Disney’s flagship ESPN TV channel is going to be an offering for streaming services in the near future, per a report in the Wall Street Journal. While there is currently no timetable for when the main ESPN channel is available as a stand-alone streaming channel, it does indicate the progression of cord-cutting in the United States. Indeed, it’s a move that could be the finale for cable TV as we know it.
The Wall Street Journal was the first to report the shift from ESPN. The publication spoke to those familiar with the matter, who are giving this transition the project name “Flagship” in reference to the channel being the flagship of the company. That channel is popular on cable. However, it is not part of the ESPN+ streaming catalog. Therefore, it is one of the main benefits of maintaining a cable subscription or a TV offering such as Fubo or YouTube TV.
Crucially, ESPN would not cut the channel on TV. Instead, it would be a simulcast option of the channel at all times. That includes its TV shows and live sports offerings of the NBA, NHL and occasional soccer games. Cable bundles regularly include ESPN, even if the subscribers to those bundles do not actively watch. The WSJ stated ESPN and Disney receive $9.42 in the average TV cable bill. Other US cable networks pull in just 49 cents. That information comes from S&P Global Marketing Intelligence.
Note that this ESPN TV channel would be a standalone service. In other words, it would be separate from ESPN+, which houses the company’s coverage of the Bundesliga, LaLiga, Championship, FA Cup and other top soccer competitions. In truth, ESPN as a channel seldom broadcasts soccer games. Yet, it does sometimes host games. For example, ESPN’s TV channel televised the Euro 2020 Final between England and Italy. However, most games like that, particularly in international competitions, now belong to other networks.
ESPN TV channel shift to streaming has consequences for viewers
ESPN as a cable channel is still very common across the United States. For reference, 74 million people have access to the main ESPN channel via cable packages or those aforementioned streaming services. However, this is still an 11% drop from just 2019. For Disney and ESPN, broadcasting revenue dropped $1 billion when comparing Q1 of 2023 vs the same period a year ago. The rise of streaming has been no consolation, either. Despite Disney+ now having well over 150 million subscribers, direct-to-consumer content cost Disney $4 billion in the last year. ESPN+ is part of that loss with 25.3 million subscribers.
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ESPN and Disney would have a decision to make over how to structure the payment for the ESPN main TV channel on streaming. Sports providers such as Bally or MSG Network have their own products in addition to their cable offerings. Even though those are just for specific teams or cities, MSG+ or Bally Sports Plus cost upwards of $30 per month.
As stated, not everyone that subscribes to a cable package uses ESPN. Regardless, ESPN still gets a piece of the metaphorical revenue pie. Fewer people would subscribe to this ESPN streaming service than those who subscribe to cable.
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