May 12, 2022 - Sports

ESPN will one day go full-streaming, Disney CEO says

ESPN subscribers by year
Data: ESPN and Disney annual reports; Chart: Jared Whalen/Axios

Disney CEO Bob Chapek says the company is inching toward a reality in which all of ESPN is available direct-to-consumer (think: streamable like Netflix, no cable bundle required).

Why it matters: ESPN, like its competitors, is faced with the delicate task of building for the future (streaming) without cannibalizing the present (cable). Chapek's comments indicate how close the future is to becoming the present — and the present to becoming the past.

  • "What we're doing is sort of putting one foot on the dock if you will, and one foot on the boat right now. 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," Chapek said.

State of play: This year, ESPN will air an NFL game exclusively on ESPN+ for the first time (Jaguars-Broncos on Oct. 30 in London), the latest example of premium live sports migrating to streaming.

  • This will intensify in the years ahead until eventually everything moves over. Then we'll really be in the streaming era, with ESPN and ESPN+ (and NBC and Peacock, etc.) melding together.
  • "It will be the ultimate fan offering," Chapek said of the future all-in-one streaming service. "And I think there's nobody but ESPN, frankly, [that] could actually pull that off."

Yes, but: While streaming is clearly the future, ESPN still reaches way more people — and makes way more money — on cable. So the status quo could remain for a while, even as cable dies a slow and inevitable death.

  • Disney earned $2.8 billion from its linear networks (ESPN, ABC, etc.) in the fiscal quarter that ended April 2, with that money coming largely from the subscriber fees ESPN charges cable distributors.
  • By contrast, Disney's DTC division (ESPN+, Disney+, etc.) lost $887 million. ESPN+ is up to 22.3 million subscribers, but that pales in comparison to the roughly 76 million cable subscribers ESPN reaches.

The bottom line: It's only a matter of time until the boat leaves the station, and ESPN is preparing to push off the dock.

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