The sports cabler is launching the new channels through WatchESPN, the service available to subscribers of affiliated pay-TV providers. The 15 new channels aggregate conference-related programming from ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPN3 and ESPNews, starting with live men’s and women’s college basketball events as well as replays of college football games.
The conference channels at launch are: ACC, America East, Atlantic Sun, Big South, Big West, Horizon, Mid-American, Metro Atlantic Athletic, Missouri Valley, Northeast, Ohio Valley, Southern, Sun Belt, Southland, and a channel that combines historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that are part of the Mid-Eastern Athletic, Southwestern Athletic and Central Intercollegiate Athletic conferences.
The idea is to provide a space on the TV dial — virtual though it may be — for collegiate sports conferences to connect with fans.
“We started looking at our portfolio of rights and said, ‘There are conferences who will want a persistent TV channel of their own,'” said Damon Phillips, VP of WatchESPN and ESPN3. And, he added, “having channel adjacency to ESPN in the lineup is something that is very, very valuable.”
Notably, the 15 channels do not include such major conferences as the Big Ten, SEC and Pac 12 — which have launched or are launching their own traditional TV networks. (The sports cabler has teamed up with the SEC for the SEC ESPN Network, expected to launch in August 2014.) Phillips said ESPN focused only on conferences that don’t currently have linear TV network strategies.
“One of the benefits of a digital network is, because it’s event-based programming, you might have five games per day or one game per day,” Phillips said. “With a linear network, you have to program that around the clock.”
Another major advantage to the conferences of delivering over-the-top channels via WatchESPN: They don’t have to spar with cable or satellite TV companies about carriage fees and terms. Launching a 24-7 sports cable network is a potentially lucrative gamble, but only the biggest conferences have enough clout to make the economics work.
Later this year, the collegiate channels on WatchESPN will include live college football, Olympic events like swimming and track and filed and non-event programming, such as news, highlights, analysis and features. The channels also will add on-demand video clips from ESPN.com, and are slated to be accessible on computers, smartphones, tablets and other connected-TV devices at a later date.
“This is about aggregating our college sports in a way that is more discoverable,” said Rosalyn Durant, ESPN VP of college sports programming. “We have a broad rights set in college sports, so it made sense with the conferences we have relationships with to do this.”
Eventually, ESPN envisions even adding crowd-source content from trusted third parties to the college channels, as well as content produced by the schools and conferences themselves.
ESPN is launching the 15 college channels with Apple TV and Roku devices because “we wanted to deliver a TV experience,” Phillips said. “This is one of the first times when the TV devices led off first.” In addition, he said, the viewership on those devices is significant — in fact, time spent viewing WatchESPN on Apple TV and Roku is higher than the average time cable TV viewers watch the traditional linear channels.
The ultimate goal, for ESPN, is to drive up usage of WatchESPN, which includes the ESPN3 live multiscreen sports network. The additional digital services let ESPN, which is majority owned by Disney, negotiate higher carriage fees from cable and satellite TV providers and also present additional ad inventory.
WatchESPN, which the sports cabler launched in April 2011, delivers live access to ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPN3, ESPNEWS, ESPN Deportes and ESPN Buzzer Beater/Goal Line on computers, smartphones, tablets, Microsoft Xbox, Apple TV and Roku. WatchESPN also delivers on-demand video clips from ESPN.com that are available free to all users on select platforms.
The full WatchESPN service is currently accessible in 55 million households via deals with Comcast, Time Warner Cable, AT&T U-verse TV, Bright House Networks, Cablevision, Charter, Cox, Google Fiber, Verizon FiOS and other pay-TV providers. Most conspicuously absent are DirecTV and Dish Network.