ESPN’s Play for Worldwide Sports Streaming Domination

ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro.
ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro. Photo: Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images
Julia Alexander
March 6, 2023

Live sports, perhaps the final frontier in streaming, remains in many ways the industry’s most significant challenge. In the past few years, it’s become clear that sports is the glue holding subscribers to the cable bundle, and a critical asset for streamers looking to grow. At the same time, though, sports rights are increasingly expensive, and packages are both fragmented and locked in long-term deals. Technical issues, like live video lag, are frustrating. And some platforms must manage the transition of sports to streaming without cannibalizing their linear businesses, which depend increasingly on these same sports rights.

So, perhaps not surprisingly, no single platform has been able to offer the full slate of games and leagues that could conceivably replace the traditional cable experience. Apple, despite its size, seems to be in experiment mode, nibbling with rights to Major League Soccer and Friday night MLB games. Peacock has seen success with the WWE and is airing Sunday morning MLB (and it’s the streaming home of NBC’s Sunday Night Football, TV’s biggest show), and Amazon debuted Thursday Night Football this season. DAZN, a sports streaming pure-play platform, has tried to establish itself through niche sports like boxing and snooker. (Yes, snooker.) In other words, most platforms see the opportunity, which only makes the consumer experience more balkanized and expensive.

Naturally, ESPN is at the center of this transformation. The Disney-owned outlet professes, quite accurately, to being the “worldwide leader” in sports, but that title still refers largely to its role on linear and in digital publishing, with franchises (SportsCenter, PTI, First Take) and live broadcasts (Monday Night Football, Sunday Night Baseball, ESPN NBA Sunday Showcase). By comparison, ESPN+ seems slender. It is, in fact, ESPN Minus. Due to exclusive cable deals, the sports streamer is home to less valuable leagues (certain NHL games, UFC matches, and PGA events) and evergreen content, like the 30 for 30 franchise or Peyton Manning’s underrated Peyton’s Places show.