ESPN is planning to skip TV providers and sell "a package of live programming" directly to consumers over the web, according to a new report from The Information. But the over-the-top offering won't include NBA, NFL, or any other big-league content; rather, ESPN will stick to "niche" leagues and select college sports for the streaming package.
The hugely popular sports network has conducted experiments like this before. In 2015, ESPN let online viewers purchase access to its extensive Cricket World Cup coverage — no cable or satellite subscription required. Here again, it sounds like the company is preparing a narrow streaming bundle as yet another test of the direct-to-consumer model.
ESPN and parent company Disney have been early participants in premium web TV services like Sling TV and Sony's PlayStation Vue. With those offerings, you get the full, proper ESPN network plus a suite of other Disney-owned channels; there's still no way of paying for ESPN alone, however. And again: that's not what ESPN will be doing with whatever it's planning next. The Information doesn't say exactly when the streaming package will be made available, but reiterates that ESPN has "no plans at the moment" to offer its core product for standalone streaming.
Despite the growing selection of so-called "skinny bundles," earlier this year ESPN president John Skipper said that this isn't the time to move away from the lucrative business of selling to TV providers like Comcast and Time Warner Cable. "We can sell ESPN as a standalone product, but we do not believe it right now to be good business," he told Recode's Peter Kafka in February. "There are in this country, in the neighborhood of 100 million people who get paid television. ESPN remains in over 90 percent of those homes," he said. "We are focused on what to do for those homes that we're not in."