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How Much Will People Pay for Just Sports?

As anyone who’s been paying attention to the drip-drip-drip of rumors about the future of Paramount Global can attest, big news in the media biz these days is often preceded by days, weeks, or even months of speculation before anything actually happens. This week, however, a legit bombshell hit the industry out of nowhere: Disney, Fox, and Warner Bros. Discovery announced they were teaming up to offer a new sports-centric streamer aimed at cord-cutters and cord-nevers. But while it’s absolutely a big deal, and certainly not good news for digital-cable providers like YouTube TV and Fubo, it’s way too early to say whether this will be a paradigm-shifter for streaming or what’s left of the traditional TV business.

If you haven’t kept up on the coverage about this new platform, all you really need to know is that, behind the scenes, it’s sort of like 2010-era Hulu — but for sports instead of prime-time entertainment shows. If you recall your streaming history, Hulu in its early years was a partnership between the parent companies of ABC, Fox, and NBC, and its primary reason for being was to give digital audiences who didn’t want to subscribe to cable (or simply forget to set their DVRs) next-day access to in-season episodes of broadcast shows like Grey’s Anatomy and The Office. It was only later that Hulu started focusing on its own originals and building a big library of older TV shows and movies.

Some industry analysts have offered informed speculation guessing it could start out priced anywhere from $35 to $50 per month.

This as-yet untitled platform also wants to reach people outside the traditional cable bundle. But rather than focus on on-demand scripted content like early Hulu, the new service’s main calling card will be the live feeds of every Disney, WB Disco, and Fox broadcast or cable channel that carries sports programming, including biggies like ESPN and FS1, as well as the digital-only ESPN+. It won’t be one-stop shopping for sports nuts — there are no current plans to invite in NBC or CBS, which host major NFL games and already make their feeds available via Peacock and Paramount+ — but it will be the first time anyone just interested in sports will be able to subscribe to a platform focused solely on all the major leagues. What’s more, if you already subscribe to Hulu, Max, or Disney+, you’ll be able to add this new service to your existing subscription. (And as a little added bonus, the sports service’s customers will also be able to stream the feeds of their local ABC and Fox affiliates, as well movies and reruns shown on networks like TBS and TNT, when those channels aren’t airing sports.)

But right now, it’s hard to know how much this new app will change the status quo, in no small part because the three partners haven’t yet announced a price for their new product, or whether there’ll be a big discount if you bundle it with an entertainment streamer like Max or Hulu. CNBC’s Alex Sherman and some industry analysts have offered informed speculation guessing it could start out priced anywhere from $35 to $50 per month, perhaps with a lower introductory offer to get folks hooked. At the high end of that price range, it’s hard to see this newcomer quickly scaling up in a major way. That’s because as things stand right now, anyone who doesn’t have a traditional wired-cable bundle can get access to all of those same sports-heavy linear channels by paying $70-plus for something like YouTube TV, Fubo, or Hulu with Live TV — offerings that also include CBS and NBC, plus news networks CNN and MSNBC and top-rated right-wing talk-network Fox News. Saving $20 but then still having to either use an antenna for CBS and NBC (or sign up for Paramount+ and Peacock) isn’t such a great deal, and it’s downright dumb if you also want to watch the news. On the other hand, if the price ends up closer to $35 — or perhaps even less for someone who has, let’s say, the ad-free versions of the Disney Bundle or Max — then suddenly the new app feels like a more attractive proposition to a wider audience.

All that said, I don’t know if the companies behind the service need or even expect to create a service that reaches another 20 or 30 million homes. Remember, this new platform isn’t trying to bring anything new to the mix in terms of content: There won’t be exclusive sports or original programming. It’s basically just YouTube TV on a diet — a really skinny bundle for audiences who only want to dine out on sports. Plus, Disney is still planning to launch a stand-alone ESPN in late summer or fall 2025, while Warner Bros. Discovery already has its Bleacher Report add-on for Max. The “Hulu for Sports” proposition feels mostly like another way of recapturing the money these big companies have lost as audiences opted out of the cable bundle. By itself, it doesn’t fix the problem caused by cord-cutting. But when combined with bigger digital-cable services such as YouTube TV, as well as brand-specific direct-to-consumer offerings, and the money generated by the SVOD platforms these companies own, it could offer one more way to lessen the blow of cord-cutting for legacy companies. We’ll see.

There is one other possibility I’ve kept thinking about since this joint venture was announced on Tuesday. While Fox Corp. isn’t in the entertainment SVOD business (although I guess Fox Nation qualifies as entertainment to some), Disney and WB Disco are heavily invested in that space and desperately need a way to reduce subscriber churn. Why wouldn’t they use the new sports service as a backdoor way of rolling out their own version of a cable bundle by offering consumers access to ad-supported Max (retail value: $10); the ad-supported Hulu/Disney+ duo (also $10); and the live offerings of the new stand-alone app (price TBD) for a single monthly bill? Such a bundled offering would obviously have to cost less than subscribing to all those services, but at the right price — I’m thinking $60 or $65 — it might be very attractive to a substantial number of viewers. Think about it: With a combo of the sports app plus Disney+, Hulu, and Max, consumers would get live feeds for two big prime-time TV networks (ABC and Fox); two big news platforms (CNN on Max plus ABC News); a slew of reality and lifestyle shows (almost all of the biggest Discovery Network titles are on Max); three of the best-known general-interest cable networks (TBS, TNT, FX on Hulu); and the three biggest streamers offered by legacy media companies (HBO, Hulu, and Disney+)

To be clear, the three companies have not said they have any plans to do this. But they have said the new app will be bundled with their existing individual SVODs (e.g., you can purchase it via Max). And WB Discovery’s David Zaslav has made it clear he is ****-bent on finding a way to bring bundling to streaming. “If we don’t do it to ourselves, I think it’ll be done to us,” he said last year at an investor conference. With Disney and WBD now mashing up their sports networks into a bundle with Fox, is it really far-fetched to think they might eventually want to add in an option to subscribe to Max, Disney+, and Hulu via one bill (while keeping separate apps)? Once again: We’ll see.


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