…blah blah blah. And ESPN FC is the only place I can go to for any kind of analysis and ESPN FC can do no wrong”. I watch soccer coverage across all networks, just as you guys do, but ESPN FC doesn’t appear much better, or different, from their competition.

    I admit that BR Live/Fox/NBC are not perfect and can be improved greatly, but you guys need to understand that even the other big American Sports (ie. NBA, MLB, NFL, NHL) don’t have the deep dive analysis during their post-game brodcasts on ESPN, as well. Something like that needs separate shows where topics are debated, for example, NFL Live & ESPN First Take.. That’s why ESPN FC is so highly regarded among you both and your audience.

    The criticism you give to BR Live/Fox/NBC is leaps and bounds much more than what you guys give to ESPN FC. In fact, I don’t believe you guys have ever said anything critical about ESPN. And I believe you both accepted a tour of their studio in Bristol, CT, recently. I suspect that your journalistic integrity is questionable and has been compromised by your overwhelming support of the ESPN Product. You guys complain that ESPN’s competitors don’t have any deep dive analysis and their coverage is poor, but you guys don’t give any specific suggestions to improve. In fact, your analysis of the analysis is terrible, you guys are all over the place in your podcasts. How about you guys try doing your own deep dive analysis of the games if the competition is so poor?

    I really want to support your Podcast and website, but I don’t want to spend an hour listening to *typical Gafffer and Kartik Podcast discussion* –> “BR Live/Fox/NBC coverage is terrible with no deep dive analysis…blah blah blah. And ESPN FC is the only place I can go to for any kind of analysis and ESPN FC can do no wrong”.

    • soccer fan

      November 6, 2018 at 4:09 pm

      2 out the 3 down votes –> Kartik and Gaffer. Sounds about right.

  2. Brendan

    September 30, 2018 at 9:41 pm

    U have 1 million subscribers in 5 months and Turner your competition has a handful of subscribers from B/R Live platform . U are not likely to give your product to the opposition

    • Ritchie

      October 1, 2018 at 6:48 am

      It’s haphazard, though. On the first day of champions league, they showed action of most games. On the Wednesday show that week, there were absolutely no plays from any game. The same thing happens with La Liga: they’ll show highlights on a day and then splash a European tabloid on screen in place of game action the next. If I knew they weren’t going to show highlights, I’d simply not watch at all.

      • Christopher Harris

        October 1, 2018 at 8:42 am

        Hi Ritchie, it’s a very fluid thing and can change at any time. There’s no way of knowing who has the permission to broadcast the highlights until we watch the shows ourselves. And it can change on a daily basis depending on whether the rights-holder gives permission.

  3. Ritchie

    September 30, 2018 at 9:23 pm

    Christopher,
    What’s ESPN FC’s rights situation in terms of showing highlights? Some days they show all the action, others they don’t show La Liga and others they don’t show Champions League. It’s pretty frustrating not knowing whether they can actually deliver a good breakdown of the days action.

  4. Edwin

    September 27, 2018 at 10:22 am

    ESPN serious financial issues have been overstated. It was more of ESPN adjusting to a changing media landscape to continue to stay on top vice they were bleeding money and had to cut programming it’s def not a BEIN situation. They have wisely created a new revenue stream in ESPN+ using already existing infrastructure in BAMTech. No doubt ESPN will be making hundreds of mil in revenue soon from ESPN+. 1 MIL Subscribers at $5 a month with just 5-6 mnths into existence is $60 mil a yr of expected revenue already.

    • Yespage

      September 27, 2018 at 2:57 pm

      ESPN overpaid on lots of content and cable/sat subscriptions are dropping quickly, which means ESPN is getting less gate from that. But it is good they’ll get tens of millions for ESPN+. It’ll help with them paying the NFL over $100 million per Monday Night Football game, as in not a year, per game.

      • Edwin

        September 27, 2018 at 4:45 pm

        Yeah that’s a solid point they did overpay on a lot of stuff but I think them having more money to acquire more soccer like Serie A, Chinese Super League, Erevidisie, Championship etc. As well as paying the way for ESPN to reup for more money with MLS is a good thing. More soccer is better. Heck get some South American leagues on ESPN+ and they will have recreated mid 2000s FSC(FOX SOCCER CHANNEL)

      • NoPage

        September 27, 2018 at 7:51 pm

        Gotta love internet comment pages where people like yespage are experts on the business dealings and financial records of companies, maybe Disney should hire you to run Soccer content?

  5. Yespage

    September 26, 2018 at 1:01 pm

    How is this breaking new ground, other than being a stable streaming experience. Fox had their app years ago, which provided streaming for a few leagues, UEFA/Europa, Champions, and FA Cup. And when the app actually worked, it was wonderful!

    • Christopher Harris

      September 26, 2018 at 1:19 pm

      ESPN+ is breaking ground in several ways:

      • Price point: Never before have we had access to so many soccer leagues from the world for such a small price,
      • The 1 million+ subscriber number has to be the fastest growing streaming subscription service available,
      • By using the BAMTech technology, ESPN+ is arguably the most reliable and highest quality streaming service on the market,
      • Etc.

      • Yespage

        September 27, 2018 at 9:39 am

        Certainly the stream quality is quite nice, unlike the Fox product was.

        However, the price point excludes Champions League / Europa League / EPL, so that is not exactly comparing apples to oranges.

        One might also call foul to the complete hijacking of FA and League Cup, among other coverage, on their app. Fox used their app to accommodate their FSC to FS1/FS2 coverage. If you don’t have ESPN+, you aren’t going to see most of the content within the umbrella, even if people subscribe to the ESPN slate of channels. To be fair, ESPN might not have paid for TV broadcast rights because of the serious financial issues they are having, and only have streaming rights.

      • Big Boss

        November 6, 2018 at 7:46 pm

        Other exclusive content is driving the fast subscriptions, ie. 30 for 30 Films, Not just the soccer league rights.

  6. Ivan

    September 25, 2018 at 8:35 pm

    Caught the Bacalao Cup games that I wanted to see, 1080 resolution, NOT on ESPN+!
    But they can surely focus on fornicating with themselves!
    It’s a matter of principle, not paying the greedy creatures an extra dime than I am already paying.
    ESPN, NBC, B/R, please focus on self-fornication! I hope y’all go bankrupt and that business model fails!

    • NoPage

      September 27, 2018 at 7:52 pm

      WOW you showed them! Expect Disney, Comcast and Turner to apologize and announce they are changing their ways any day now. They will preempt content with higher ratings to just broadcast soccer.

  7. JP

    September 25, 2018 at 3:06 pm

    Anyone else having constant buffering of ESPN+ online right now (Inter/Fiorentina)? This never happens when watching through a Fire Stick.

    • JP

      September 25, 2018 at 3:13 pm

      5 minutes in seems to have stabilized

    • Edwin

      September 25, 2018 at 9:07 pm

      Yeah every so often it will I normally am able to fix it by hitting pause and play to refresh it. Sometimes like you say its just a bit of a bad signal but it normally fixes itself. What were you using. I normally use a Roku Stick. Have heard that the mobile app is a issue on some platforms.

      • JP

        September 26, 2018 at 9:13 am

        I was at work watching on my PC through the ESPN website, so the connection should have been better than my wifi at home watching via Fire TV where haven’t seen any issues so far.

        If the mobile app is having some issues makes sense the website might too.

  8. Tayo

    September 24, 2018 at 11:18 pm

    Nice article Kartik. I am hoping the gaffer can tell someone at NBC Sports to learn a thing or two from ESPN. Especially when it comes to the quality of the streams. Premier League content looks like some 480P – 720P quality. And I am sure it is the fault of NBCSN. All they care about is making money.

  9. Edwin

    September 24, 2018 at 10:11 pm

    Nice article Kartik

  10. Richard Steele

    September 24, 2018 at 9:03 pm

    Kudos to ESPN+! I follow the Premier League, but enjoy the EFL as well. The EFL Championship is in many ways, the most exciting division in English football. I highly recommend ESPN+, as the best connection to English football. And, one more vital point; the ESPN app is top drawer compared to the sketchy streaming of NBC Sports Gold.

  11. Vegas Gooner

    September 24, 2018 at 8:49 pm

    Love your articles as always Kartik. The difficult part was paying for something that had been free via ESPN3. But really, five bucks is nothing for the content and compared to other streaming services. Everyone on social media complained but it’s the price of a Happy Meal. I also get to watch the CFL and some of the top rugby leagues. There is no better dea out there.

    • Tayo

      September 24, 2018 at 11:16 pm

      Yes, for $5, it is totally worth it. The quality of the streams are awesome, very clear

    • Yespage

      September 25, 2018 at 9:04 am

      FYI, ESPN3 isn’t free. Your internet provider paid for it.

      • Vegas Gooner

        September 26, 2018 at 11:51 am

        No it used to be free. I was a cable cutter 11 years ago and I watched games on ESPN3 for free on the desktop and it remained that way until ESPN+

        • DT

          September 26, 2018 at 3:30 pm

          He said internet provider, not television provider. EsPN3 was/is(?) paid for by internet provider. Nothing to do with cord cutting unless you also got rid of your internet provider.

        • NoPage

          September 27, 2018 at 7:54 pm

          ESPN3 has NEVER been free, your desktop obviously had internet access right? Because you didn’t get a bill for it directly from them does not mean it was free, you think your ISP just ate the cost and ESPN was doing it at the goodness of their heart for ISPs?

  12. EPLNFL

    September 24, 2018 at 8:48 pm

    ESPN+ has an a impressive line up of all sport. It is a huge value. However it is hurting MLS in Chicago where it’s the only outlet for Chicago Fire matches and hardly anyone knows about it.

  13. Henry Reichman

    September 24, 2018 at 7:44 pm

    I’d be interested to read a review of ESPNFC. It’s interesting the way the show is progressing.

    • Tayo

      September 24, 2018 at 11:15 pm

      Pretty solid show to be honest. We don’t have so many football highlight shows anyway. Except for the one on BeIN called ‘The Xtra’. Now my worry is they might have lost the rights to show Champions League Highlights, they also did not show any Europa League highlights on thursday… Hopefully the gaffer can clarify that.

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