A view of the ESPN logo before UFC 270 at Honda Center. Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

When ESPN launched it in 2018, ESPN+ helped usher the company into the future. Six years later there are growing questions how the service fits into the next evolution of ESPN’s strategy.

ESPN and parent company Disney have been making it clear for some time now that their vision for the future comes in the form of a direct-to-consumer (DTC) streaming platform, known for the moment as “Project Flagship,” which will include all of the programming currently found across ESPN’s channels and platforms as well as integration with ESPN Bet and other stats-based extras.

“We’re excited to offer a more unified streaming experience, which we expect will deliver strong benefits in terms of higher engagement, lower churn, and greater advertising potential,” said Disney CEO Bob Iger in February. “When we launch our stand-alone ESPN service, we’ll also make it available on Disney+ for bundled subscribers, just as we’ve done for Hulu.”

Meanwhile, the company has also entered into a joint venture we now know as Venu Sports, a streaming service that will combine sports programming from ESPN, Fox, and Warner Bros. Discovery.

Disney and ESPN have remained relatively mum about where ESPN+ fits into all of this, and perhaps there’s good reason for that. After topping out at 26 million in 2023, the OTT service has seen consecutive quarters of decline. In May, the subscriber count was down to 24.8 million and ESPN+ also posted a $65 million operating loss for Q2, which is higher than the losses ascribed to the upcoming DTC venture ($47 million).

As for those subscriber numbers, you also have to consider that a substantial portion of that is people who signed up for Disney’s bundle that includes Disney Plus, Hulu, and ESPN+, where ESPN+ is more of an add-on than something those subscribers are fully engaging with.

At that same time, Iger announced that the ESPN DTC service is tentatively set to launch in the fall of 2025, perhaps as soon as August of that year.

ESPN has long touted its UFC deal as one of the cornerstones of ESPN+’s success in attracting new subscribers. However, during a recent appearance on the SI Media with Jimmy Traina podcast, “Those Guys Have All the Fun” author Jim Miller alluded to the possibility that UFC might decide to look elsewhere as their rights come up for renewal in January 2025.

“There’s the question of UFC rights coming up again,” said Miller. “I have a tendency to think that that might end up at Netflix and ESPN may quote-unquote save some money.”

Miller is presumably drafting off of Netflix recently signing a deal with WWE as the new home of Raw, which is under the same TKO umbrella as UFC.

On Monday, Puck’s John Ourand wrote about Project Flagship and the mounting questions surrounding the DTC service. As part of that conversation, the sports media insider also openly opined about the fate of ESPN+, especially as it related to potentially losing UFC.

“For starters, ESPN executives have always credited UFC with being instrumental in growing the ESPN+ service,” wrote Ourand. “Will those executives and data scientists use UFC as justification for keeping ESPN+ around? Or will they simply view its success as a reason its rights must be bundled into Flagship? (The latter, presumably…).”

TKO President, Mark Shapiro (who has quite the sports media legacy), has been proactive in commenting on the upcoming talks with ESPN and other suitors and seems to be hoping ESPN will be a motivated bidder.

We’re curious what happens with the NBA,” Shapiro said. “That will have an impact on us. Are they getting more content? Are they getting less content?”

“I’m anxious to see where this all goes. ESPN flagship, what happens at ESPN+, obviously the cable bundle is completely imploding, ABC’s kind of had a little resurgence right now. So we’re going to work with them behind the scenes to figure out what the next chapter of our partnership looks like.”

Shapiro also stated a preference to stay with Disney but did tease of strong outside interest.

“It is our preference to stay at Disney, because of this history,” Shapiro said at the Morgan Stanley Tech, Media and Telecom conference. “But we’ve had impromptu three different platforms inquire about that window that you’re talking about and when we might be able to sit down with them to discuss moving to a different platform, which we will do if we can’t get the right deal.

“But the window opens in January. There’s no reason we can’t start talking about it earlier.”

At the moment we mostly just have speculation and ESPN’s silence to go off of, but when you take a step back, there is a strong case to be made that ESPN+’s viability as a standalone product core to ESPN’s evolving long-term strategy would be better suited being folded into Flagship, and especially if the UFC leaves ESPN for another home. The service would likely have an even longer road to breaking even without the UFC, the new NBA deal may require finding savings elsewhere, and the business focus will be on making Venu Sports and Flagship successful. Why further complicate your strategy with a third service with financials moving in the wrong direction?

Of course, ESPN could look at what it’s built through ESPN+ and re-invest, continuing to see it as a premium offering that still stands alone despite the new ventures. WBD has essentially decided to create a sports offering on top of Max although it can’t figure out a paywall to do. That’s certainly a route they could go, but it’s unclear if consumers would have a full grasp on the differences between each planned streaming product.

Which of ESPN’s three planned streaming products will be right for you?

“ESPN+ will certainly have a significant role in the foreseeable future,” ESPN told Awful Announcing.

If the UFC doesn’t renew with ESPN, the decision on the fate of ESPN+ is probably a much easier call and you can then move forward with folding its content library and rights into Project Flagship and Venu Sports. You can always tout how successful ESPN+ has been and frame this as a natural progression following viewing habits. That said, if the UFC does stay with ESPN, the door will be much wider for ESPN+ to continue as an add-on for fans.

It seems unlikely we’ll know anything from Disney on this front, one way or another until the official announcements come down. Until then, we’ll keep an eye on which way the winds are blowing when it comes to UFC media rights. That might just tell us everything we need to know.

[SI Media with Jimmy Traina, Puck]

About Sean Keeley

Along with writing for Awful Announcing and The Comeback, Sean is the Editorial Strategy Director for Comeback Media. Previously, he created the Syracuse blog Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician and wrote 'How To Grow An Orange: The Right Way to Brainwash Your Child Into Rooting for Syracuse.' He has also written non-Syracuse-related things for SB Nation, Curbed, and other outlets. He currently lives in Seattle where he is complaining about bagels. Send tips/comments/complaints to sean@thecomeback.com.