ESPN Missed Out on the English Premier League: Will they Miss the Boat for Handball Too?

The Team Handball Sub-Channel on ESPN+ (What I Would Like to See, Anyway)

The Bill Simmons Podcast recently had an interesting discussion on how streaming is changing the way we watch sports. Joining Simmons was tech analyst, Ben Thompson, and they covered several topics, but eventually the discussion turned to ESPN and their relatively new Over the Top (OTT) streaming service, ESPN+. Around 16:30 into the episode, Thompson talked about which sports content would be on the traditional ESPN network channels and what sports would find their way to ESPN+

“They’re never going to take the big stuff away from ESPN.  ESPN still makes a ton of money.  And, also it makes a lot of sense with it being live, advertising… Sports is going to be the very last thing to go to a subscription model.

But, all the other sports, that like a few thousand people care about…   there’s literally no time for that on ESPN… There’s 24 hours in a day.  Right?  And, so all that sort of stuff is a huge opportunity.

Actually, I think one of the biggest missed opportunities that people don’t think about for ESPN is… ESPN was pretty early to soccer and they should have locked up the Premier League a decade ago.  Like, if they owned the Premier League and had it on ESPN+.  Imagine how huge that would be right now? That was a big missed opportunity.

There then was a brief discussion on how ESPN had investigated purchasing the Premier League, but had assessed that they couldn’t because there just wasn’t enough room for it.  That it would interfere with American football which attracts the greatest number of viewers.

Thompson then continues:

“Whereas, now that they have ESPN+; their bandwidth is unlimited.  Right?  They can show whatever they want to on there.  So, it’s like a total shift in mindset as to what’s valuable and why it is valuable.  It goes from what reaches the maximum number of people… to actually what’s really valuable is stuff that some number of people care intensely about.  Because the more intensely they care about it the more they are willing to pay for it.”

It doesn’t take much imagination to review this conversation in the context of team handball. As in, how big might it be for ESPN if they were tp purchase the EHF Champions and other handball content and put it on ESPN+? Or, will it end up being another missed opportunity. Yes, right now it might not seem like a huge opportunity, but in 10 years hindsight might well tell a different story.

As one of nearly 8M ESPN+ subscribers, all I know is that every time I access the app it is painfully clear to me that this is exactly where team handball belongs. That it would provide the very best exposure and chance to grow the sport.

Don’t get me wrong:

  • I love ehfTV (especially, when it’s not geoblocked), but it stands little chance of exposing the sport to new fans in the U.S.
  • I love traditional TV channels like ESPN, the NBC Olympic Channel, and even beIN Sports, but it’s tough to get time on those channels. (Christ, it’s often tough for handball to get aired on TV in Europe.)
  • And, maybe there are other streaming possibilities like NBC Gold and DAZN USA, but those OTT platforms are starting to fall far behind ESPN in terms of subscriber base.

Some other reasons why ESPN just makes sense:

  • They have had multiple on air personalities like Scott Van Pelt profess their love for the sport.
  • They recently talked about handball twice on their daily show, Highly Questionable.
  • They have included handball several times on its popular plays of the day segment. Like these from from 2017 and 2018, as well a couple more from the 2019 PANAM Games and 2020 European Championship. (I wonder how often it would be on if they owned the product)
  • They have an immense social media presence. As an example when they’ve put handball plays of the day on their Instagram account they gotten up to 2M views.

The EHF Champions League TV rights are opening up this summer. The French and German League rights are already available. ESPN+ is still looking to add content. It just makes so much sense. Who knows, maybe it will even happen.

Side Notes:

  • Did the proposed ESPN+ channel graphic look familiar to you? It might because it’s very similar to one I made after the Olympics four years ago when I wrote a commentary proposing a similar OTT handball channel. My commentary was somewhat prescient, but, for sure, I didn’t consider ESPN getting into the act.
  • The podcast host, Bill Simmons, is also a big handball fan.  He wrote this article during the 2012 Olympics and talked about handball on his TV show during the 2016 Olympics.  Makes me wonder what’s in store for 2020?