It’s not surprising ESPN has curtailed its cord-cutter’s delight, it’s surprising it took this long. ESPN3 was a gift for consumers. Those who could live without “SportsCenter” and studio shows with non-stop NFL blather had access to almost all of ESPN’s live events free online.
Sure there was no "Monday Night Football," but that meant no pay-TV subscription was needed for NBA playoff games, Major League Baseball, the best college basketball match-ups …
Now, that’s gone. Hello cricket, British darts and events with the sort of niche appeal as a Gary Johnson rally. (He’s the former New Mexico governor running for president as an independent.)
Many operators bought ESPN’s argument that ESPN3 would help them get more broadband customers. And, the network didn’t just persuade them to offer it gratis, but pay ESPN for the opportunity, too.
But Time Warner Cable may have played a seminal role in reversing that. It was the first cable operator to cut a deal with ESPN, requiring its customers to pay for ESPN on TV in order to get all those games online.
ESPN3 was a relic of the pre-TV Everywhere, authentication movement – when programmers, save Discovery, seemed more than willing to make content available online with no blockade. Turner was arguably the most aggressive to offer a free buffet and most aggressive to close it down, diving headfirst into authentication.
Still, ESPN3 continued to offer the chance to sit on the couch on fall Saturdays and gorge on top-tier college football games.
How much operators wised up – broadband is as crucial as electricity in many homes, so how many customers were they really gaining by offering ESPN3? – and decided ESPN3 wasn’t exactly a good play for them is unclear. But, ESPN apparently understood any complaints.
Now, showing TV Everywhere is moving forward fast, ESPN is pushing WatchESPN. The service is a cord-cutting buttress, requiring customers who want to watch all those games online to also pay for ESPN. WatchESPN also comes with ESPN3, so British darts are available at no extra charge.
Only a handful of operators offer WatchESPN now. (Cablevision will join five others soon.) But it will soon spread probably faster than ESPN3 did.
ESPN3 ended its previous incarnation at the end of August as Deadspin reported. ESPN says the goal is to turn it into its own network, focusing on exclusive programming.
It takes umbrage at suggestions ESPN3 serves as a niche outlet. Indeed, all those European World Cup qualifiers make for an appealing option for soccer fans – but there won’t be the marquee matches from the 2014 World Cup. Former ESPN chief George Bodenheimer remarked a while back ESPN3 reminded him of ESPN’s roots, where it relied on programming such as Australian Rules Football.
Even if viewers might not be glued, ESPN3 is a good deal for athletes who generally don’t receive a lot of coverage. Moms states away can watch their kids in NCAA track meets and the like.
There are still some simulcasts as long as they fit within programming windows such as starting before 5:59 p.m. on weekdays and 11:59 a.m. on weekend mornings.
For now, subscribers to Cox, Charter, AT&T and other operators won’t have access to those big-time ESPN events online. They’ll have to wait until their provider signs up for WatchESPN.
Networks such as ESPN and pay-TV distributors say there’s little evidence of cord-cutting. ESPN says sports fans in particular keep their cable subscriptions. Probably true for the most part. And for those wavering, ESPN has made the decision much harder.