After years of hinting at it, ESPN is finally releasing its own subscription streaming service. On Monday, the cable-sports giant announced that it will launch ESPN+ on April 12, and ESPN promises that the service, which it set to cost $4.99 per month, will be the “premier all-in-one digital sports platform for fans.” ESPN+ will have studio shows, a “library of award-winning on-demand programming,” and “thousands of live sports events,” but a deeper look at the lineup reveals it to be underwhelming. It’s lacking the main thing sports fans want to watch: sports.
As far as live events go, here’s what the service has:
- One MLB game every day during baseball season.
- One NHL game every day during hockey season.
- A “selection of exclusive main event” boxing fights, and more undercard fights.
- Every out-of-market MLS game (subject to blackouts) and local-market Chicago Fire games.
- College sports from these conferences: “America East, ASun, Big South, Big West, Horizon, Ivy League, MAAC, MAC, MEAC, Missouri Valley, NEC, Southern Conference, Southland, Summit League, Sun Belt, WAC, and many more.”
- PGA Tour coverage including Thursday, Friday, and “some” Saturday and Sunday play.
- Grand Slam tennis coverage that’s billed as a “complement” for tennis fans.
- Rugby and cricket coverage.
For the out-of-market MLS junkie (or die-hard Chicago Fire fan), ESPN+ looks like a godsend. That may also be true of college sports fans who cheer on a team outside of a Power Five conference, along with America’s rugby and cricket fans. But it’s hard to see who else this service appeals to. Who is clamoring for one random MLB game per day (which MLB.TV already offers for free)? Or one random hockey game? And why wouldn’t those fans already have MLB.TV or NHL Center Ice? Who has been waiting for the complementary coverage ESPN promises for boxing, golf, and tennis?
That list of ESPN+ live content reads like a group of castoffs: programming not valuable enough to appear on one of ESPN’s eight cable networks (ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPN Classic, ESPNews, ESPN Deportes, Longhorn Network, SEC Network). ESPN’s press release makes no mention of the NFL or NBA at all. There will be no Monday Night Football, and neither of ESPN’s two weekly NBA games will appear on the platform. Plus, no live event that is on one of ESPN’s eight cable networks will be on ESPN+.
Additionally, there’s no guarantee any of the coverage on ESPN+ will be any good. ESPN already uses remote broadcasts for some games on its cable networks; it’s unlikely to think the company will be pouring meaningful resources into the broadcasts on ESPN+.
ESPN has been suffering from viewership decline related to cord-cutting for years now, so its entry into the streaming world is long overdue. But at $4.99 per month, ESPN+ doesn’t appear to be an attempt to win over cord-cutters, but one to complement an audience of cable subscribers who are interested in more coverage of less popular sports. But ignoring cord-cutters feels like a missed opportunity.
The options for cord-cutters who want ESPN’s channels are hit-and-miss. People can purchase Sling TV for $20 a month and get ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPN3. For $40 a month, viewers can hop over to YouTube TV and get ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNews, ESPNU, SEC Network, as well as a handful of other sports networks. Even more sports channels are available on PlayStation Vue, but the best package for sports fans there runs $55 per month, which basically sounds like cable TV in a different wrapper.
ESPN could make its own streaming package and do it better. The company has spent billions on the rights to broadcast live sports—it’s no secret that the events the network has shelled out for are the ones viewers want. A package that included live access to ESPN’s cable channels and on-demand content (like the 30 for 30 documentaries that were recently removed from Netflix) would be appealing, especially for fans who want to complement those channels with access to a sports-league-specific addition like NFL Sunday Ticket, MLB.TV, NBA League Pass, or NHL Center Ice.
The best-case scenario for cord-cutters is that ESPN+ is a stepping stone to something larger. ESPN is retooling its app as it gets ready to launch ESPN+, and it’s possible that down the line this new service could evolve into something that is ready to compete to serve sports fans who can no longer stomach cable bills.
But right now ESPN+ provides only a small slice of live sports, and so ESPN will remain behind in the streaming game. Viewers still want to watch the live sports ESPN broadcasts every year on its cable channels, but they increasingly don’t want to pay for bloated cable packages to do so. ESPN+ doesn’t address either of those desires.