UFC Debut Proves To Be Big Step Forward in Growth of ESPN+

Direct-to-consumer platform saw spike in subs in same week the product added functionality

Last week was a big one for ESPN+. The video service powered by The Walt Disney Co.’s Direct-to-Consumer and International (DTCI) division and ESPN, grew both on the technological front and in terms of subscriber support, following the addition of some new functionality and the debut of one of the platform’s newest and biggest partners: the UFC.

On Saturday, linear ESPN logged a 1.4 rating on a handful of undercard fights — the largest ever for a UFC Prelims card on cable since 2003 — early in the day, and ESPN+ was the exclusive home of the marquee fights, notably UFC flyweight champion Henry Cejudo’s battle against UFC bantamweight champ TJ Dillashaw for Cejudo’s 125-lb. title at an event held at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

By the end of the night, a record-setting 568,000 new subscribers had signed up for ESPN+ on Friday and Saturday combined. More than 525,000 of those came in on Saturday alone. Not surprisingly, ESPN is calling it the largest event and subscription catalyst since ESPN+ launched in April.

Saturday showcased ESPN and Disney’s intent to offer what they deem high-profile content exclusively behind a direct-to-consumer subscription pay wall while driving interest in that content, as well as in the ESPN+ product itself, through a multiplatform promotional effort. In the days leading up to the card, ESPN hosted a live show previewing the event on Twitter, prefight shows on ESPNNews, and spots on SportsCenter and, during coverage of the undercard on ESPN, strongly promoted the main event to come on ESPN+ that evening.

“The basis of ESPN+’s content strategy is to be complementary to ESPN’s existing products and services and doing so in two ways,” says John Lasker, VP, digital media programming, ESPN. “Number one is to make sure that we’re super-serving audiences that are already coming to us for the content that we cover on a recurring basis. It’s not to be competitive with things we are already doing on television but to find opportunities where we can actually serve more: increase frequency and engagement with those fans.

“Second,” he continues, “and this is where UFC starts to come in, we’re using ESPN+ to help us expand our audience. The UFC audience profile is young, diverse, and certainly expansive. We think, being a low-cost subscription service and having all of the flexibility outside of just live events to super-serve that fan, that the suns really aligned there.”

What’s perhaps lost in the hoopla around ESPN+ is that it is the same product that also provides users with scores; access to audio, video, and print content; and authenticated streaming for major events on linear ESPN and ABC. On Saturday, while the UFC event was taking place, the streaming backbone was also supporting authenticated streams of an NBA matchup between the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets and a marquee Top 5 college hoops showdown between Duke and Virginia.

“All day and across all ESPN platforms,” said ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro in an official release, “we collectively demonstrated the promise of what we can do to fulfill our mission of serving a wider array of sports fans.”

It was a conscious choice to make the ESPN app the ultimate one-stop destination for everything ESPN-related. ESPN+ does not have its own separate app, and that choice is one that Lasker feels has proved an advantageous one.

“We’re constantly challenged with an abundance of sports content that we’re trying to make available to fans,” notes Lasker. “What the app allows us to do that traditional channels don’t is to personalize. That’s one of the big reasons direct-to-consumer is so important. There’s so much going on in the world, and we want to make sure that fans get to what they are looking for as quickly as possible when they are coming to the app. We recognize that as a challenge, but it’s one that we’re more than willing to take, and the app will continue to evolve in that direction.”

Still in its first year, ESPN+ has made significant strides, including when it was announced in August that the platform had reached 1 million subscribers just four months after its launch. That said, much of the work on the ESPN+ product began in earnest the year prior (in about August 2017) when Disney Chairman/CEO Bob Iger announced that Disney would be shifting its approach to a direct-t0-consumer future. That gave the folks at ESPN about nine months to tear down and rebuild the ESPN app (the most popular sports app out there) in time to meet the new demands ESPN+ would pose.

“It’s amazing looking back at it, with the people at ESPN and Disney, what they were able to pull off in the short amount of time,” says Lasker, who has been with ESPN for nearly two decades and has seen the growth of ESPN on the streaming front through authenticated streaming and the launch of ESPN3. “On the content side, we went into this with the design and the opportunity to better serve existing fans that were coming to us in all platforms, and we thought we had the opportunity to expand our audience and serve more sports fans that might not already have been coming to us. I think we nailed it.”

Last week, ESPN kicked off the new year by unveiling additional functionality for the ESPN app, including technology committed to improving customization and recommendation of content based on user favorites or viewing habits. The product also continues to explore new Smart TV and Connected TV apps, making itself available to more and more potential users.

Increasing awareness of the ESPN+ service also remains a critical task of the design of the ESPN app.

“Bringing ESPN+ forward in the app is increasingly important,” Lasker explains. “It’s an explicit destination on the bottom nav [bar] that will get you right to ESPN+. When we first launched, it was not necessary easy to find: it was a couple of clicks away. With all of the energy and communication we are putting around ESPN+, it was important to make it easier to find for fans.”

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