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Major League Soccer Will Sell Its Own Games Online This Year -- Which Means ESPN Won't

But ESPN still plans on selling basketball games online. And probably cricket, too.

Kohjiro Kinno / ESPN Images
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.

Another day, another TV network rolls out a Web subscription service: Today Viacom announced it will sell some kind of Nickelodeon service next month, but didn’t say much else about it.

But here’s one “over the top” service that won’t come from a TV network this year: Major League Soccer says it will keep running its MLS Live service, which lets subscribers watch games streamed over the Web. That means that ESPN, which had talked about selling a digital package of games itself this year, won’t be doing that.

ESPN boss John Skipper had floated the notion of selling an MLS service direct to consumers last May, noting that the cable channel had acquired digital subscription rights as part of a larger deal to air MLS games on TV. That could still happen down the road. But not this year.

“Our collaborative relationship with MLS is long term,” ESPN rep Katina Arnold said in a statement. “Together, we discussed several potential options for the out-of-market games and determined that having them exclusively on MLS Live and MLS Direct Kick was the right option for this season.”

More important is that ESPN is moving ahead with plans to sell a direct-to-consumer package of pro basketball games in a couple of years. And people familiar with the company’s plans say ESPN still intends to sell Web access to the Cricket World Cup, which starts next month.

If that happens, it will be the first time ESPN has sold access to games directly to subscribers, over the Web. Those games won’t be available on ESPN’s conventional channels, which is a crucial distinction: The network still wants people to watch that stuff via traditional pay-TV outlets like Time Warner Cable — or, starting this month, a Sling TV subscription. But all of ESPN’s digital moves are still geared around the same idea: Trying to find new ways to generate revenue on the Web, without cutting into its mammoth pay-TV business.

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