By Adding NFL Games to ESPN+, Disney Walks a Fine Line

Written by John O'Connor

Last updated on

ESPN Plus will now carry a handful of NFL games for the 2022 season. It’s about time.

The lack of NFL and NBA games on ESPN+ was always a head scratcher for me.

For example, Monday Night Football airs on ESPN, but until this season, ESPN Plus subscribers couldn’t live stream MNF games.

Why did it take so long for the brass at Disney to add pro football to their sports streaming service?

In a word, fear.

To date, the ESPN business model, which relies on paid-TV subscribers signing up for the channel as part of a cable or streaming bundle, precluded it. Before the recent ESPN Plus price increase from $6.99 to $9.99 per month, it was cheaper to sign up for ESPN+ directly than it was to pay for ESPN as part of a cable bundle. Cable users pay $10 per month for the channel.

The more premier content that gets added to ESPN+, the less valuable cable is for many households, and there are still 76 million cable subscribers who pay for ESPN. MNF wasn’t available on ESPN Plus to protect Disney’s cable business.

After all, why would millions of households continue to pay handsomely for ESPN as part of their cable and streaming packages, if the biggest games were available on ESPN+ for a much lower price? Put another way, if ESPN was available à la carte, how many families would continue to pay for cable?

Cable subscriptions are on the decline

The problem for Disney is that cable subscriptions are going the way of the Colorado River, they’re starting to dry up.

According to Axios reporting on Disney’s SEC filings, ESPN+ had 17 million subscribers to end 2021, up 66% year over year. The growth of ESPN+ during this time is especially impressive because the sports lineup is still fairly limited. Yes, you have the UFC, but big college football games don’t air on ESPN Plus, and until recently, no NFL games were available on the platform.

Despite the more robust channel lineup that comes with traditional bundles, pay-TV subscribers with access to ESPN fell by 10%, a trend that is likely to accelerate in the years to come.

This leaves Disney, the owner of ESPN, in a pickle.

How do you pour gasoline on the growth of ESPN Plus, while maintaining value for Pay-TV subscribers?

The answer seems to be, you walk the fence.

Disney is walking a tightrope

For the 2022 season, a patchwork of NFL content, including one streaming exclusive game, will now be available on ESPN+.

Most NFL games for most fans won’t be available on ESPN+, however, even the addition of a limited NFL lineup will help justify the ESPN+ price increase, and make the platform more valuable for sports fans in general. Consider that Amazon paid over 1 billion for the exclusive rights to Thursday Night Football. With the popularity of the NFL at an all time high, the media rights for even one NFL game, even in a simulcast, are pure gold.

Cable and Pay-TV users still get more value than ESPN+ subscribers as part of their traditional bundles, but it can no longer be written that ESPN+ lacks the NFL altogether, which is a win for the ESPN+ brand, and a trend in the right direction for sports fans hoping for more marquee content on the platform.

The more NFL content that gets added to ESPN Plus, the more the executives at Disney are betting that the old cable TV model will soon be a thing of the past.

The sports media world is getting fun to watch.

I have my popcorn at the ready.

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