ESPN's streaming service passes 1M subscribers -- but there's a catch

ESPN on Thursday said its new subscription-only streaming service has surpassed one million paid subscribers, as the embattled cable sports network looks to offset revenue losses related to cord-cutting.

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The Disney-owned network charges $4.99 per month for the service, ESPN+ which airs exclusive live sporting events and original “30 for 30” documentaries that aren’t available on ESPN or ESPN2, its flagship cable channels. The live programming slate includes MLB games, UFC matches and Wimbledon tennis, among other events.

While ESPN surpassed the one-million-subscriber benchmark less than six months after the service launched, a spokesman acknowledged that the number includes some existing subscribers from ESPN Insider, a web-based platform that was rolled into ESPN+.

“The vast majority of the 1 million are new subscribers, who’ve signed up for ESPN+ since its launch in April,” the company said in a statement. “Adding ESPN Insider to ESPN+ did add some subscribers, but they account for a minority of the total (substantially so, in fact). The point behind merging ESPN Insider to ESPN+ was about simplifying and clarifying our ESPN digital subscription offering to fans – while also adding value to their subscription.”

ESPN is building out its subscription service at a time when rampant subscriber losses at the sports network and other Disney-owned cable properties have weighed on the company’s otherwise-robust bottom line. The sports network alone has lost more than 13 million subscribers since 2011, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue.

Aside from the ESPN subscription service, Disney plans to unveil another branded over-the-top platform featuring Disney, Marvel and Star Wars content in 2019.

“If anything points to what the future of ESPN looks like, it will be this app and the experience it provides,” Disney CEO Bob Iger said last February during a conference call.

Disney is purchasing the entertainment assets of 21st Century Fox, parent company of FOX Business and Fox News, in a deal valued $71 billion. Part of that deal includes Sky, of which 21st Century Fox owns 39 percent. On Thursday, British regulators said Comcast and 21st Century Fox will battle for Sky through an auction. A decision is expected Saturday.