Both shows are slated to premiere Monday exclusively on January 11. SportsNation will hit the streaming service every weekday at 9:30AM ET and then be available on demand. Stephen A’s World will have nighttime premieres on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.
The new shows are arriving on ESPN+ during a period of growth and an overall emphasis on streaming by Disney. For ESPN, they hark back to the advent of key studio series like Pardon the Interruption two decades ago as the linear network sought to evolve beyond SportsCenter and live games. At its investor day last month, Disney said ESPN+ had hit 11.5 million subscribers about two-and-a-half years after it launched. It projects having between 20 million and 30 million subscribers by 2024, which could be half of its traditional pay-TV footprint if current patterns continue.
Smith is best known as co-host of the popular weekday morning chat show First Take. John Lasker, VP of digital media programming for ESPN, said in an interview with Deadline that the new series will not have significant overlap with that long-running show.
“First Take is a very big show and brand for us,” he said, but the half-hour show for ESPN+ will be a solo affair. Smith is also active on ESPN Radio and social media, so an extension in streaming is a natural one, as ESPN sees it. In a recent announcement, Smith said the new show will “sports-related,” but “also a look inside MY world, beyond what you customarily see from me across all the other ESPN platforms.”
SportsNation, meanwhile, is a reinvention of a show that originally premiered in 2009. The new version will “take the best of what fans know and love about the original SportsNation and refresh it – delivering recaps of the best sports highlights through the lens of opinion, debate and social media,” ESPN says. Ashley Brewer, Treavor Scales and Taylor Twellman will host, joined by a rotation of special guests, analysts and commentators.
Like other companies with significant legacy assets, Disney is managing through a period of dramatic change, seeking to balance its streaming ambitions with the inexorable shift of viewing and ad dollars toward streaming. Sports is a crucial element of the streaming transition, but the sector’s migration away from traditional broadcast deals is a massive, long-term undertaking given the value of the assets. Live sports continues to be the glue of the pay-TV bundle, dominating the ratings even as overall linear viewing erodes. While the bundle is shrinking, ESPN is moving cautiously with its streaming efforts so as not to disrupt its linear networks, which still command top dollar from TV operators.
Other companies are looking to mobilize their streaming platforms as they try to capture the value of sports. NBCUniversal has made sports a key element of its streaming service, Peacock, and will stream an NFL playoff game on the platform this weekend. WarnerMedia has promised to add sports to HBO Max, but has not confirmed exact details. Its Turner Sports operation controls valuable rights to marquee fan draws like the NBA. Sports also gets top billing at ViacomCBS, which is getting ready to launch its expanded streaming service, to be known as Paramount+.
Rights, of course, are hugely costly, so a looming question for all sports streamers will be whether they can make the economics work in streaming. The traditional broadcast model is expected to be the anchor of upcoming NFL renewals, for example, negotiations in which Disney and ESPN are key participants.
For the past year or so, ESPN+ has been packaged with Disney+ and Hulu’s basic service in a $13-a-month bundle. The offering is credited with a nearly threefold subscriber gain for ESPN+ in the past year. The service offers a selection of live games but not yet an across-the-board, must-see lineup of top-tier sports comparable with what exists across linear ESPN networks.
Lasker said the bundle has given ESPN a chance to introduce itself to some viewers who may be less familiar with the brand. “Our content, including these new shows, gives us an opportunity to give them a look at what we do, in a convenient way,” he said. In its first year, original programming looked to leverage big-name athletes like Kobe Bryant and Peyton Manning to tempt subscribers. That approach has since evolved, and recurring studio shows like the weekly NFL Primetime have joined the lineup.
SportsNation has the potential to become a regular tune-in option for fans old and new. “I won’t compare it to SportsCenter, but I would hope that the success of the show gives us a formidable anchor,” Lasker said.
Excitement has been building in some quarters, stoked by some Wall Street analysts, that ESPN might pull the trigger on a larger-scale revamp of ESPN+, creating a higher-priced stand-alone service. That doesn’t appear to be in the offing, but the studio push and a recent deal with the Southeastern Conference (which has a streaming component) are the latest incremental steps in bulking up the streaming effort. On a corporate level, Disney is proving to be aggressive in supporting streaming. As of now, Lasker said, ESPN+ “”is a complement” to ESPN, he said. “It’s not an alternate.”