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Disney CEO says ESPN could be sold directly to sports fans

College GameDay - November 10, 2012

Let's start with this premise and work backward: if not for live sports, why would you have a cable subscription in 2015? With content vehicles like Netflix and Hulu and HBO Now and YouTube and highways like Apple TV and Roku and Chromecast to bring them to you, there's no need to cut a cable check every month if not for your crippling, mood-altering, soul-crushing, life-changing addiction to live sports.

At $6-plus per subscriber per month for ESPN (and that's just the mothership) many non-sports fans are reaching for their scissors and cutting their proverbial cords - and fast. According to Sports Media Watch, ESPN is currently in 92.9 million homes, more than seven million fewer than 2011 and its lowest total since 2006. Now multiply that by 7.2 million exodus by six bucks a month by 12 months a year and you see why Bill Simmons, Keith Olbermann and Colin Cowherd no longer appear on the Worldwide Leader's airwaves.

Still, that's a drop in the bucket from the $100 million Disney reportedly wants cut from ESPN's 2016 budget and $250 million from the 2017 budget. With Disney chomping into its expenses and its revenue stream not quite as overflowing as it used to be, its easy to see why cord-cutting is a problem for ESPN. (And if it's a problem for ESPN, it's a problem for college football as well.)

Which is why ESPN could, smartly, follow the crowd and start selling itself directly to consumers. Disney CEO Bob Iger told CNBC Monday, "I think eventually ESPN becomes a business that is sold directly to the consumer," Iger said, via CNN. "I think there's an inevitably to that, but I don't think it's right around the corner. I have very bullish feelings about ESPN long-term, but I'm a realist in terms of the disruptions of the business. I happen to believe that if we end up seeing more erosion in terms of the so-called multi-channel bundle, quality will win out and popularity will win out."

HBO recently beat ESPN to the bunch, breaking away from the cable model to offer HBO Now in April, and Showtime followed suit thereafter.

A bit of armchair analysis: Fox Sports 1 and TNT would be wise to beat ESPN to the punch or risk losing subscribers as people follow ESPN away from cable. And while we don't know exactly what the future will look like, here's an educated guess - you'll still pay Comcast or Verizon or AT&T every month 10 years from now, and it'll be equal to or above your cable and internet bill today. And I'd bet on the latter.