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ESPN’s new subscription app will cost $5 a month. It will not be a huge hit.

How much would you pay for sports you weren’t watching on TV?

A football player in white tackles a football player in red.
ESPN paid big money for the rights to big-time college football games — which is why they won’t be on its new ESPN Plus service.
David John Griffin / Icon Sportswire via Getty 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.

Want to pay for a subscription to ESPN without paying for a subscription to other cable channels?

Sorry, you still can’t do it.

But next month ESPN will finally launch ESPN Plus, the digital-only subscription service it has been talking about launching since the summer of 2016.

It will cost $5 a month. Tough sell.

That’s because if you’re the kind of person who likes watching the stuff that ESPN is paying billions of dollars a year to show you — NFL games, NBA games, big-time college football and other top-tier sports — ESPN’s new service won’t give you what you want.

Instead, ESPN Plus will have “incremental thousands of hours of live programming,” as Disney CEO Bob Iger put it today on his company’s earnings call — but none of the stuff you can see on any of ESPN’s cable channels. That stuff still requires a subscription to ESPN — either via traditional pay TV outlets or many of the new internet TV bundles that have launched in recent years.

Instead, ESPN Plus will have stuff that ESPN doesn’t think is valuable enough to put on regular TV — or even on ESPN Watch, the digital bonus service it bundles with ESPN subscriptions. So this stuff has to be niche, by definition.

ESPN still hasn’t publicly spelled out what that means, but people familiar with the company have filled in the blanks. Think small college sports. Or tennis tournaments that aren’t one of the major tennis tournaments. That kind of thing.

To be fair, Disney has said that it won’t be carrying “real” ESPN on the service from the get-go. But lots of people have still assumed/hoped that an ESPN subscription service would be, you know ... ESPN.

Instead, ESPN Plus will be an add-on service available in a new version of an ESPN app, which will give you access to real ESPN programming — if you’re a “real” ESPN subscriber. Just like you can get from ESPN’s existing apps today.

It is possible to imagine that one day — who knows when — ESPN finally breaks from its very long-term, very lucrative relationship with the pay TV ecosystem and lets you subscribe directly to “real” ESPN, like HBO has done with its HBO Now product.

And if that happens, they can use the app and infrastructure they have created for ESPN Plus for that service. That is probably what Iger is getting at when he says, “If anything points to what the future of ESPN looks like, it will be this app.”

And selling anything directly to consumers is a new and important idea for Disney, which has said it is staking its future on the idea. Next year, the company plans a much bigger launch for a Disney-branded movie service, designed to compete with Netflix. So there’s logic in using the lower-stakes ESPN Plus launch as a trial run, to work out kinks.

But that doesn’t mean you’ll want to pay for it.

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