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Is ESPN Plus Merging With Disney Plus? It’s The Right Choice.

Maybe we're nuts... but does it seem like ESPN+ and Disney+ are getting ready to unite? Could the Disney Bundle finally get a much needed evolution?

For the past few months, we’ve speculated that Disney is planning to simplify the Disney Bundle. Since Disney+ launch on November 12, 2019, USA subscribers have been forced to subscribe to 3 separate services and apps to stream the entire Disney library. This was never a popular decision, but in recent months it’s become significantly more undesirable. First, there was the launch of the Star brand tile in most international versions of the service which provided all the ABC, Freeform, and FX content alongside Disney Channel and Nat Geo. Awesome! Deadpool and Logan alongside the MCU? Amazing.

The need to streamline the Disney Bundle has been a hot talking point for a year now.

The Disney Bundle frustration only increased further with the recent announcements that Paramount+ will integrate Showtime this summer and most recently, confirmation from the newly-formed Warner Bros Discovery that Discovery+ and HBO Max will unify into one super-service. Why is Disney the last to take action?

Comcast Has Disney In A Vice

It’s been discussed endlessly the horrible way Comcast has held Disney Streaming hostage. Until 2024 when Comcast sells their 33% share of Hulu to Disney, The Mouse House is limited on what they can do with Hulu. If they lower its value too much, Comcast can sue Disney for intentionally harming the service and violating their agreement. Comcast’s payout depends on Hulu’s value at the time of the sale. For this reason, Disney also doesn’t want to raise Hulu’s value much.

It’s childish and a disappointing look into corporate behavior. Comcast and Disney should have determined a set value by now, or ended their partnership as soon as Comcast decided to launch Peacock. Instead, Comcast is looking stronger than Disney by keeping Disney Streaming from reaching its full potential. While the terms of this deal may seem like a shortsighted decision by former CEO, Bob Iger, it’s important to note that his streaming strategy was different form Bob Chapek’s.

In Iger’s dream, Hulu would be the top service and go global while Disney+ would be a niche, family-friendly babysitter. Sharing with Comcast for a few years wouldn’t be so bad under this plan. The thing is, that strategy quickly changed when it became clear Disney+ was a stronger brand and quickly crossed the 100 million subscribers mark.

Why ESPN+ Should Merge With Disney+

1. Comcast has nothing to do with ESPN+

Why not merge Disney+ and ESPN+? Merging ESPN+ and Hulu would raise Hulu’s value. Merging Disney+ and ESPN+ would simplify the Disney Bundle down two services and apps, it would also help Disney compete.

2. All Other Streamers Are Doing It

Paramount+, Peacock, Hulu, Prime Video, and HBO Max all provide or are planning to provide access to live sports. Netflix and Disney+ are the outliers here. It seems like every other month new licensing deals are announced for sporting events on streamers. Just yesterday we received an e-mail from Peacock advertising their upcoming sports, including Major League Baseball. If Disney+ had sports they would unlock an entire audience that hasn’t subscribed yet.

3. Subscriber Increase

This one is obvious. Certainly some of ESPN+’s 21 million subscribers (as of February 2022) overlap with Disney+, but there are likely 8 million or more of them who solely give their money to the sports streamer. Folding ESPN+ into Disney+ would instantly add millions of additional subscribers to Disney+’s all-important total and bring the moment Disney+ surpasses Hulu’s base to reality. Right now, Disney+ is sitting at ~40 million while Hulu has 45.3, but they continue to grow at a similar pace and that seems unlikely to change without a shift in strategy. If Disney actually added more general entertainment to the now fully unlocked Disney+ USA, that could do the trick too.

4. The Platform Is Ready

Last August, Disney launched a hybrid Hulu / ESPN+ service in Latin American and Brazil called Star+. It’s widely hated by subscribers for what they consider unfair price gouging and an inferior experience. They feel similar to the USA subscribers who require 3 apps to view one library, but with their Combo+ (what they call their Disney Bundle) it’s only 2 services instead of 3.

What may be unknown to most is that Star+ is a “reskinned” Disney+ and uses the same platform. Disney has used Star+ to test features before moving them over to Disney+ where there are over 130 million subscribers. One of those features they’ve been testing is a watchlist row as well as improvements to search and livestreaming feature. Since Star+ has been streaming live sports for almost 8 months now, we know Disney+ can do so as well.

Are There Signs Disney+ And ESPN+ Plan To Merge?

There have been hints over the past few months that a merger is in the works. One of the biggest hints was the appearance of ESPN links in the Disney+ sitemap. Those links have since been removed or renamed. When Disney+ tested the livestream feature on the Oscar Nominations, the URL first said “ESPN.”

Around the same time of that livestream test, Disney started trickling 30 for 30 documentaries onto Disney+. ESPN+ proudly boasts they are the exclusive streaming home to the complete 30 for 30 series. While the Disney+ progress is slow, we’ve been receiving 2-10 per month since January. At that pace it will take until next year to obtain the full set. But let’s say Disney plans to do that? Why take away one of the primary “selling points” used in your ESPN+ marketing? Look at this Google Search snippet.

“Stream 30 for 30 Sports Documentaries exclusive on ESPN+.”

“Stream the complete 30 for 30 library of sports documentaries only on ESPN+.”

That won’t be effective if Disney adds them all to Disney+. Perhaps they’re doing so gradually leading up to their thus far unannounced, but planned goodbye to ESPN+ as a standalone service?

Highly respected insider Dylan Byers at Puck revealed last fall that Disney was looking into spinning off or selling ESPN. This came about 1 month before Disney announced USA subscriber totals had stagnated which sent the stock sliding and worried shareholders. A week after that, the hugely anticipated, inaugural Disney+ Day fizzled out into what many saw as a flop. Disney over-promised and under-performed.

What if instead of selling ESPN for billions of dollars, Bob Chapek decided sports were the key to awakening Disney+’s inner beast? It does seem like that fateful November resulted in another acceleration or evolution of Disney’s streaming plans, similar to the early 2020 changes that resulted in the cancellation of Hulu’s global rollout plans, the launch of STAR as an integrated general entertainment content hub, and a massive increase in content spending.

The recent announcement that Disney+ would launch an ad-supported tier later this year was touted by many as a building block to merging Hulu and Disney+. What many overlooked is that this could just as easily be a stepping stone to folding in ESPN+.

Ads are necessary to carry live sports. They’re also required for most next-day streaming contracts. Disney’s ad-tier opens up a brave new world for the service. We expect later this fall next day episodes of Disney Channel and Nat Geo shows will be come a reality and The Simpsons is sure to follow.

Just yesterday Disney announced Dancing with the Stars would become the first ever live-streamed series, airing evenings this fall on Disney+ instead of ABC. Things are changing for Disney+ but it’s time for the Bundle to change as well.

We are going to close by making a bonkers predication:

ESPN+ and Disney+ will be ONE unified service BEFORE Hulu and Disney+.

We expected this merger is announced at some point between the May Quarter 3 FY2022 earnings call and D23 in September with the merger happening between Disney+ Day this year and Disney+ Day in 2023.

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Drew Ryan is a film, TV, and Disney geek. He has degrees in English, Student Personnel Administration, and Library & Information Science from Lawrence University, Concordia University-Wisconsin, and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Interested in the minutia and licensing of streaming service content, he is always publishing lists, suggestions, and advocating for Disney’s missing library to be added to Disney+. Drew subscribes to Disney+, Hulu, Netflix, HBO Max, and Paramount+. You can find him waxing nostalgic over classic Disney Channel or geeking out over Marvel, CW shows, & Disney on Twitter.

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