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How Many People Want to Pay for ESPN? The Web Will Tell Us.

Finally, a real-world test for a long-standing question.

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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.

Do you want your pay TV with sports or without sports?

For years, that question has been more or less academic: If you paid for cable TV (or satellite TV, or telco TV), you got sports, and you paid a lot for it, because Disney’s ESPN and its related channels are the most expensive part of your monthly bill.

Now, for the first time, you’re going to have a real choice. You can thank Dish Network and Sony for that: Dish Network’s Sling TV service provides a package of TV channels, delivered over the Web, that includes ESPN. And Sony’s Vue service, which launches today in a handful of U.S. cities, offers a bunch of TV channels, but doesn’t include ESPN.

Both services are still serving some non-ESPN sports to their subscribers: Sling TV, which costs $20 a month, includes channels from Turner, which means viewers will have access to some college basketball, pro basketball and pro baseball games. And Sony’s service, which starts at $50 a month, includes Turner as well as CBS, Fox and NBC broadcasts, which means you’ll get access to lots of pro football games, as well as whatever Fox Sports has. (UPDATE: Vue viewers may not get the NFL either — I asked the league if their games would be available on the service this fall and they wouldn’t confirm that, which I’m interpreting to mean that Sony doesn’t have NFL rights, at least for right now.)

But ESPN is the most dominant sports programmer in the country, by a long shot: The network has many of the most high-profile sports leagues and events locked up exclusively for many years to come.

ESPN has been able to pay for that stuff with the high subscription fees it commands from TV distributors, which it is able to get because distributors believe their customers must have ESPN and its exclusive sports deals. (Apple agrees, too: Sources say it would like to include ESPN in the bundle of TV networks it wants to offer in its service.) Whether that’s a virtuous cycle or vicious cycle depends on which side of the negotiating table you’re sitting on, but it has been in place for some time.

So now we get a real-world test: Do people really care enough about sports, and ESPN specifically, to pay for it? Or are they happy to pay for lots of other stuff but not ESPN? We won’t see the results for a while, but when we get them they could have important meaning for lots of people in the TV business.

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