For years, the best argument for not “cutting the cord” and canceling your cable bill was live sports programming. Suddenly, that’s not really the case anymore.
Most early OTT (over the top) digital streaming services didn’t have live sports—so even when it got the point where all the television shows you like were available on non-cable platforms like HBO Now, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, you still couldn’t get your sports fix, and you still needed cable.
But consumers in 2017 don’t want to pay a fat monthly cable bill when there may be only three or four channels they care about. And ESPN, the “worldwide leader” in sports television, faced with rapidly accelerating subscriber attrition, is beginning to accept that fact. Disney CEO Bob Iger told the Hollywood Reporter last year, “Is it inevitable that ESPN will have a more direct consumer product in the marketplace? Yes. What that product is, to what extent it mirrors the product they have now… I can’t get into those details.”
We still don’t know the details of an eventual ESPN OTT option (its digital channel, WatchESPN, still requires authentication with a cable login), but we do know one is coming. When Disney acquired a 33% stake in BAM Tech (the spun-off digital video business of Major League Baseball Advanced Media) last August, the company said so: “BAMTech will also collaborate with ESPN to launch and distribute a new ESPN-branded multi-sport subscription streaming service in the future. The direct-to-consumer service will feature content provided by both BAMTech and ESPN, and include live regional, national and international sporting events.”
It cannot be overstated how significant the BAM Tech stake will be to ESPN’s future at Disney. But even before that option comes along, ESPN has licensed its channels to a number of OTT packages: it signed on with Sling TV last year, a product of Dish Network; then it signed on with Sony’s PlayStation Vue service and with AT&T DirecTV Now; it made a deal with Hulu last year to let Hulu include ESPN in its planned “skinny bundle.”
And now we know that YouTube TV, which just announced its pricing details ($35 per month for 40 channels), will also include ESPN channels.
That’s five different OTT services that can deliver your ESPN fix: Sling, Vue, DirecTV Now, YouTube TV, and Hulu’s forthcoming skinny bundle. Getting ESPN without cable was long thought to be a pipe dream, because offering up its channels separately from a cable subscription would be the death knell for kill its cable business. But ESPN is showing its willingness to innovate and adapt.
Of course, ESPN isn’t the only sports joint in town. Many live sports events are on ABC, CBS, NBC, or Fox. Those four channels will all be included on YouTube TV (along with FS1, Fox’s ESPN cable competitor). But Sling TV’s entry-level option (Orange, $20 per month) does not have any of those channels. (Blue level, for $25 per month, does.) DirecTV Now does not have CBS. PlayStation Vue does not have Viacom channels (those include Comedy Central, MTV, VH1). YouTube TV will not have Turner channels—including TBS, TNT, and TruTV, which get a lot of MLB games and many of the early-round March Madness basketball games.
Yahoo Finance’s gadget guy Dan Howley has a great rundown of all the streaming services currently out there. No one is saying it’s simple yet—there are pros and cons to each platform, and there are a couple ingredients each one is missing.
There’s still an argument to be made that it’s easier to just pay for cable—one monthly bill, and you breathe easy and know that you’re getting it all.
But if your only reason for continuing to pay that hefty bill was to watch live sports, that reason is looking less and less convincing.
Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and tech. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.