Disney May Turn ESPN Into A Standalone Streaming Service

It has to be considered a downright bizarre time to be associated with Disney right now. Nobody needs any reminding of the cultural maelstrom that the conglomerate has found itself right smack dab in the middle of recently — a mess that's entirely of their own making, to be clear. Meanwhile, Pixar employees are certainly familiar with how their parent company has treated their movies lately, raising frustration levels by either shuttling them straight-to-streaming or creatively interfering with movies for the sake of politics. And then there's the continued fallout from Disney's acquisition of 20th Century Fox, which led to the shuttering of Blue Sky Studios and the shutdown of several ongoing projects. But hey, at least we received some nifty multiverse crossovers and the most recent update that Disney+ is doing well ... I guess?

Today brings another instance of Disney news from the same earnings call where the Disney+ subscriber numbers were reported, similarly concerning the company's wholesale pivot towards streaming. According to The Wrap, the next major development could involve turning the sports-focused cable channel ESPN into a streaming service of its own. This would come in spite of Disney's collective effort to push ESPN+ onto subscribers in the last several months, though currently the preferred option is to make it available as part of a bundle package. CEO Bob Chapek (who hasn't exactly improved his reputation much since taking over for Bob Iger) was specifically asked why this sort of move hasn't been in the cards already. Citing some very dry and boring business-speak about the "cash flow" provided by traditional networks like ESPN, Chapek then acknowledged that:

"At the same time, we're very conscious of our ability to go more aggressively into the [direct to consumer] area of ESPN. And so, 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 the way that you described, and we fully believe that there is a business model there for us that's going to enable us to regain growth on ESPN+, in a full DTC expression. But at that point, obviously, that will have ramifications on immediate cash flow that we get from our legacy linear networks."

What are we, some kind of ESPN+ ... Plus?

I know what you're probably thinking: wouldn't a standalone ESPN streaming service feel redundant after Disney has already sunk so much money into turning ESPN+ into a thing? And wouldn't this only continue to incentivize viewers to simply ... go back to their usual cable providers instead of subscribing to a dozen different streaming services? Reader, you'd be absolutely right. As someone who still needs traditional providers for all his sports needs, I can confirm that there's absolutely nothing more alienating to fans of all ages than when teams sign exclusive deals with various streaming services — be it Hulu, Prime Video, Apple TV+, or even Peacock — to air certain games during the regular season.

Thankfully, this early experiment with familiarizing viewers with these streaming services has (mostly) required only a free trial in order to watch a game, but check certain keywords on social media during any one of these instances and you'll likely see nothing but seething fans who either dislike the cobbled-together broadcasts or refuse to even watch on those days at all.

Nevertheless, all those potential dollar signs are apparently too much for Disney to ignore. Chapek went on to say that, "But I can tell you that it will be the ultimate fan offering that will appeal to super fans that really love sports. And I think there's nobody but ESPN [that] could actually pull that off, but we don't have a lot of specifics when it comes to structure." As much as movie fans might be feeling the squeeze when it comes to the increasingly fractured streaming landscape, sports fans are probably even more notoriously resistant to change. I just can't imagine a future where the masses line up to subscribe to ESPN+ Plus or whatever this ends up being called, especially when savvy fans can easily find, ah, alternative means (disclaimer: not that I or /Film would ever endorse such a thing!) to the occasional national broadcast during games that are blacked out from regional networks.

In other words, godspeed and good luck with all that, Disney.