SXSW Event Recap: “How Streaming Drives Change in Sports Media” with ESPN+ and Hulu

If you’re an ESPN+ subscriber, then you already know that the streaming service, part of the Disney Bundle, offers sports fans more opportunities to view their favorite sport than ever before. At this year’s SXSW festival, the intersection of sports and streaming was explored during a panel called “How Streaming Drives Change in Sports Media.” The panel included Michael Schneider (Vice President of Brand Marketing, Hulu), Claisian Phillips (Vice President of Marketing, Disney Streaming), Casey Hall (Senior Vice President Marketing, NHL), and Daniel Cormier (ESPN commentator, former MMA wrestler). The conversation looked at not only the present state of sports media on streaming platforms but also how the future will become more interactive than ever before.



For Disney’s streaming services, sports have proven to help drive long-term engagement and excitement, both on ESPN+ and Hulu Live TV. While linear networks continue to hold the biggest audience for live sports, streaming platforms are able to offer fans a wider assortment of offerings, including games that wouldn’t normally make it to television airwaves. And ESPN+ has allowed Disney to test out new types of content that, when successful, have found their way back to broadcast. For example, NCAA wrestling became so popular on ESPN+ that it now broadcasts on ESPN.

An exclusive deal with the NHL is a perfect example of how the future of sports streaming can benefit fans. Casey Hall said that before the ESPN streaming deal, the NHL had lots of out-of-market packages, which offered limited growth opportunities and weren’t cheap. Through the deal with Disney, the big games air on ABC and ESPN, with over 1,000 games streaming exclusively on ESPN+. Casey did the math and figured out that fans pay less than $0.01 per game when the number of games is divided by the annual cost of an ESPN+ subscription ($69.99).

For Daniel Cormier, he’s seen how streaming has positively impacted the UFC, a relatively new sports offering compared to other brands. He shared that the UFC has never been afraid of trying new things or experimenting, which has been part of the secret to its success. He commended ESPN+ on adapting when UFC came on board, offering pay-per-view experiences on the platform. It was clunky at first, with fans having a hard time finding what they were looking for, but the platform quickly adapted and it’s easy to access now.

While the NHL deal is a perfect deal for Disney, with all of its games living within the Disney Bundle for subscribers, one of the biggest challenges going forward is sports rights. Prime Video recently acquired the rights to Thursday Night Football from the NFL, for example, and these types of deals continue to make it difficult to house all sports in one place. Michael Schneider shared that it’s the reality of the business right now and it’s an issue that isn’t just specific to the U.S.

As for what the future holds, Hulu and ESPN+ have found success in helping athletes build their own individual following and leveraging that to drive consumers to both streaming services. In the case of ESPN+, the goal is to provide fans with a more personalized experience, becoming a platform for athletes to talk to their fans directly and build a relationship with them.

The NHL is already experiencing positive growth through their Disney streaming deal, reaching a younger audience, which was their goal as the average age of NHL viewers was beginning to shorten. The partnership has also given them near-real-time data about viewership trends, something that linear networks aren’t as willing to share. And that allows them more flexibility to experiment and offers new ways for fans to connect with sports.

Interactivity is the future of sports and streaming and Casey envisions the option for viewers to customize their screens. From determining what data appears on screen (score, player stats, etc…) to even potentially controlling which camera feed you’re viewing, the future of sports streaming could allow fans to be in the director’s chair for their experience.

As ESPN+ exists within the Disney Bundle, Claisian and Michael are also focused on leveraging fans across services. As new leagues are added to the ESPN+ streaming deal, Disney is working to attract them to ESPN+ from Disney+ and Hulu, and vice versa. While their marketing efforts are often precise, ESPN+ is now appealing to a less sports-driven audience with powerful storytelling that goes beyond the game. The “Propensity Model” (personalized recommendations based on viewer behavior) has also been successful at keeping subscribers on ESPN+ and Hulu.

The other big question looming in the air, not mentioned until an audience Q&A, was about sports betting. It’s been a large growth area for all sports leagues and Casey believes it’s only a matter of time before we see it directly embedded in streaming feeds. Daniel mentioned that the UFC already gives the odds to Draft Kings. Claisian and Michael didn’t have much to say on the topic, but we know that ESPN has been in talks to license its branding for sports betting and the show and podcast “The Daily Wager” were designed to keep sports betting fans engaged on ESPN.

In summary, Disney is leveraging cross-platform sports streaming deals to help boost subscriptions to the Disney Bundle. The goal is to offer a personalized experience for sports fans, with some exciting possibilities in the future that will give fans unprecedented access and customization. But one thing seems almost certain: There won’t be a “one service to rule them all” for major sports leagues anytime soon.

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Alex Reif
Alex joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and has been a lifelong Disney fan. His main beats for LP are Disney-branded movies, TV shows, books, music and toys. He recently became a member of the Television Critics Association (TCA).