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ESPN Integrates Pathway To Regional Sports Network Streams Into Its Main App And Website

As the viewing landscape continues to get more complex, ESPN is aiming to streamline things for sports fans by integrating links to video feeds from regional sports networks into its main app and website.

Starting this week, subscribers to NESN, which carries Boston sports teams including the Red Sox and Bruins, will be able to tune into games by tapping a dedicated link on ESPN’s app or on ESPN.com. In May, timed to the start of the WNBA season, a route to Washington, D.C.’s Monumental Sports Network will also be established on ESPN’s platforms. SportsNet Pittsburgh, which is operated by NESN, is also part of the agreement, though its telecasts will be added down the line.

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The offering will be geotargeted so that only those located in specific areas of the U.S. will see the option to watch their local games. The streams will not be housed within the ESPN app, which is merely serving as a portal to the RSN telecast, and viewers also will still need to pay for access to the RSNs. Despite those caveats, the initiative is a significant one, particularly for RSNs, which have begun to offer their services as stand-alone streaming apps over the past few years as cord-cutting keeps eroding their traditional subscriber bases. Driving tune-in for live events on a stand-alone app is a different proposition than doing so within a pay-TV bundle.

“This is about improving discoverability of people’s favorite teams and who’s carrying their games,” Tim Bayus, VP, ESPN Strategy, told Deadline in an interview. Easing “fragmentation and consumer confusion” is a central objective, he added. Internal research has indicated that avid sports viewers are “confused about where to find games, they’re frustrated,” Bayus added. “What we’re trying to do is solve those consumer pain points. This is a first step in trying to figure that out. We know it’s a meaty one to tackle.”

Ahmed Darwish, CMO of NESN, said the network is “always looking for better ways to engage fans and give them access to their teams.”

RSNs, Darwish acknowledged, face an increasingly delicate balancing act between their traditional pay-TV subscribers and those paying to stream without a bundle. The ESPN initiative is not intended to signal any larger change of strategic direction. “Fans who have NESN in their pay-TV bundle are just as valuable to us, if not more valuable,” he said. “Something like this is targeted to them as well. … We’re just reducing friction to get to what they want, as opposed to replacing anything.”

The companies declined to offer financial details about the agreement, which is essentially a joint marketing effort as opposed to a channel-store-style subscription acquisition driver. Even if it doesn’t involve a substantial financial exchange, though, the setup illustrates how significantly the sports media world is evolving. In the opening weeks of 2024, ESPN has announced it is part of a new streaming bundle with Fox and Warner Bros Discovery and also set a date (fall 2025) for its long-anticipated launch of a flagship ESPN streaming service. Long rooted in the pay-TV ecosystem, the sports media sector has had to rearrange itself as the number of pay-TV households has fallen from a peak of 100 million to 65 million over the past decade.

The partnership also reflects the high visibility of ESPN’s main app and site across mobile and other platforms. ESPN Digital set a record in 2023 by drawing 111.4 million average monthly unique visitors, or nearly half of all users in the U.S. sports category. January stats from ComScore showed the momentum continuing, with 121.7 million uniques, or about 52% of the sports category.

Zach Leonsis, President of Media & New Enterprises for Monumental Sports & Entertainment, said the ESPN teaming is part of a commitment the company made when it acquired NBC Sports Washington and rebranded it Monumental in 2022. “We pledged to make our games more easily accessible for fans, and this partnership is a big step in that direction,” the exec said in a statement provided to Deadline.

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