Disney execs had forecast a launch in the spring but hadn’t specified the date. Pressure had been building for years on the company to mount a meaningful response to cord-cutting and the loss of video subscribers, even though the network remains a dominant power in the cable TV landscape.
While all linear TV networks have lost subscribers in recent years as new options proliferate for over-the-top viewing, the losses at ESPN have complicated the narrative at Disney at a crucial time. The company, which has proposed a massive acquisition of key 21st Century Fox assets, has been prospering on the film side and with its theme parks in recent quarters. CEO Bob Iger has faced repeated questions from Wall Street and finally firmed up plans for two major OTT launches — ESPN+ and then Disney’s direct-to-consumer service, which is slated for the end of 2019.
ESPN+ will be integrated into a new version of ESPN’s existing app, which subscribers to a TV bundle can already access. The new OTT service will include live games. (The official release on the launch date has the full laundry list.) The roster at launch includes Major League Baseball and National Hockey League contests starting next season, plus college games, boxing, golf and several other sports. More games are expected to be added as the service matures, though streaming rights are more hotly contested than ever, as the NFL’s recent experiences have shown.
“ESPN was built on a belief in innovation and the powerful connection between sports and a remarkable array of fans,” said James Pitaro, who recently succeeded John Skipper as ESPN president. “That same belief is at the heart of ESPN+ and the new ESPN App. With ESPN+, fans have access to thousands more live games, world class original programs and on-demand sports content, all at a great price. They will get all of that as a part of a completely re-imagined, increasingly personalized ESPN App that provides easy, one-stop access to everything ESPN offers.”
The app is likely to play an outsize role in ESPN’s first appearance at the NewFronts, the annual showcase for digital brands that is timed to correspond with the traditional television upfronts. The event, on May 2, has been officially described as a companion to the network’s annual upfront event held on the same day as ABC’s. Still, the announcement about it last month underscored the company’s view that sports content is “a linchpin of the digital ecosystem,” certainly a view shared by Iger.