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ESPN+ has started running pre-roll ads, frustrating paying subscribers

The ads started appearing on October 1st

ESPN+ subscribers have noticed a number of pre-roll ads running before videos in recent weeks, despite the fact that a major selling point of the app is that customers wouldn’t have to deal with constant annoying commercials.

Disney, which owns ESPN, started running pre-roll ads on October 1st, which also marks the start of the company’s 2020 fiscal year, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. The pre-rolls were included to increase ad revenue, the person added.

A Disney representative denied that financial concerns motivated the additional advertisements, insisting to The Verge that it was strictly a business decision. Pre-roll ads started rolling out before short-form video clips at the beginning of October, the representative said. Advertising for live events was on the app from launch.

“ESPN+ has always had advertising, including in live sports streams,” the Disney representative said in a statement. “We recently adapted the advertising experience and ESPN+ subscribers now also see targeted pre-roll ads in video clips across the ESPN digital environment.”

Recent reviews left on Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store are full of negative comments specifically calling out the pre-roll ad situation. One user complained that they shouldn’t have to sit through a pre-roll ad any time a video is selected since they’re already paying a subscription fee.

“I pay for ESPN+ and there should be an option to skip [an] ad after 10 seconds,” the review, left on Apple’s App Store, reads. “This feature alone makes the app just about unbearable.”

Disney originally envisioned a service with much less obtrusive ads. Limited advertising seemed to be the original strategy for ESPN+, with Variety noting in 2018 that “the programmer is focusing on securing integrated brand sponsorships.” It wasn’t until months after launch that ESPN started talking about exploring additional advertising options. ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro announced in August 2018 that the network was interested in exploring new advertising capabilities.

“We are very interested in an ad-lite type of experience within ESPN+ where you have various forms of sponsorship integration,” Pitaro said, as reported by Axios’ Sara Fischer. “Fair to say you can expect to see that going forward.”

Pitaro stressed that he didn’t want intrusive advertising within the app, but that’s exactly what people are experiencing. There are complaints from people who were promised upon signing up that intrusive advertising like pre-roll videos wouldn’t be a problem if they paid the $4.99-a-month subscriber fee for premium service.

Disney’s representative didn’t say whether additional in-app advertising would be rolling out to subscribers. ESPN+ is also part of Disney’s upcoming three-streaming service bundle, which includes new streaming platform Disney+, ad-supported Hulu, and ESPN+.