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ESPN+ Launches With a Ton of Live Sports — and Limited Ads

ESPN is stuffing its ESPN+ subscription service with thousands of live sporting events and other programming — which won’t be available on its cable TV channels. And it’s also promising sports mega-fans who pony up $4.99 per month that they won’t be blasted with as many ads.

To be clear: The live games on ESPN+, which will include MLB, NHL, Major League Soccer and PGA events plus international sports like soccer, cricket, and rugby, will have traditional ad breaks — just like on TV — delivered using dynamic ad-insertion technology.

However, ESPN+ subscribers will not see standard display ads or pre- and post-roll video ads anywhere on the ESPN App, ESPN.com or connected-TV platforms. Instead of those traditional ad formats, for ESPN+ the programmer is focusing on securing integrated brand sponsorships; the launch sponsor for ESPN+ is American Express.

The idea is to create an uncluttered and personalized viewing experience with ESPN+ that gives marketers a canvas to deliver “bespoke” messaging, said Ed Erhardt, president of ESPN’s global sales and marketing.

“It’s about giving brands new ways to reach consumers while delivering the right ads, to the right people, in the right environment,” he said. “This speaks to our desire to provide an advertising experience that gives advertisers more creativity and the opportunity for higher engagement.”

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ESPN+ will be available through ESPN.com and a redesigned ESPN App, also launching Thursday. The new ESPN App — which is sponsored by Audi — will provide access to all content from the Disney sports programmer, tailored to individual fans’ favorite teams and sports.

The new ESPN App will offer three tiers of content:

  • Free: The app will continue to offer sports scores, news, features and analysis, video highlights and clips, and a library of live and on-demand sports audio content;
  • “TV Everywhere” access: Subscribers of participating pay-TV operators will be able to log in for live and on-demand access to ESPN’s U.S. linear and digital networks (ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN3, ESPNU, ESPNews, SEC Network, SEC Network +, ESPN Deportes, ESPN Goal Line, ESPN Bases Loaded, Longhorn Network, ACC Network Extra);
  • ESPN+: Direct-to-consumer subscription streaming access to thousands of additional live sporting events, original content and shows, and a VOD library with thousands of hours of past sporting events, documentaries and other features.

ESPN+ marks the first subscription plan from Disney Direct-to-Consumer and International, the new division headed by Kevin Mayer that the media conglom announced last month. In addition to ESPN+, Mayer’s DTCI encompasses the Disney-branded streaming service (as yet unnamed) set for a late-2019 debut.

Available only in the U.S., ESPN+ costs $4.99 per month or $49.99 per year. During the launch week (April 12-18) users can get a special 30-day free trial subscription, a promo sponsored by American Express.

Erhardt declined to say how long the Amex and Audi sponsorship deals are in place, saying both are “ongoing customers of ESPN.” Under its pact with Amex, the financial-services company also will be the presenting sponsor of the entire library of ESPN Films’ “30 for 30” documentary features, available exclusively on ESPN+. As an example of the overall integrated-marketing deal with Amex, Erhardt noted its exclusive sponsorship of the behind-the-scenes “SportsCenter All-Access” special on ESPN linear TV on April 10.

While ESPN+ has a slew of content, it’s worth noting that it will not include live games from the NFL or NBA — the two most popular pro leagues in America. Live sporting events on ESPN+ (subject to local-market blackout restrictions) include:

  • MLB: One daily game, seven days per week, throughout the regular season, for a total of more than 180 games
  • NHL: Beginning with the 2018-19 season, a daily game throughout the regular season for total of more than 180 hockey games plus on-demand replays of the 2018 Stanley Cup
    Playoffs
  • MLS: The entire MLS Live out-of-market schedule with more than 250 games this season, as well as exclusive local-market broadcasts of 23 Chicago Fire matches available to subscribers in Chicago
  • College Sports: Football, basketball, baseball, softball, soccer, track and field, gymnastics, swimming and diving, lacrosse, wrestling, volleyball, golf and more from 20 U.S. collegiate conferences
  • Top Rank Boxing: Hundreds of live boxing matches, including 18 exclusive Top Rank fight cards throughout the year
  • PGA Tour Golf: 50 days of coverage from 20 PGA tour events, including the RBC Heritage, The Players Championship, and the FedExCup Playoffs
  • Grand Slam Tennis: Hundreds of men’s and women’s singles, doubles and other matches, from the Australian Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open
  • Cricket: Hundreds of Test, ODI and T20 format matches from New Zealand Cricket and Cricket Ireland
  • Rugby: Hundreds of matches from SANZAAR Rugby, the HSBC World Rugby Sevens series, and Major League Rugby
  • Canadian Football League: Nearly 200 games from Canada’s pro league
  • English Football League: About 200 total soccer matches, including an average of four per week from Sky Bet Championship Playoffs, League 1 and League 2, plus six matches per month from the EFL Cup (beginning in August) and 16 matches per month throughout the EFL 2018-19 season
  • UEFA Nations League: 100-plus live matches from the newly created tournament. Pay-TV customers with an ESPN+ subscription will be able to access the entire tournament including the 36 UNL matches on ESPN linear networks and ESPN3
  • United Soccer League: About 450 matches from the North American league this season

ESPN+ also will feature exclusive studio programming including “Detail,” an NBA analysis show written, produced and hosted by Kobe Bryant; “In The Crease,” a nightly NHL show co-hosted by ESPN’s Linda Cohn and Barry Melrose; and “ESPN FC,” a daily soccer news, highlights and analysis show hosted by Dan Thomas.

In addition, ESPN+ will offer an original programming lineup that includes the “30 for 30” documentary “The Last Days of Knight,” about controversial former Indiana U. basketball coach Bob Knight; “Draft Academy,” a behind-the-scenes look at top prospects leading up to the 2018 NFL Draft; and “Quest for the Stanley Cup,” a weekly docu-series that will run during the NHL playoffs.

For true sports fanatics, ESPN+ will include a “Sports Marketplace,” offering subscriptions to additional premium streaming services like MLB.TV (and NHL.TV, beginning with the 2018-19 season).

BAMTech Media, majority-owned by Disney, is handling the development and operation of ESPN+ and the Disney SVOD service. Founded by Major League Baseball (which remains a minority shareholder along with the NHL), BAMTech has run the MLB.TV service for 15 years — a long track record of delivering high-scale streaming services — and powers other services including NHL.TV, HBO Now, Hulu’s live TV and WWE Network.

At launch, the new ESPN App with ESPN+ will be available on the following devices and platforms: Apple’s iPhone, iPad and Apple TV; Amazon’s Fire TV, Fire TV Stick, Fire TV smart TVs and Fire Tablets (4th generation and newer); and Android phones, Android TV and Google Chromecast.

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