Sports networks have found a solution that could both satisfy existing customers desperate for live sports and hopefully lure back cord-cutters in the process: can’t-miss programming they won’t find anywhere else.
It’s easier said than done, but that’s the distribution strategy ESPN is taking with its highly acclaimed Michael Jordan documentary, ‘The Last Dance.’
The network is airing an unedited version on ESPN, and an edited version on ESPN2 with more mature language removed, every Sunday night through May 17 (9-11 p.m. ET).
Once each new episode premieres, it’s available to authenticated subscribers on the ESPN app, ESPN.com, and ESPN On Demand. ESPN re-airs the previous episodes every Sunday night.
But if you’re a cord-cutter that doesn’t get ESPN, you’re out of luck. Even subscribers to the new ESPN+ streaming service, who pay $4.99 a month or $49.99 annually, won’t get the documentary for another 15 months.
That is because of distribution arrangements for ‘The Last Dance’ that were completed ahead of ESPN+’s launch in April 2018.
Starting in mid-July, Netflix will have the U.S. rights to the documentary for a year. That means ESPN+ subscribers won’t get it until July 2021. Netflix also gets international rights to each episode the day after it premieres.
ESPN declined to comment for this story.
However, the setup has caused some frustration among cord-cutters left out of the conversation. ‘The Last Dance’ was the No. 1 most talked-about program on social media Sunday, with over 4 million interactions across Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
Cord-cutters will increasingly find themself paying more across the board for content in the modern sports media ecosystem than perhaps they used to pay to get it one place, said Patrick Crakes, the former Fox Sports executive turned media consultant.
“[ESPN] has some 80 million-plus homes – so they’re going to distribute there,” Crakes said. “You decided you didn’t want that. So you got out, and you’re saving $30 bucks a month. Congratulations. But now here’s a piece of content where you have to wait until July if you’re a Netflix subscriber. Or wait a year and a half for it to get to ESPN+. But eventually, you’ll get it.”
However, ESPN’s strategy likely has more to do with keeping existing subscribers happy, said Joseph Mahan, chairman of the department of sports & recreation management at Temple University/s School of Sports, Tourism and Hospitality Management.
“I’m not sure this strategy is about getting cord-cutters to come back; I think that ship has sailed, and one documentary isn’t going to get them to subscribe to cable again,” said Mahan.
“It’s more about pushing a show to content-starved cable subscribers. Subscriber fees are still a revenue-generator for ESPN, and there is almost zero novel sports content right now. This allows them to cater to that group. Given the ratings thus far, it would seem that it is a prudent approach.”
During normal times, ESPN’s programming would depend almost exclusively on live NFL, NBA, MLB, and MLS games. But these are anything but. The highly-acclaimed 10-part documentary about the rise and fall of the Chicago Bulls NBA dynasty has stepped into the void as the kind of programming that ESPN hopes will justify a subscription.
If customers get ESPN via their cable TV package or the ESPN app, there’s plenty of ways to watch and re-watch ‘The Last Dance.” The first four episodes of ‘The Last Dance’ have averaged 6 million viewers, making it ESPN’s most-watched documentary ever.