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One Small Step for ESPN+

ESPN+ is available within the new, "re-imagined" ESPN app.

ESPN+ is available within the new, "re-imagined" ESPN app.

ESPN has stepped onto the direct-to-consumer field with the April 12 launch of the ESPN+ streaming service, featuring thousands of hours of live sports events and library content but avoiding marquee content such as live National Football League or National Basketball Association contests.

The $4.99-per-month offering — part of the network’s new, reimagined app that offers more personal and customizable elements for sports fans — will feature live Major League Baseball games through ESPN’s telecasts, as well as the MLB.TV out-of-market package; all games from Major League Soccer’s MLS Live package; live Top Rank Boxing fights; PGA Tour golf events; and Canadian Football League contests.

Along with the ESPN+ service, the ESPN app — which is available on Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV and Google Chromecast devices, as well as Android and iOS mobile devices — will continue to offer authenticated live and on-demand programming for ESPN pay TV subscribers, as well as scores, news, highlights and audio.

“I consider these offerings the beginning of a new era of innovation at ESPN,” James Pitaro, ESPN president and co-chair, Disney Media Networks, said, though he declined to estimate how many subscribers ESPN+ might bring in.

Pitaro also said the network is very interested in partnering with MVPDs on offering ESPN+ as part of their service, but he would not provide specific details.

“Our DNA is all about innovation — it’s a big part of our legacy — and we believe that we now have an opportunity to serve sports fans in new and innovative ways that, quite honestly, no one else can,” he added.

ESPN+ is the latest direct-to-consumer sports service to launch this year, following CBS’s CBS Sports HQ and Turner Sports’s Bleacher Report Live streaming service.

Tania Yuki, CEO and founder of social media research company Shareablee, said more digital sports services could emerge as consumer viewing online continues to increase.

“Sports is one of the few things that really needs to be consumed as its happening,” she said. “As lifestyles change and people become more mobile, anyone who has access to that viewer on a mobile device is going to be much more aggressive about giving them the content that they want so they don’t miss out on that viewing time.”

ESPN executive vice president and chief technology officer Aaron LaBerge spoke with Multichannel News senior content producer – programming R. Thomas Umstead about what to expect with ESPN+ and the new ESPN app. Here’s an edited transcript of their interview.

MCN: What should sports fans expect to experience with the new ESPN app?
Aaron LaBerge:
First of all, we’re saying sports fans are going to see a completely reimagined ESPN app which is going to have more high fidelity, visual interface enhancements — in short, the app is just going to feel better. It’s going to have a completely new video section. We’re leveraging the best of [BAMTech Media’s] video streaming technology, including cloud based DVR, pause and rewind and restart, within the app. Of course, we’re going to be introducing ESPN+, which is the first time through the ESPN app that a fan will be able to buy a video subscription directly from us.

MCN: How important is ESPN+ for the company in an environment where competition in the TV sports arena continues to grow across all platforms?
We still have a lot of people watching TV and authenticating in our app and taking full advantage of the cable subscription within our app; this is just another outlet that gives us more options to sell directly to fans and establish a more direct relationship with them. I think if you step back and think about the ESPN app as the ultimate marketplace for sports fans, you think about the fact that we want to serve every need of every fan in the world. You do that by offering scores, news and information, which is what we do today. We do that through our distributors — when you subscribe to cable, you can consume that same content in our app. And now we can sell our content directly. All those things sum up to be the ultimate sports experience. We don’t look at one versus the other, instead we see it as giving more options gto consumers.

MCN: Why is this such an important time strategically to launch ESPN+?
There’s just an incredible amount of sports content — we did somewhere between 19,000 live events last year give or take. There’s so much content from all different sports that exist out there, it makes for a very rich environment for doing this. As we move into a more personalized world where we’re serving the needs of the individual fan versus all fans, I think this becomes more critical so that we can serve every fan who may have some niche interest. We want to be able to serve that fan as well as the people that are interested in the Yankees and the Red Sox.

MCN: On the programming side, what will be most appealing to viewers?
ESPN+ is really an incredible value for sports fans. You get all of the MLS games; you get the 30 for 30 library of the best sports documentaries in the world, along with 5,000 to 10,000 other events throughout the year. I think it’s an incredible value for any of those things alone, let alone all of it and much more.