clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

ESPN is launching ESPN+, its $5 streaming service that is not ESPN

Disney has big plans to sell its stuff directly to consumers. This is a first step.

A hand holding a mobile phone showing an ESPN+ screen ESPN
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 is finally launching its own streaming service today. It may not be the sports streaming service you’ve been waiting for.

That’s because ESPN+, which costs $5 a month, doesn’t give you ESPN. It gives you things that aren’t on ESPN.

We’ve been saying this for a long time; more recently, executives from ESPN and its owners at Disney have been saying it as well. But it’s still worth repeating, at least in part because regular people might reasonably assume that an ESPN streaming service will give you ESPN.

So. What does ESPN+ give you?

If you are a regular person, you might describe the service’s offering as “niche sports.” If you work for Disney, you might describe it as “thousands of additional live events,” which includes a game a day from Major League Baseball and a game a day from the National Hockey League (starting next season).

And then lots of events you probably don’t care about — unless you really care about them, in which case $5 a month might seem reasonable. Like the Canadian Football League, minor league soccer from the U.K., and college sports featuring teams and sports that ESPN doesn’t already run on its existing TV networks and digital services. Here’s a nice summary.

Another way of putting it: If you go check out ESPN’s refreshed app*, which includes an option to pay for ESPN+, you’ll see lots of promotions for ESPN programs that aren’t live sports, like a new Bobby Knight documentary and a new basketball analysis show “written, produced and hosted” by Kobe Bryant.

That’s not a coincidence. New ESPN boss Jimmy Pitaro tells me he thinks ESPN original programming like Bryant’s show and the complete archive to ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary series will be the biggest attraction for subscribers. Whether you see that as a glass half-full or half-empty is up to you.

The big question: What do Disney and ESPN expect out of ESPN+?

Pitaro won’t say how many subscribers the company thinks it can sign up. But you can make some informed guesses about what ESPN+ means for Disney in the long run, in part based on commentary Disney exec Kevin Mayer offered in February at our Code Media conference:

  • The company doesn’t think ESPN+ will put a real dent in ESPN’s ongoing subscriber losses. But it is a way to create some additional revenue without fear of cannibalizing its existing shrinking-but-still-huge TV business. Because — you really can’t say this enough — you can’t use this as an ESPN substitute. TV executives are fond of this strategy.
  • ESPN+ is also a good opportunity for Disney to start learning how to run a direct-to-consumer subscription service in advance of the 2019 launch of a Disney-branded movie service — which will be a much higher-stakes affair. Good to work out some of the kinks now.
  • If Disney is able to buy the Fox assets it has bid for, which include a big network of local sports networks, it’s easy to imagine Disney selling those networks as add-ons to ESPN+.
  • And if Disney ever makes a truly dramatic move and sells access to real ESPN to streaming-only subscribers, it will use the architecture it has built for ESPN+ (which is powered by BamTech, the streaming video company it acquired for a couple billion dollars). So this could be training wheels for something much bigger.

By the way — if you would like to stream ESPN without paying for a lot of other channels, you can do that: Dish’s Sling TV sells a package that includes ESPN and a couple dozen other channels for $20 a month. It has more than two million subscribers.

* Apple, Amazon and Android for now; apps for other devices like PlayStation and Xbox are in the works.

This article originally appeared on