Code/Media: ESPN Exploring Streaming Deals With Amazon, Others

John Skipper ESPN College Football Playoffs Night of Champions - H 2016
Cooper Neill/Getty Images for ESPN

President John Skipper said selling ESPN as a stand-alone business was not "good business" during the tech and media conference on Wednesday.

ESPN as a stand-alone streaming service isn't happening anytime soon, but that doesn't mean sports fans won't be able to watch the big game on outlets like Dish, Apple TV or Amazon in the future. 

John Skipper, the sports giant's president, is facing increased pressure to move the network to other outlets as a way to combat a loss of subscribers. He says more ESPN streaming is coming as an increasing number of Americans cut the cable cord and look for more inexpensive ways to watch programming. 

"We can sell ESPN as a stand-alone product, but we do not believe it to be, right now, good business," Skipper told the audience at the Code/Media 2016 conference late Wednesday.

Skipper explained that ESPN is satisfied with the early performance of Dish's SlingTV, where the network offers some of its programming. He added that he is having further talks with the $20-a-month service about "creating other multi-stream products" for SlingTV that would be different than what ESPN offers on TV but "would narrow the differential" between the two offerings. 

With prodding, he also acknowledged that ESPN is speaking with other potential new entrants into the streaming space that are exploring "putting similar products in the market," including Amazon. But when asked about Apple, all Skipper would say is that the iPhone-maker "understands the value of our content."

He detailed that these streaming partnerships are a way to create "entry packages" to introduce potential new subscribers to ESPN. "Our concern is whether or not we're getting new subscribers," Skipper said of SlingTV.

Losses at ESPN parent company The Walt Disney Co. set off a media stock slump last summer when CEO Bob Iger hinted at slow growth among its media properties, including ESPN. Then, late last year, Disney revealed that ESPN had lost 7 million subscribers over the last two years. The situation brightened in February when Iger announced an "uptick" in subscribers at ESPN without giving specifics. 

Even so, Skipper will need to find new options to get the sports giant's programming in front of new audiences. He came out swinging during his talk at the tech and media conference, noting right away that "ESPN is not a drag" on Disney. "We have a very good hand to play in navigating the future." 

When asked about the subscriber losses that ESPN has faced, he acknowledged that they have come to some extent from cord-cutting or the move to lower cost cable packages. "The current landscape does not particularly surprise us," he said, noting that revenue will continue to grow because ESPN will increase it affiliate fees. 

So if ESPN isn't launching a stand-alone service, what is it doing to innovate?

The cable company ended its relationship with Bill Simmons and shuttered Grantland last year, a decision that Skipper declined to discuss ("The Bill Simmons territory might be the most-plowed territory on the face of the earth."). Now, ESPN is launching The Undefeated, a site that will be focused on race, culture and sports. "African Americans are an important part of our constituency," Skipper said. "They watch a lot of sports. I believe we have to be their home, that we have to represent their interests."