Sports are quickly becoming the next battleground in the streaming wars, with Amazon, Peacock, Paramount+, Apple and Warner Brothers Discovery all investing more money into sports programming.
Disney is also looking to expand the reach of its sports content, with its popular ESPN brand, which includes linear channels along with ESPN+, which now has 22.3 million paid subscribers in the United States, which is a million more than in the previous quarter.
The company is utilizing its offerings by airing live sports not just on ESPN platforms, but also on Hulu and the ABC channel. And recently, ESPN documentaries have also been added to Disney+.
During the recent investors earning call, Disney CEO Bob Chapek spoke on many occasions about the plans and future of its sports network, ESPN+ becoming much more important as it pivots from linear to streaming.
One of the questions asked to Bob Chapek was about how the long-term sports on ESPN+ model work.
We’re not ready to share the specifics of our model in terms of how long it would take for us to reach profitability on that or the impact that it would have on our linear business. But I would emphasize that we’re only going to do it if it’s accretive to our shareholder value when it comes time to actually pull the trigger. 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, frankly, could actually pull that off. But we don’t have a lot of specifics when it comes to structure. But we do believe that because sports is so powerful, in fact, in the last quarter, 46 of the top 50 most viewed programs on linear TV were sports. And obviously, ESPN dominates that.
And I do believe that sports is the third leg of our domestic offerings in terms of our DTC offerings, and right now, that expression is through the bundle. And I think that could become very powerful for us going forward in the future.
This comment from Bob Chapek continues to show how popular sports programming is and just as telling is how he talks about pulling the trigger on moving sports away from linear networks onto streaming. Right now, due to the income linear sports still brings in, but Disney isn’t waiting around, heavily pushing its sports programming on its streaming services.
When asked about making ESPN+ a fully a la carte sports network, Bob Chapek replied:
So as you know, on all of our linear networks, they’re huge cash generators for us. So to some extent, we’re doing a really good job of chopping down some of the debt that we’ve had to accumulate due to either acquisition or through the COVID challenge. And so, the hesitancy to move too fast away from those is really a cash flow situation that I think puts our company in a healthier overall situation.
At the same time, we’re very conscious of our ability to go more aggressively into the DTC 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.
Sports is going to be a major provider for Disney’s linear networks and streaming platforms moving forward. Currently, Disney is spending a third of its content budget of over $30 million on sports content, which is why it’s so important to the company.
It also highlights that the idea of ESPN+ and Disney+ merging in, might not be on the cards just yet, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see ESPN+ available within Disney+ as a paid add-on, similar to how the app is available within Hulu. Nor would it be a surprise to see some live sports being broadcasted within Disney+ at some point, to continue that cross corporate synergy that they are using already for the ESPN brand.
Do you think Disney is right to heavily invest in more sports programming?