Last week, ESPN launched its much-anticipated over-the-top (OTT) subscription service, ESPN Plus. It costs $4.99 per month and does not have a separate mobile app: subscribers access ESPN Plus through the newly redesigned main ESPN app.
To put it bluntly: Most typical sports fans will not be particularly thrilled about ESPN Plus. It is not the product the average person hopes for when they hear that ESPN is finally going “over the top” and offering something for cord-cutters, for one glaring reason: it is not a way to watch ESPN the television channel without cable.
In fact, it’s the opposite. ESPN Plus only houses live games that are not airing on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, Longhorn Network, or SEC Network. If you want live games from the four major sports, ESPN Plus is a disappointment. It has no NFL or NBA; it gives you one live MLB game per day (not of your choosing) and one live NHL game per day (not of your choosing).
Of course, ESPN can’t yet give people the thing everyone wants: everything that airs on ESPN the network, without cable, a la HBO Go. Its long-entrenched contracts with leagues and networks won’t allow it.
And yet there is a lot to love about ESPN Plus, for very specific groups of people: big fans of college sports like baseball, softball, tennis, lacrosse, volleyball, wrestling, swimming and diving, and track and field—but not from Power Five conferences (no ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, or SEC); big MLS fans (more than 250 live games, huge for an out-of-market MLS fan); big boxing fans (Top Rank fights only); rugby fans (hundreds of international matches and all 18 regular season matches of the inaugural season of Major League Rugby); golf fans (coverage of 20 PGA Tour events like the Players Championship and WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, but no Majors, and mostly just Rounds 1 and 2); and devotees of ESPN’s award-winning “30 For 30” documentary series (ESPN Plus has the entire “30 For 30” library).
— ESPN Films 30 for 30 (@30for30) April 13, 2018
To be sure, there has been some backlash to the fact that some of the content on ESPN Plus has been removed from ESPN3, the streaming “channel” that any ESPN cable subscribers can access with their cable credentials. In other words, ESPN is taking away some content its cable subscribers already got for free and asking them to pay to get it on ESPN Plus.
Many Twitter users aired that grievance in replies to ESPN on Twitter, like Matt McLean, who tweeted, “I already subscribe through cable provider, you now want to charge me more for something I already pay for?”
On the other hand, ESPN is being generous with its subscription options: you can start with a seven-day free trial, and you can cancel your subscription at any time. That means if you’re desperate to watch a specific college lacrosse game, you can sign up on the spot and think of it like you’re spending $5 to watch the game, which sounds pretty reasonable. (How much would you spend on drinks if you went to watch the game at a bar?) That makes the app practically an impulse purchase. You can always cancel after the game. (But ESPN is betting you won’t.)
Moreover, the ads on ESPN Plus are limited—you’re not getting drowned with bad banner ads. And the layout of the app is clean and appealing: open up a live game and you get a crisp feed on the top half of your screen, with a news bar still showing on the bottom half, and the option to make the game fullscreen.
A way to keep cord-cutters in the ESPN family
If you doubt that there are people excited about ESPN Plus, look no further than the fact that Roku stock popped 10% on Tuesday from the one-week-late addition of ESPN Plus to Roku devices. Disney stock is up about 1% since ESPN Plus launched.
Keep in mind: this is an experiment. ESPN Plus is Disney’s first ever direct-to-consumer option (built by BAM Tech, which Disney bought last year), and it’s a decent first stab. Another OTT offering (likely bigger in scope) is coming in 2019 for Disney content.
While a mainstream sports fan who mostly follows the big four sports might scoff at ESPN Plus, it is still likely to win over many college sports fanatics and “30 For 30” lovers who have cut the cable cord. That’s a solid first step in its top priority, which is to maintain some relationship (any) with millennial cord-cutters who no longer see a need to turn on ESPN the television channel.
At a time when the network’s rights fees for live sports are going up while its cable subscriber base diminishes, if it can get millennials to pay $4.99 for an additive service, at least it is keeping them in the ESPN family.