Wednesday, October 12, 2022

The brilliance behind ESPN3 and the growing digital empire of Disney/ESPN

By Zachary Baru

It might be easy to forget about the array of channel offerings from ESPN, as the network has grown from just one channel covering UConn basketball and Hartford Whalers hockey, to the global powerhouse it has become today.

Flash back to the 1980-81 National Hockey League season, and ESPN was the rights holders of, that's right, eleven Whalers broadcasts.  Home broadcasts, to be exact.  That's a far cry from what the "worldwide leader in sports" is today, part of a media empire owned by Disney, and connected to a portfolio that not only includes Disney Studios, but ABC, Hulu and of course, Disney+.  Suddenly, the brilliance of ESPN3 comes into play.

The Future of Distribution

I noticeably left out ESPN+ above, as it is ESPN's streaming subscription service.  But ESPN+, in many ways, is the future of ESPN.  This is where the role of ESPN3 becomes more important, and ESPN unsurprisingly has done a masterful job implementing it into it's collection of content.  

When I said ESPN+ in many ways is the future of ESPN, I don't only mean the significance of a streaming platform in today's environment of entertainment, but also the speculation of many that ESPN will one day distribute directly to consumers.  Many sources, lead by Sports Business Journal and Front Office Sports, have written about ESPN's possible plans of going direct to consumer.  Sports Business Journal reports that this potentially could happen by 2026.  

With the possibility of ESPN being a direct to consumer service similar to that of HBO Max and the Showtime App, both of which allow consumers to directly subscribe to the service without a cable subscription, suddenly content becomes more important than ever.  And when it comes to content, ESPN has no shortage in sight.  

The Crowded Family of ESPN

Between ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNews (no that's not a typo, that's how it's spelled), ESPNU, ESPN Deportes, and of course, ESPN+, ESPN is already not only producing a great deal of content, but they are producing an enormous amount of live content each day.  This is where ESPN3 comes into play, no pun intended.  

ESPN3 has been producing streaming content since the network began in 2005, when it was initially called  It began streaming live sporting events in 2007, and in 2010 was rebranded as ESPN3.  With the launch of subscription service ESPN+ in 2018, much of ESPN3's content was shifted over to ESPN+ to offer subscribers more options, and especially, more live events. 

ESPN3 in Present Day

Today, ESPN3 could be referred to as somewhat hidden, but still advertised whenever a live event is shown on an ESPN channel's bottom line or any graphic advertising an ESPN3 game.  It's not the type of channel you will see a commercial for, as you'd see for ESPN+.  ESPN3, however, is still visible through the ESPN App, which many sports fans use on mobile phones, tablets or smart TVs.  A game that is airing on ESPN3 will most likely not be one of the first games shown on the app where live events are displayed, rather it usually is at the end of the list.  The one exception is if ESPN3 happens to be streaming one of your "favorited" teams.

Although ESPN3 content has become less and less over the years, ESPN3 is still producing a decent amount of live games each week.  A glance at ESPN3's schedule on this particular week shows only one live event on Thursday, but 26 live events on Saturday.  This is typical, as the network does broadcast a large amount of college events, which have heavy weekend schedules.  ESPN3's content, however, is varied.  There are alternative streams of NBA games, giving fans different views of the court, international soccer exhibitions, as well as international pro leagues for multiple sports.  All of this leads to the goal of any player in the TV industry in 2022: content.  Content is king.  Not just any content, but good, well-produced content.  And although some of ESPN3's offerings might not be your first choice, they do offer a varied selection. 

The Game Plan 

So what does this all mean?  ESPN, as expected, is playing the game well.  They are keeping up with other streaming platforms and ensuring that they have enough live sports produced on a weekly basis to keep people watching the ESPN App in some way.  Whether that is a paying subscriber for ESPN+, or a paying cable subscriber who gets access to ESPN3.  And whatever they choose to do with their ESPN3 content, the important thing to remember is that this "extra" channel gives the network a lot of options with how they are going to move forward if they ever distribute directly to consumers.  

At a time when content is everything, ESPN3 has allowed Disney to position itself exactly where it wants to be for the foreseeable future, the reigning "worldwide leader in sports".

Source: ESPN, Sports Business Journal, Front Office Sports

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at  Zach also writes and