I have a prediction for the world of streaming. Even if college and pro football kick off in September ESPN’s traditional television networks like ESPN, ESPN2, The SEC Network and such (not ESPN+) will not have any subscribers. Is this clear. Nobody will subscribe to ESPN by September. Netflix will destroy the ESPN when comparing subscription revenue because ESPN will not make a dime. I would bet my entire life savings on this. And there is no way I could be wrong. Why am I so sure of this? Because ESPN is not a subscription based channel. ESPN has never been an independent subscription based channel. It is a basic cable channel. Nobody subscribes to ESPN on their cable subscription. ESPN is not like HBO or Netflix, or Showtime or CBS All-Access, or Encore. It is a channel that people receive when they subscribe to cable packages or streaming services by default. Just like they receive 100 other channels. It is something that is built into a normal TV package just like CNN or Fox News or local TV channels or Lifetime or Comedy Central. None of these channels have subscribers. You don’t subscribe to your local NBC or Fox affiliate. It just shows up, usually within the first 10 channels no matter what number they are. NBC 17 is probably channel 7.
For some reason there are publications that put out stories about how ESPN is losing subscribers. And often if comments are available people go straight into political rants. “It’s because they keep pushing their liberal agenda”! But you see. That isn’t why ESPN is losing subscribers. ESPN again DOES NOT HAVE SUBSCRIBERS. Does ESPN have programming that seems to have a political agenda? It certainly seems to be leaning in that direction in some cases. Do some of its commentators take time to talk social justice? Yes. Has that cost ESPN viewership? Maybe, maybe not. But it has not cost it subscribers. At least there has never been any published report that shows that it has cost it subscribers no matter how many angry comments about there are on Facebook or Q Annon message boards.
There are less people with the option to Watch ESPN then there used to be
ESPN is losing potential viewers. We know this. Why? Because people continue to cancel pay TV services. And because ESPN is a basic cable channel that is included as part of these pay services like DirecTV or Dish or your local provider it means than every time the overall bundle leaves a home that ESPN is no longer available in that household either. Now a much bigger and complicated question would be this. Are people cancelling cable because they kept it for ESPN until deciding that because they now hate ESPN it was not worth having cable for anymore? That would be real committed anger right there. That would be at least close to an approximation of someone canceling ESPN. Because it would mean that people were so put off by The Undefeated or some comments before an NBA game that they decided they did not even want to get Fox News anymore because it was part of the same package that included ESPN and Nickelodeon. You know Fox News right? It’s the number one cable news channel in the country. The conservative advocates who rail against ESPN can’t unsubscribe to ESPN and then use that money to subscribe to Fox News instead. Because Fox News is a basic cable channel, just like ESPN.
Should ESPN Stick To Sports?
I am not saying that people can’t be angry with ESPN’s commentary. I can understand why people say “Stick to sports”. Sports is an escapist activity. You want to sit and watch a football game. The biggest thing on your mind when you watch Michigan and Ohio State is not who will win those states in November. It’s will Jim Harbaugh ever beat Ohio State? When you watch a race you want to see cars going fast you don’t want a discussion about statues and flags. I get it. I don’t like it when I’m watching a super hero show and all of a sudden people start talking about building a wall or a crowd shows up outside of a character’s place of work yelling “Lock Her UP” If I want to hear angry political commentary I know just where to look. Don Lemon, Rachael Maddow and Tucker Carlson do just fine being outraged and talking about politics.
But no matter where you fall on the political landscape, the fact is that if you have cable or a bundled service that includes ESPN you can’t cancel ESPN any more than someone can cancel the History Channel. Big bundle cable services do not offer options like that. If they did it would change the entire way that these media companies operate. But Disney is not going to separate ESPN and its family of networks from ABC, Freeform, The Disney Channel and other properties. If you have certain streaming services it is possible to get lots of cable networks without having ESPN. Philo is a streaming TV service that offers nothing but entertainment channels, in fact it doesn’t provide 24-hour news channels either. If you want The History channel without being roped in to paying for ESPN well there you go. Another way to get a bundle of channels that does not include ESPN is via Sling TV, which offers a large bundle without ESPN and instead includes Fox Sports. If you truly don’t want to watch all of the football and basketball and baseball on ESPN then there is that option. Some customers can get Spectrum TV Choice, a customized group of cable channels packaged with local network affiliates. Those are pretty much the only ways to not pay for ESPN and still watch cable channels. Every other bundled service with more than one specific focus like frndly, carries ESPN. The last major one without it was fubo TV and that has changed.
But I see commercials saying subscribe to ESPN all the time
Now, that being said. ESPN has a branded subscription service that is totally separate from its TV channels. It’s called ESPN+. And according to Disney’s last earnings report ESPN+ added millions of subscribers in the past year. In fact it tripled in size. ESPN+ has 8.5 million subscribers right now. And it does not provide access to any of the content that the ESPN’s channels do outside of its collection of 30 for 30 films. It is a supplemental source of content with features like 1 MLB game per day during the season and a heavy dose of MMA. How well ESPN+ grows in the face of declining numbers for cable may well influence Disney to offer ESPN in the same fashion. And if and only if that happens ESPN will have subscribers to gain and lose and be answerable to the public in the form of cancelations. Until then when you see a headline about ESPN losing subscribers you should take it with a grain of salt.