Live sports are steadily growing in importance within the streaming industry, with multiple platforms engaging in bidding wars for broadcasting rights. Disney (DIS 0.33%) has dominated the market since its sports streaming service ESPN+ launched in 2018, but a recent price hike could backfire on the company. Here's why Disney might lose subscribers after raising the price of ESPN+.
Disney announced a price hike coming to ESPN+ in mid-July, with the increase set to take place on Aug. 23. The new price is a rise of 43%, jumping from $6.99 a month to $9.99. The company reasoned that the rise in cost will "add significantly to both live sports and original programs and series." Although the platform has recently added content such as 75 regular-season National Hockey League games in 2021, and golf program PGA Tour Live in January, ESPN+ has significant holes in its programming that competing services are offering.
Football is the biggest sport in the U.S., with an average audience of 114.3 million domestic views from 2021 to 2022 -- 6.7 times more watched than basketball, the third biggest U.S. sport. Yet neither the National Football League (NFL) nor the National Basketball League (NBA) can be streamed on ESPN+. The NFL recently launched its own streaming service with NFL+, which costs $4.99/month. Amazon (AMZN 0.83%) has also entered the market by adding Thursday Night Football to Prime Video. The company paid $1 billion for exclusive rights to stream 15 NFL games for 11 years starting in 2022.
One of the top ten most popular sports in the U.S. from 2021 to 2022 was soccer, and ESPN+ does well to offer subscribers access to one of the most popular leagues in the U.S., La Liga, which received an average of 301,000 viewers per match in 2021. However, the service does not cater to soccer fans of the most popular league in the U.S., the Premier League, which averaged 507,000 views in 2021. For streaming access to that U.K. league, consumers must subscribe to Comcast's (CMCSA -0.12%) Peacock.
If many sports fans subscribe to services to keep up with one specific sport rather than a variety, increased competition in the sports streaming industry could drive subscribers away from ESPN+, with the price increase being the push they need to find their favorite programming elsewhere.
ESPN+ offers a wide selection of sports, with its most attractive offering being Major League Baseball (MLB). Baseball pulled in 68.48 million U.S. views in 2021, making it the second-most-watched sport in the country. The MLB is a major asset to ESPN+; however, it is the only sport ESPN+ offers among the top five most popular sports in the U.S. in 2021. Considerably smaller national viewing numbers for many of its other offerings, such as UFC matches, tennis, cricket, and others, suggest the service doesn't offer enough major leagues for its new price tag of $9.99.
For the same price, soccer fans could subscribe to Peacock for $4.99/month, gaining access to the Premier League, and Apple's (AAPL -0.60%) Apple TV+ for $4.99/month to watch every Major League Soccer game starting in August. Subscribing to these two platforms would provide soccer fans access to two of the most watched leagues in the U.S. and an extensive library of films and TV shows from both services.
The rise of major leagues launching streaming services will also lessen the value of ESPN+. NFL+ is incredibly competitive at $4.99/month, especially for fans with an exclusive interest in football. Another sport rising in popularity in the U.S. and not available on ESPN+ is Formula 1. The sport can be watched with a subscription to F1 TV for as little as $2.99 a month or $26.99 a year.
For ESPN+, what's next?
The saving grace for ESPN+ will be the Disney bundle, which costs $13.99/month for the sports streamer, Disney+, and Hulu. The bundle is not affected by the price rise and could help retain some subscribers to ESPN+. However, consumers interested in specific sports or major leagues besides MLB are still likely to seek competing services.
As Disney, with ESPN+, continues to compete in the growing market for live-streaming sports, the company should push its bundle as much as possible. The monthly cost of $13.99 is still cheaper than paying for Disney+ and Hulu separately, allowing consumers to see ESPN+ as a free bonus while Disney boosts its subscribers to the sports service.