Do you like sports? I know that’s a weird way to begin a sports column, but then again, I’m writing for a general-interest publication, as I have been for the past 15 years, so I can’t really know for sure. One thing I do know: Whether or not you care about baseball, basketball, or football, if you’ve had cable television at any point in the last 30 years, you’ve given sports teams and leagues a lot of money.
How much? Well, in 2013, ESPN hit cable subscribers with a “carriage fee” of $5.54 a month, which was roughly 34 times the 16 cents an average channel charged. As more and more people started cutting the cable cord, that number rose, to a reported $7.64 a month last year. (Some have estimated it’s even more, but we’ll just call it eight bucks.) Think about that. If you had cable television, you paid ESPN 96 bucks last year even if you never watched a single sporting event. And this system has been in place as long as there’s been cable. Which, well, is one of the reasons there might not be cable very much longer.
Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that Disney, which owns ESPN, is “actively preparing” to make the channel a stand-alone streaming service, available only to subscribers. This seismic move would untether ESPN from the cable model that it has, in many ways, been propping up for years. In an on-demand world, live sports, along with award shows and coverage of breaking news events, have been one of the few salvations of the cable world, the rare television genre that needs to be watched in real time. That’s a major reason the NFL has so thoroughly dominated television ratings, and why those carriage fees were so high compared to other stations.
But it was clear this couldn’t last forever: There are too many cord-cutters, and the streaming world too omnipresent, for ESPN to stay behind the cable wall much longer. The new product, tentatively called “Flagship,” would be a vast expansion of the current ESPN Plus, which only hardcore fans (like me, you should know) subscribe to. ESPN Plus allows access to ESPN.com’s excellent (but forever dwindling) top-shelf online content like Zach Lowe and Bill Barnwell, a seemingly endless number of lower-level college sports, and the network’s catalog of documentaries, most notably those from the 30 for 30 series … but it doesn’t give you ESPN proper, or the premium sporting events on ESPN, ESPN2 and the family of cable networks. (You can’t watch the NBA Finals with ESPN Plus: You need a cable subscription for that.) “Flagship,” according to the WSJ, would give viewers everything in one package.
This will have huge ramifications for the cable business model; some think it could be the death knell for the entire enterprise. But I’ll leave that to my colleague Joe Adalian to explain. What I’m more fascinated by — in a way that is not entirely self-interested — is just how expensive it’s about to be to be a sports fan.
For years, all of you non-sports fans have been subsidizing us: By paying your hidden eight bucks a month for a channel you didn’t watch, you allowed us to pay the same amount for channels we watched obsessively. But if ESPN, the unquestioned T.Rex of the sports media world, is separating from the cable model, that eight bucks a month will have to be made up from somewhere. The plan appears to be charging me, and my fellow sports addicts, a lot more. Sports Media site The Big Lead ran some back-of-the-napkin numbers:
ESPN+ is $9.99 a month or $99.99 annually. So how much more is ESPN going to charge a cord-cutter to watch Mike Greenberg and Stephen A. Smith all day? Back in 2021, when ESPN+ was just $6.99 a month, Andrew Marchand predicted the direct-to-consumer streaming version of ESPN would be $19.99. It’s unlikely the number would go down from there. Considering MSG+ came out swinging with a $29.99 subscription price, it’s hard to imagine ESPN would have to settle for less.
And that might be an underestimate, considering how much ESPN is paying in rights fees for all its big events. This is a network that might dish out $2.2 billion a year for the College Football Playoff, which consists of a total of 11 games. I bet they could charge 45, 50 bucks a month with no problem; I know I’d pay that much. Or, as The Big Lead points out, Disney could package this new product with, say, Disney Plus and Hulu Live TV and potentially charge as much as $99 bucks a month. That sounds about right to me.
But, of course, ESPN isn’t the only channel airing sports many fans deem essential viewing. If you’re a baseball fan and want to keep up with the Yankees on the YES Network, you’ll have to add another $24 bucks a month to your streaming budget. If, like me, you’re a fan of a team that plays outside your region, you’ve got to subscribe to MLB.tv for $25 bucks a month. The NBA League Pass is 15 bucks a month; NHL Center Ice is 69 bucks a year; WNBA Pass is 25 bucks a year. Want to watch the World Series? If you don’t have cable (or a Hulu Live TV subscription), you need Sling TV, which is $40 a month. Want to watch the MLS, or a marquee Friday-night baseball game? Apple TV is $7 a month. Oh, and if you like Big Ten basketball or the Premier League, you’ll need to pay five bucks for Peacock. YouTube’s price for its newly acquired NFL Sunday Ticket will be $349 a year, unless you already subscribe to YouTube TV, in which case it’s only $249. Also hopefully you have Amazon Prime, because otherwise you’re going to miss the Thursday night NFL game Jeff Bezos is paying a billion a year for. Oh, I almost forgot about the Champions League — that’s on Paramount Plus, and will set you back another $10 a month. And yes, of course: Netflix is getting in on this too.
Add it all up, and some sports fans might be paying $400-500 a month — or more! — to watch all the sports we could once (mostly) access through a single cable subscription. There is cosmic justice to this, of course: After all, fans have been enjoying such relatively cheap prices for years thanks to the free ride provided by all those HGTV and VH1 devotees. But as the price to follow your favorite teams gets higher and higher, sports, which is supposed to be a great democratizer, starts to look more and more like something only well-off people will be able to afford to watch. Which is an excellent way to turn off the next generation of fans. How high can streamers, and leagues, push the price point until fans have no choice but to walk away?
Put another way, if you are not currently a sports fan, I have a terrific piece of advice for you: Absolutely do not start watching now. It’s too late for me: I’m way too far down the rabbit hole. But if you’re not into sports already, you should stay away — that is, unless you’ve got limitless disposable income to spare. The high times are over. Save yourself.