There is now a set target date for the Walt Disney Co. to offer a full, direct-to-consumer version of ESPN, with the company now planning on a fall 2025 rollout. But ESPN will essentially preempt itself by a year by offering the network in a new sports-centric streaming service.
Disney revealed the largely expected target date—likely coinciding with the start of college and pro football next year—for the stand-alone version of ESPN late Wednesday as it reported quarterly earnings for its fiscal first quarter of 2024. But years of anticipation of fully decoupling the network from the traditional cable bundle has now materially changed with Tuesday’s news of ESPN’s involvement in a landmark streaming joint venture with Warner Bros. Discovery and Fox Corp., bundling the three networks’ sports content in a new, as-yet-unnamed offering.
Like his Fox counterpart Lachlan Murdoch, Disney CEO Bob Iger said “cord-nevers” and other price-conscious consumers are a key target for the new service.
“We know a lot of people have signed up for multichannel TV,” Iger said, adding that the service will be offered at a price “more attractive than the big fat bundle.”
The service developed with Fox and WBD, however, will not have additional features Disney plans for the separate version of ESPN, including integration with the ESPN Bet sportsbook, interactive statistics, and a potential merchandising component. Iger touted the forthcoming product as “unlike anything available in the market today.”
Iger, meanwhile, also confirmed the long-anticipated news that former Alabama head coach Nick Saban is joining ESPN as an on-air commentator.
Core financial results at Disney’s sports operations were mixed, retreating somewhat from prior escalation reported in November, with the latest quarter coinciding with the heart of pro and college football season.
Overall sports revenue for Disney rose 4% to $4.84 billion, while the operating loss for the quarter narrowed 37% from $164 million to $103 million. The entirety of the sports operating loss, however, can be attributed to the company’s Star holding in India, of which Disney is now selling a controlling interest. Domestically, ESPN posted operating income of $255 million for the quarter, more than six times the $41 million figure for the fiscal 2023 first quarter, representing a marked upswing in profitability given revenue rose just 1% to $4.08 billion.
ESPN+ subscriptions, however, retreated for the second time in three quarters, falling 3% to 25.2 million. Average revenue per user for the streaming service rose 14% to $6.09.
The figures highlighted another solid quarter for Disney in which overall revenue was flat at $23.5 billion but operating income rose 27% to $3.9 billion, and total direct-to-consumer losses reduced by 86% from $984 million in the comparable period a year ago to $138 million. Disney is now projecting profitability across its entire DTC business by the end of its fiscal 2024.