ESPN (NYSE:DIS) will try to unravel its online video confusion by relaunching ESPN360 in September with an emphasis on streaming live events — some 2,000 in the first 12 months, according to the WSJ. Games — the Disney (NYSE: DIS) sports net has been piling up live digital rights including nearly 1,000 college basketball games — and news conferences will show on ESPN360.com; highlights, news and archived shows will be on ESPN.com.
The explanation, in part: fans were confused between the video offerings. That’s a little simplistic — whether a viewer has access at all is the most confusing aspect of ESPN360, which has been licensed for a fee, like other ESPN nets, to affiliates who make the content available to their subscribers. I can watch because Charter Communications licenses the broadband channel but if your provider doesn’t license it, you can’t see it. Time Warner Cable, Cox and Comcast are among those who haven’t agreed to license the broadband network. That cuts the potential audience substantially — WSJ says ESPN360 is only available in 16 million homes. As long as the cable net business model stays in place, it’s not likely to grow much although ESPN can benefit from the broadband expansion of telecom customers AT&T and Verizon. On the other hand, only part of ESPN.com is behind a pay wall; the bulk is accessible to any user regardless of ISP.
The first measure of the “new” ESPN360 will be if live viewing increases in those 16 million homes; WSJ reports five-figure audiences for some past events, so it won’t take much for improvement. The next: if people without access start to lobby their ISPs to sign on.