How ESPN executives plan to survive the decline of cable TV

Disney’s ESPN is at a crossroads.

For more than 40 years, the world’s largest all-sports network has grown annual revenue by increasing cable subscription fees. ESPN first charged pay-TV distributors less than $1 per month per subscriber in the 1980s. In 2023, ESPN’s monthly carriage fee was $9.42 per subscriber, according to data from S&P Global Market Intelligence.

That business model is eroding. Since 2013, tens of millions of Americans have canceled their cable TV subscriptionsraising questions about ESPN’s future in an increasingly fragmented media landscape.CNBC spoke with multiple current and former Disney and ESPN executives about the network’s path ahead as part of the digital documentary “ESPN’s Fight for Dominance.”

ESPN reported domestic and international revenue grew just 1% to $4.4 billion in its most recent fiscal quarter. The network can no longer rely on price increases to make up the difference as the number of cable customers declines.

The company has a new two-part streaming plan to reinvigorate growth. First, this fall, Disney will make ESPN available outside the traditional cable TV bundle for the first time as part of a joint venture with Warner Bros. Discovery and Fox. The service, which does not yet have a price, will target noncable customers who want to watch sports but don’t want to pay $80 or $100 a month for a full bundle of networks.

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