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ESPN to launch streaming service in 2018

Let’s think about what this might mean for Vanderbilt athletics.

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In a move that’s probably a few years too late, Disney announced Tuesday that it will launch an ESPN streaming service free from any cable or satellite service. In other words, the day is coming when you can simply pay for most, if not all, ESPN content without also paying for 200 other channels that you might or might not ever watch. I can hear some of you celebrating.

That said, are we ready for the brave new world of streaming? Brandon Larrabee is worried that by atomizing streaming, we’re going to end up paying more for everything. I think Brandon has some pretty good points in his tweetstorm; small niche channels essentially need ESPN and its ilk to survive in the same way that those weird kiosks in the middle of the mall need the department stores to survive. Nobody’s going to the mall just to buy a cell phone case, and nobody’s paying for cable just to get the Food Network.

That said, cable as we know it today didn’t exactly happen overnight. I remember being a kid (I’m aging myself here) and "cable" consisting of about 30 or so channels, about five of them being local over-the-air channels. And I remember as recently as ten years ago, there would be at least two or three Vanderbilt football games a year — never mind basketball, baseball, or non-revenue sports — that simply weren’t televised anywhere. And there would be probably a few more (the JP game) that were only televised regionally. If you lived in, say, Houston — as I do now — you might have been able to watch two Vanderbilt games a year. If that.

And keep in mind, this was just a few years ago. The thing is, for cable to become what it is today took decades of mergers and consolidations — and not to get political here, but there was quite a bit of government action in there as well.

Then cord-cutting came. And millennials killed cable in the process.

The thing is, though, that new technology made something like this more or less inevitable. Just like the retail industry was changed by online shopping... only, it really wasn’t. In theory, online shopping opened up opportunities for "direct-to-shopper" sales that cut out the middle man (the retail store), but in practice, if you have to buy six items that cost $300, it’s a lot more convenient to buy them all at the same place — even if you’re shopping online, you can save money on shipping by having all of them shipped together. That meant that most online retail wound up being conducted by the same retailers that were running brick-and-mortar stores (and Amazon, which consolidated most of the online-only retail.)

That seems like a fair guide to what will happen with streaming. There are only a handful of channels that people will pay very much for as a stand-alone streaming service. As much as people claim to hate bundling, well, people will probably hate paying $300 for what used to cost $100.

Like online shopping, streaming will change the way we watch TV more than how we pick our channels. But there’s a small nugget of interest in this announcement as well: SportsCenter won’t be included in the streaming package.

That should tell you something. ESPN is still going to hang on to some things and make you get cable. If you’re an extreme pessimist, ESPN will be making the biggest games cable-only and leaving the crappy second-tier games for streaming. But even if that weren’t true, the decision not to move SportsCenter to streaming tells you something:

-The people who watch SportsCenter are the least likely to be cord-cutters. Or

-SportsCenter is the kind of thing that people will tune into when channel-surfing but won’t specifically set aside time to watch (as you would on streaming.)

The latter is kind of sad to ponder; I personally turned off SportsCenter in the 2000s when it went to, essentially, all NFL, all the time. But if you’re streaming everything, you can probably just watch the SportsCenter highlights without watching SportsCenter. The only people who have any use for SportsCenter are people who don’t have broadband anyway.

So what does this mean for Vanderbilt? Well, the main concern that streaming and cord-cutting had was that ESPN might fail to come around and diminishing subscriber fees would cause the SEC’s payouts from the cable deal to drop, and that doesn’t appear to be a concern now that the Network is, presumably, moving fully to streaming.

For fans who are cord-cutters, this probably won’t mean much — though if you’re clinging to cable, you might find that fewer Vanderbilt games are available to you. After all, the distinction between a game being on ESPN and being on the SEC Network Alternate channel is rather meaningless if you have the ESPN streaming package — but it’s a huge deal if you have basic cable. In that sense, the move to streaming could make cable like the bad old days, when fans outside of Tennessee might be able to get two Vanderbilt games on cable.

Who knows? All I know is that it’s still criminal that I can’t find the damn CBS Sports Network on streaming and I’m not about to pay extra to watch one damn game. And that should tell you a bit about unbundling.