Disney’s plans to launch a full direct-to-consumer (DTC) version of its pay-TV sports service, ESPN, as early as 2025, have led the company to seek strategic partners from the technology and telecoms sectors. The goal is to consolidate ESPN’s linear networks and streaming services and attract investors who can assist with distribution and programming. Potential partners include Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, T-Mobile, and Verizon.
Disney’s ideal scenario would involve giving up no more than ten percent of ESPN, with partners like Apple and Verizon helping to expand the streaming service’s reach. Apple’s integration of hardware and software would allow ESPN to reach millions of devices, while Verizon could bundle subscriptions with mobile contracts. Disney has also held discussions with major sports leagues, offering them an equity stake in exchange for exclusive content or more favorable rights agreements.
ESPN has been a major beneficiary of the traditional bundle model in US broadcasting, receiving $10 per cable subscriber each month. However, as the number of pay-TV households decreases, Disney recognizes the need for a DTC model to achieve similar revenues. Major leagues can help drive subscriptions by contributing to the content proposition, but digital partners are crucial for generating the scale necessary to compete with cable.
Currently, ESPN+ has 24.9 million subscribers, while ESPN is available in approximately 70 million homes. Verizon’s customer base of 93 million presents a significant opportunity for the new DTC version of ESPN to expand, and Apple’s ecosystem and customer engagement capabilities would be valuable assets. The success of Apple’s $2.5 billion global broadcast deal with Major League Soccer demonstrates its potential as a partner for ESPN.
Overall, Disney’s search for strategic partners reflects its recognition of the changing landscape in the broadcasting industry and the need to adapt to the growing demand for streaming services. By partnering with technology and telecoms companies, Disney aims to position ESPN as a leading player in the DTC market, while also ensuring the continued availability of flagship sports events to a wider audience.