Perhaps the biggest lament of would-be cord cutters is the lack of live sports that can be viewed legally on the Internet. This cupboard is not completely bare; 4 of the 5 pro sports leagues in the U.S. offer live streaming of regular season games, but they come with lots of caveats — local blackout restrictions, no playoff games, etc.
What most sports fans who want to cut the cord and dump the dish really want is to pay for a service like WatchESPN separately from cable. Indeed, the combination of Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, and WatchESPN, along with over-the-air digital TV, would likely be more than enough for most viewers. Plenty of sports fans would likely pay upwards of $20 to $25 per month for the privilege.
Don’t hold your breath waiting for that privilege. WatchESPN will never be a standalone service, nor it was ever meant to be one. Here’s why.
1.) Subscriber fees
WatchESPN is a TV Everywhere service, which requires a cable subscription to use. TV Everywhere is specifically designed to keep viewers attached to cable. That allows ESPN to keep collecting those subscriber fees — not just the network’s bread and butter, but its bacon, eggs, milk, and cheese, too.
As I detailed in this post, ESPN will collect $7.3 billion in subscriber fees from ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU and ESPNEWS. (To say nothing of ESPN3D, which brings in another $2.71 per month from people who were fooled into believing 3D TV is the future.) If ESPN began offering WatchESPN as a standalone service for $19.95/month, it would need 30.5 million subscribers to bring in as much as it collects from pay TV subscriber fees. Not nearly that many people would dump cable right away if WatchESPN became available as a monthly service.
Even if ESPN struck some sort of exclusivity deal with, say, Apple or Google, that guaranteed the first 10 to 15 million subscribers, it wouldn’t be enough. It certainly wouldn’t be enough for Disney, either, who would lose subscriber fees from 3 Disney cable channels, ABC Family, and all the A+E Networks channels, in which Disney has a 50% stake.
Plus, ESPN would certainly have to contend with this:
2,) Backlash from cable companies
Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Bright House and Verizon aren’t just TV service providers, but Internet service providers, too. All of them would view ESPN going it alone as a massive threat to their business models. They could also claim a standalone WatchESPN service is a threat to the stability of their networks — which wouldn’t be an issue if they had bothered to upgrade their networks like they were supposed to over the last decade, but that’s a rant for a different blog.
This is another key reason why ESPN (and Fox and NBC) chose to tie their streaming services to pay TV. Cable companies would not stand for ESPN to charge so much in subscriber fees and use their Internet to stream a high-value product like sports, too. They would start demanding subscriber fee reductions and making not-so-veiled public suggestions that ESPN over the Internet won’t be nearly as reliable as ESPN on TV.
Net neutrality issues aside, that might actually be true. This points to the final reason why WatchESPN will never be a standalone service:
As Mark Cuban likes to remind us at least once a year, “The Future of TV is…… TV.” ESPN would need a massive network infrastructure to deliver live programming to 30 million-plus subscribers. By comparison, the TV infrastructure is already in place and far more robust than any online video network available now. ESPN can deliver high-quality video much more easily by using existing cable and satellite services, rather than attempting to go it alone with Internet video.
Are there market conditions that would push ESPN toward offering online streaming as a standalone service? Perhaps a complete collapse of the pay TV economy? Perhaps a buyout of The Walt Disney Company? Just because Apple could buy Disney with cash doesn’t mean they will. ESPN benefits far more from working with cable companies than they do from working around them. Until something drastic happens, don’t expect that to change.