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ESPN going ‘all-in’ on streaming would be a tipping point for the OTT revolution

Steve McCaskill ponders when ESPN will shift its linear channel to ESPN+, the challenge of OTT discoverability, and why this year's FA Cup final was a broadcasting success.

19 May 2022 Steve McCaskill


The film Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and its sequel are best known for their one-liners, slapstick humour and moments of unapologetic silliness. But amidst the chaos is some genuine satirical insight into the US media landscape in the 1970s and 1980s.

In the second film, Burgundy joins a 24-hour news channel GNN (no prizes for guessing which real television network is being lampooned here), a concept which is dismissed as outrageous by various characters who question how the network will fill airtime and find an audience. The quips, of course, are humorous to modern viewers accustomed to an always-on news cycle, but they reflected what a radical idea CNN was just 40 years ago.

Another cable television upstart from the same era is also featured in a fight scene between rival news crews in Anchorman 2ESPN. The similar scepticism that greeted the world’s first dedicated sports channel will seem just as absurd to regular readers of this newsletter, but ESPN struggled in its early years.

Eventually, as we all know, ESPN eventually found its feet and has been a constant in the US sports broadcasting landscape. For decades it has often been the only mainstream pay-TV channel among a buffet of niche services and regional sports networks (RSNs), complementing the extensive free-to-air (FTA) coverage of the big four networks.

One of the most significant moments in ESPN’s path to legitimacy was when it gained rights to the National Football League (NFL) in 1987, beginning a relationship that saw it eventually take over the rights to Monday Night Football in 2006.

The NFL could also kickstart the latest evolution in ESPN’s history. A clash between the Denver Broncos and Jacksonville Jaguars from Wembley Stadium at 8.30am on the east coast may not seem revolutionary in itself, but it will be the first time ESPN will broadcast an NFL game exclusively on its over-the-top (OTT) streaming platform ESPN+.

ESPN has experimented with streaming for more than 15 years, beginning with ESPN 360, continuing with ESPN 3, and most recently ESPN+. But the sanctity of its linear cable television channel has remained. Even as rivals have sought to bundle in as much content as possible into their streaming platforms, you still cannot watch the main ESPN feed on ESPN+.

But during Disney’s recent Q2 earnings call, chief executive Bob Chapek opened the door for that possibility.

“We’re very conscious of our ability to go more aggressively into the DTC area of ESPN,” he said. “But we know that at some point when it’s going to be good for our shareholders, we’ll be able to fully go into an ESPN DTC offering…and we fully believe that there is a business model there for us that’s going to enable us to regain growth on ESPN+ in a full DTC.”

However, this would take some time to become a reality. Linear channels are still a huge revenue generator for the company and ESPN is one of the services that many people expect to be included in a cable bundle. Even though the channel is now in a quarter fewer homes than it was a decade ago, Disney is still not ready to go all-in in the same way that Comcast was when it closed down NBSCN last year and shifted its sports content to Peacock. 

“We’re not ready to share the specifics of our model in terms of how long it would take for us to reach profitability on that or the impact that it would have on our linear business,” elaborated Chapek. “But I would emphasise that we’re only going to do it if it’s accretive to our shareholder value when it comes time to actually pull the trigger.”

Streaming might be the future of sport – especially in the US where the market is increasingly dominated by a series of super-aggregators of content. But ESPN is satisfied with the status quo until it reaches a tipping point when it makes more financial sense to go all in.

ESPN is an icon not just of US television, but also of American culture. Its personalities and programmes are beloved by millions of people from coast-to-coast who immediately feel a sense of comfort when they hear the iconic opening bars of the SportsCenter theme tune.

When ESPN does reach that tipping point, then it will be a symbolic moment in the history of US sports broadcasting.

WatchSports aims to simplify the process of watching sports events on OTT platforms

How do you solve the challenge of discoverability?

One of the biggest advantages of the DTC model is the ability for consumers to build their own bundles. They can subscribe to the sports and services they want rather than paying for those that they don’t – at least that’s the theory anyway.

But one of the biggest challenges for both broadcasters and consumers is discoverability. Pay-TV platforms and channels have traditionally acted as both gatekeeper and curators of content. Even if a viewer didn’t necessarily want to watch a certain event, they’d at least know where to find it.

The world of streaming is much more fragmented. Consumers are often forced to navigate a labyrinth of different applications, menus and devices, all while having billing relationships with myriad companies.

This opens the door for content aggregators, or at least services that can nudge viewers in the right direction. Buzzer, for example, provides users with notifications when something potentially exciting is about to happen in one of their favourite sports.

Sportsbubble’s WatchSports app is another that hopes to simplify matters. A live event guide lets users know where they can watch an event and how they can pay for it. In the future a feature called ‘SportsPassport’ will enable personalisation, notifications, and in-app authentication for existing subscriptions to streaming services and allow for seamless integration with bookmakers.

“Fans now have a universal source for live event viewing information at their fingertips,” said founder and former Olympic speed skater Lydia Murphy-Stevens. “I set out to solve the sports media fragmentation problem and, in the process, we created a tool that will also help level the playing field for women’s sports exposure.

“WatchSports provides information and access equitably across all sports and viewing platforms which means the search-to-watch for a women’s college soccer game is as easy and fast as it is for an NFL game.”

Launch partners include DAZN, Pac-12 Conference and the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) and the hope is that more will come on board soon. In the long-term, applications like this could become a key lead generation tool and with so much out there to watch, anything that helps viewers is to be welcomed.

Liverpool were victorious in the final, but the BBC, ITV and The FA will be pleased too

The FA Cup final for a digital age

All things considered, the FA Cup final last weekend was a great success. The clash between Liverpool and Chelsea was one of the more entertaining goalless draws you’re likely to see, and it was brilliant to see a full crowd after the restrictions last year and the empty stands in 2020.

The BBC will be happy too, with 8.9 million people tuning in for the event in the UK. This is slightly down from the 9.1 million recorded 12 months ago, but the number of digital requests on iPlayer and the BBC Sport website doubled to four million.

Another factor was that a second free-to-air (FTA) broadcaster was showing the final for the first time since 1988. ITV’s peak of 2.6 million was lower than the BBC’s, as they usually are when they show the same event, but the decision to take the world’s oldest club soccer competition entirely FTA for the first time in more than 30 years has proved a shrewd one.

It has added to the prestige of the tournament and research shows that fans are likely to be more invested in a competition if none of the content is being withheld behind a paywall. What’s more is that the FA’s current deal also includes plenty of reserved rights that means it can offer its own content on its channels, which is crucial for engaging Gen Z audiences that may not be aware of the great history of the competition.

In an example of tradition marrying modernity, the BBC even had a pop-up channel on its digital platforms that offered all-day build-up to the match – just like when the FA Cup final was the biggest sporting event of the year for many households.

Traditionalists may have been less pleased about the late kick-off, however. The FA switched from the 3pm slot several years ago, with recent finals getting underway at 5pm or 5.30pm. This year’s final started at the more unusual 4.45pm. The reported reason? The BBC didn’t want the event to interfere with the other big competition of the day – the Eurovision Song Contest. Linear scheduling may seem anachronistic in an OTT world, but there will always be such considerations when dealing with live events.

And such foresight proved wise given the match went to penalties, even if fans of Eurovision Pointless were left disappointed after their show was bumped to BBC Two.

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