Monday, October 11, 2021

Report: ESPN Clinging To The Past

At last month's Communacopia conference held by Goldman Sachs, Disney CEO Bob Chapek was asked about the importance of ESPN and sports broadcasting to his company's streaming strategy. His answer sounded like a throw-away line, according to CNBC. 

"The number one most-viewed thing every year tends to be sports, something like nine out of 10 of the top viewership events in television are sporting events," Chapek said in a virtual session on Sept. 21. "Who knows what the future will bring, but it's certainly an important part of our consumer offerings at the Walt Disney company."

Chapek's generic response about the future for one of Disney's most valuable assets inspired no follow-up questions or headlines. But Chapek was addressing an existential threat facing the media industry, and an issue that may one day rock the foundation of his media empire, which includes some of the most valuable studios and film franchises in the world alongside the dominant network for live sports.

Disney makes more money from cable subscribers than any other company, and that's solely because of ESPN. ESPN and sister network ESPN2 charge nearly $10 per month combined, according to research firm Kagan, a unit of S&P Global Market Intelligence. That's at least four times more than almost every other national broadcast or cable network, according to Kagan.

Disney requires pay-TV providers to include ESPN as part of their most popular cable packages. It's a no-brainer for TV providers, who wouldn't dare drop ESPN.

Meanwhile, the non-sports world is cutting the cord. More than 6 million people ditched pay TV in 2020, according to research firm eMarketer — the highest annual total ever. About 25 million Americans have dropped linear TV bundles in the past decade.

That creates a struggle within Disney that's poised to escalate. Disney wants people to sign up for its streaming entertainment products, Disney+ and Hulu. Wall Street wants this too. Streaming video is a growth business. Traditional pay TV is a declining one.

It's also a wise financial swap for Chapek. While Disney makes more than $10 a month per subscriber for sports, it makes far less for entertainment networks such as Disney Channel and FX, which draw lower audiences and don't command high advertising rates.

If Disney can get a cord cutter to pay $8 per month for Disney+ and $6 for Hulu, it's a huge win for the company.

The reverse is true for ESPN. Swapping an ESPN subscriber for an ESPN+ customer, who contributes average revenue of less than $5 per month, is a significant loss for Disney. ESPN+ is a streaming service with limited content.

ESPN's strategy is to cling to the cable bundle for as long as possible, knowing it can draw potentially billions of dollars from U.S. households that are each paying $120 for the network even if they never watch it.

At $10 per month, or $120 per year, multiplied by about 75 million U.S. homes, Disney earns roughly $9 billion annually in domestic carriage fees from ESPN and its associated networks. Advertising that comes with broadcasting sports brings in billions of additional dollars.

That cash allows ESPN to spend big on sports rights, continuing a virtuous cycle. Disney agreed to spend $2.7 billion for "Monday Night Football" in a deal that runs all the way until 2033. ESPN pays $1.4 billion annually for NBA games and will likely pay more when those rights will need to be renewed after the 2024-25 season. The network owns media rights to every major U.S. sport in some capacity.

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