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ESPN Gets Ready to Launch Its First Web Video Subscription Service -- For Cricket's World Cup

The cable giant wants to sell sports to people who don't have cable. It wants to start in February, with one of the world's biggest events.

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Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

ESPN’s efforts to sell streaming video subscriptions for some sports programming — without requiring viewers to pay for cable TV — could start early next year.

Sources say the Disney-owned cable giant wants to sell U.S. viewers live digital access to the Cricket World Cup, which begins in February. The tournament, held every four years, is one of the world’s biggest sporting events.

If ESPN’s plans — which aren’t finalized — move forward, it would mark the first time the company has ventured outside of the pay-TV bundle. That’s the same TV bundle — which requires subscribers to pay for dozens of channels, no matter how many of them they want to watch — that has made the company America’s most valuable programmer.

So even though cricket is a niche sport in the U.S., the move will at least have symbolic importance.

People familiar with ESPN’s plans say that Russell Wolff, who heads up the company’s international group, is spearheading the plan to sell online access in the U.S. Earlier this year, Wolff pegged cricket’s U.S. fan base at 30 million.

It’s unclear how much ESPN plans to charge for the games or which games it will include in its subscription package. ESPN declined to comment.

ESPN purchased the U.S. rights to the tournament in 2011. At the time, it suggested it would stream the games via ESPN3, the online-only sports channel it later folded into its WatchESPN service, which is restricted to viewers who are already getting ESPN as part of a pay-TV package.

Up until now, ESPN has used streaming sports as a way to provide additional value for pay-TV subscribers. But ESPN has recently started talking out loud about its plans to sell standalone digital subscriptions.

In May, the company said it might sell access to some Major League Soccer games via a digital subscription. In October, ESPN said that, in a couple of years, it would sell digital subscriptions to some NBA games, via rights it acquired in a new programming deal.

The idea, ESPN head John Skipper told me at our Code/Media event in New York, is to find new ways of generating revenue without upsetting the pay-TV infrastructure. If you already like watching ESPN, he doesn’t want to give you any reason to buy a standalone subscription instead. But if you’re a big cricket — or NBA, or MLS — fan, you may want to buy more from him.

“We think about, are there sports events we could offer where the consumer would pay us directly — not the content on our current linear networks. This has to be new [content], and it would create a third revenue stream for us,” he said in September. “I do want to be clear: We are not looking to disrupt our linear channels and the content that’s on them now. We’re going to acquire new content and new kinds of things to do direct-to-consumer.”

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