Disney plays catch-up in streaming race with ESPN+ service

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Walt Disney Co on Thursday debuted its new ESPN+ digital subscription service, the first consumer offering in the traditional media company’s push to become a leader in streaming entertainment.

The service will carry more than 10,000 live sporting events that are not shown on television, as well as exclusive on-demand programming such as a new documentary about controversial college basketball coach Bobby Knight.

ESPN and other cable networks have been losing pay TV subscribers as audiences rapidly migrate to online services such as Netflix. Disney is trying to adapt to the switch by developing its own streaming offerings.

ESPN+ may lose money for “some number of years, not huge” as the company works to lure enough subscribers to cover programming investments, said Kevin Mayer, chairman of Disney’s direct-to-consumer and international unit.

During a briefing at ESPN’s studio in downtown Los Angeles, Mayer told reporters he expects the service will become profitable and will provide valuable insight for other Disney streaming services.

“This is strategic for us,” Mayer said. “This is a multi-year effort. It’s going to take some time to assess how it has performed.”

ESPN+ is designed for fanatics who want more sports programming, and for people who cannot find their favorite teams or sports on TV, Disney executives said. The latter includes fans of cricket, rugby, Canadian football or Ivy League sports.

The service is offered as an add-on inside a newly designed ESPN mobile app or through ESPN.com. It costs $4.99 a month, or $49.99 per year.

“It is an opportunity for us to serve sports fans in new ways, and in ways no one else can,” ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro said.

Programming includes one live Major League Baseball game each day during the regular season, starting with the San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants on Thursday. Customers also will see Major League Soccer games, college sports from 20 U.S. conferences, and boxing and Grand Slam tennis matches that do not air on TV. A daily National Hockey League matchup will be added starting with the 2018-2019 season.

ESPN+ does not include Monday Night Football or National Basketball Association games that are shown on ESPN’s TV channels. Those are reserved for subscribers of pay TV packages, who can stream the live TV lineup through the ESPN app. The redesigned app allows customers to watch up to four streams simultaneously on one screen.

(Reporting by Lisa Richwine)

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