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ESPN+ Could be Initial Step on Network’s Streaming TV Roadmap

ESPN+ will be here April 12, offering subscribers access to thousands of live sporting events for the very low price of just $4.99 per month (or $49.99 in a one-time payment).

According to the official announcement, the offering will be headlined by MLB, NHL, MLS and college sports live events. The lengthy list also includes Top Rank Boxing, PGA Tour Golf, Grand Slam Tennis, plus rugby and cricket.

As you’ll likely notice above, there are some major properties missing above – specifically the NFL and NBA. That content will still be available for streaming customers (via the pre-existing WatchESPN app that will be folded into the larger ESPN app later this year), but only for ESPN subscribers. That won’t automatically include ESPN+. The two services will be separate.

There are caveats for the big-name properties as well. MLB content will include one game per week, as will the NHL. MLS will bring over 250 (out-of-market) games to the ESPN+ platform, but the Chicago Fire are the only league club that will include in-market games at launch.

For college sports, you’ll be getting college football and basketball, but also plenty of other sports from softball and lacrosse, to wrestling, volleyball, golf and more. However, that content is largely relegated to Division I’s lesser leagues: the America East, Atlantic Sun, Big South, Big West, Horizon, Ivy League, MAAC, MAC, MEAC, Missouri Valley, NEC, Southern Conference, Southland, Summit League, Sun Belt and WAC, among others. This won’t necessarily include football or basketball content from the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, or SEC. All of that will be limited to ESPN subscriber-only inventory.

This approach is an interesting one because it seems to stand in conflict with the original intent of BAMTech, which Disney (ESPN’s parent company) acquired a majority stake in last year. BAMTech started on the premise that you’d pay more to follow the team or league you’ll actually watch. And this seems to be the opposite of that approach given the omnibus ESPN+ package that hands you niche content only without the most popular teams and leagues.

Perhaps that’s the point, though. In this initial endeavor, ESPN is seeing if existing subscribers are willing to pay a menial (all things considered) amount for niche content. Some of that’s more obscure than others — Sun Belt football’s a much larger property than Ivy League lacrosse, obviously. But this is a first look at who will pay for that content anyway, while providing the additional info around which of those households are also standard ESPN subscribers.

The long-term idea here could be a streaming service based on a core content offering, plus pay-per-view on the other content that viewers may want beyond that. There’s no telling how much would be included in the “core” ESPN versus the ESPN+ offerings. However, we’re already seeing some of the bones of that being pulled together with this announcement. MLB.TV’s out-of-market package can be added to ESPN+ for $24.99 per month, while something similar will be available for the NHL come the 2018-19 season.

No matter what, it’s unlikely this is the final step for Disney and ESPN on the streaming front, especially in light of Disney’s own upcoming OTT launch. As ESPN subscriber loss continues to be a hot topic, the network has never been more under the microscope in the larger picture of Disney.