Sports fans greeted Tuesday’s news that Fox, ESPN and Warner Bros. Discovery will form a new, unified streaming entity with a mixture of hope and resignation. On one hand, we’ve heard these kinds of promises of “greater choice” and “more value” before, and they tend to come with “greater cost” and “more frustration.” On the other, if we could get all (or most) of our sports in one easy-to-traverse package, well, that would be a win for viewers.
The service, whatever it ends up being called, won’t launch until this fall. Until then, we have more questions than answers. A lot more, starting with the obvious:
What will this new service include?
In the words of Disney CEO Bob Iger, “the full suite of ESPN channels will be available to consumers alongside the sports programming of other industry leaders.” That means sports programming on ESPN, Fox, TNT, Max and all their affiliates and offshoots. In other words: NFL, the College Football Playoff, NBA, MLB, NHL, Formula 1, FIFA World Cup soccer, golf, NASCAR, Wimbledon, UFC and more. That’s a strong lineup! But it’s not comprehensive …
What won’t be on the new service?
Given that Amazon, CBS and NBC aren’t included, there are a fair number of significant games that won’t be on this service — Sunday Night Football (NBC), Thursday Night Football (Amazon) and CBS’s Sunday NFL slate, to start. Two-and-a-half of golf’s four majors — the U.S. Open, the Open Championship, and half the Masters — also fall outside the new service’s umbrella. (LIV Golf too, if that appeals to you.) Plus, any time CBS or NBC has the Super Bowl — like, say, this year with CBS — it wouldn’t be on this new service. Nor will regional sports network programming for local baseball and basketball games, for instance. The Olympics are exclusive to NBC. And remember: This new bundle is sports-only, as Iger indicated. So even though you’ll be getting ESPN, you won’t be getting Disney+, and you won’t be getting non-sports Max (formerly HBO) movies and shows … not without paying extra for it, of course.
How much will this cost?
Outside of what exactly will be on this service, the matter of cost will be the key question for most consumers. Don’t expect a Peacock-style $4.99 a month or even a Netflix-esque ~$15. Analysts have pegged the likely number at much higher, in the $45-$55 per month range. If you ditch cable or YouTube TV, it could be worthwhile. As an add-on to your existing streaming services, it’ll be pricey.
Will this even be worth it?
The question of value is a significant one, and depends entirely on the individual consumer. If you like what’s offered in this new bundle, you might be fine getting this new service and nothing else. But at the moment, everything available on this service will also be available elsewhere. Expect the service to pull a move like NBC (via Peacock) did during these current NFL playoffs, putting significant and attractive games behind a paywall to entice more subscribers.
How convenient will the bundle be?
One of the most frustrating aspects of the current streaming universe is that channel-surfing is a thing of the past. If you want to toggle between games on different services, you’ve got to execute a whole series of button-pressing maneuvers. Will this new service bring all the services under one roof, or will it be a “bundle” of separate services? All yet to be announced, but convenience would be a welcome change.
Will this be a first step back toward “rebundling” — you know, like cable used to be?
Cable TV providers managed to price themselves out of their own market by jacking up bills and fees for customers who often didn’t even want the majority of channels the cable service offered. That enticed customers to “cut the cord” — ditch cable for an a la carte collection of services. In theory, cutting the cord was supposed to be like unbundling a food court — separating, say, the pizza restaurant from the burger joint. In practice, it’s been more like dismantling a sandwich — if you want to satisfy your sports hunger, one service isn’t anywhere near enough. As it stands now, this service will solve part — but nowhere near all — of this problem.
How could this affect bidding on future sports rights?
Broadcast rights for sports remain some of the most valuable properties in the media universe, because sports are the only media that still must be experienced live and in the moment. Consumers could go months or years before starting a hot TV series or streaming a current movie, but nobody’s going to wait until June to stream the Super Bowl. Fox, ESPN and Warner Bros. Discovery (via TNT) have all been active individual bidders for sports media rights. How they "compete" and/or collaborate for rights going forward will be interesting, as will how this partnership impacts future rights bids of Amazon, CBS and NBC? How about if Apple or Netflix jump into the mix? The first test will come later this year, when the NBA puts its rights on the open market. That will give us all a look at just how friendly these former-and-future rivals could be.
What about existing subscribers to ESPN+, Max, and other affiliated services?
Yet to be determined. Again, at the moment this service doesn’t seem to offer anything you can’t find elsewhere. Unless this new service has more tiers than a Jenga tower, some customers could get stuck paying twice for the same content.
What could this mean for other rebundling services?
If this sports-only bundle works, there’s a chance it could serve as a model for other media conglomerates to aggregate their offerings — all movies, all reality TV, all news — in bundles for specific audiences. Yes, it probably would’ve been smarter not to blow up the entire broadcast framework in the first place, but that would have required everyone involved to be a little less greedy, and you know how likely that always is.
What will the name of this new service be?
Who knows, but it’ll be some kind of focus-tested strangeness. Personally, we suggest Channel Aggregating Ballgames, Linked and Exclusive. Or CABLE, for short.