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There’s still no notice of it on the site but, according to the NYT, ESPN (NYSE: DIS) is planning to offer some live broadband programming free to anyone in the .edu and .mil domains — a switch from its longtime stance of treating broadband site ESPN360.com like one of its cable channels. Until now, “free” access was available only to those whose ISP providers have distribution agreements with ESPN and paid licensing fees; others could subscribe to a broadband version of ESPN’s out-of-market package Gameplan.
For instance, I could watch chunks of the Australian Open live because Charter (NSDQ: CHTR) has a deal; those who get high-speed access through Comcast (NSDQ: CMCSA), Cox or Time Warner (NYSE: TWX) could not. That latter group is far bigger than the one of those with access — when ESPN switched ESPN360 programming strategies from mostly VOD to live events in August, the network said 16 million homes had access to ESPN360. AT&T (NYSE: T) and Verizon (NYSE: VZ) are among those providing access. The NYT says that number is now 20 million; ESPN added 700,000 homes late last week via a deal with Insight.
So why this partial switch? The most obvious reason is to grow current viewing — the service delivered some 500,000 hours of video in the last five months but that’s fairly small compared to what ESPN could be serving. It also gives ESPN another way to reach a powerful demographic group — young males — and grow its loyalty.