Disney-owned ESPN subscribers dropped precipitously in the last 12 months, shrinking another 10% to end fiscal 2021 on Oct. 2 with 76 million US households, according to a Friday SEC filing noted by Deadline.
Within ESPN, college sports-oriented ESPNU fell from 62 million homes in 2020 to 51 million over the last year, while ESPN News slipped from 62 million to 50 million over the same period.
The company said the drop - based on data from Nielsen, includes traditional Multichannel Video Programming Distributors (MVPDs) such as Comcast and DirectTV, as well as most digital Over-The-Top (OTT) streaming packages.
For reference, ESPN boasted just north of 100 million households almost a decade ago, a significant decay for one of Disney's longtime cornerstones. As Deadline notes, the drop in subscribers highlights one of the biggest conundrums in the media business - traditional TV networks are shedding subscribers due to cord-cutting.
Disney and ESPN execs are keeping a close eye on the subscriber declines and have fortified ESPN+ with increasingly robust programming. The billions at stake from traditional distribution and ad revenue, however, mean a wholesale shift to streaming isn’t likely anytime soon. The company firmly denied reports in October that it was considering a spinoff or even a sale of ESPN.
ESPN was at 84 million households at the end of fiscal 2020. Streaming service ESPN+, meanwhile, ended fiscal 2021 with 17 million subscribers, up 66% from the same time in 2020. It has posted significant growth since being bundled with other Disney offerings.
Disney is scrambling to right the ship, however, adding both ESPN+ and Disney+ to its Hulu Live TV package (along with a $5 per month increase in price), a move which will automatically boost subscriber levels. Hulu has approximately 4 million subscribers, while Hulu + Live TV is one of the leading pay-TV operators in the US, per the report.
The company plans to spend "as much as" $33 billion on programming in fiscal 2022, a 32% increase from the $25 billion outlay in FY2021.