ESPN+, the new streaming service from the Disney-owned sports network, does not offer sports nuts enough live coverage to completely sever their ties to cable. But it does give cord cutters a way to get their live-sports fix on the cheap, particularly if their tastes are a little off the beaten path.
You'll still need a cable subscription if you want to enjoy ESPN's marquee programming — NBA games, big-time college football and basketball match-ups, and Monday Night Football, to name just a few. But at $4.99 a month, ESPN+ offers a low-cost alternative that mixes live sports with some original programming. It's especially compelling for fans of soccer, lower-profile college sports and baseball fans looking for a daily broadcast.
ESPN+ would be a much easier sell if its assorted apps offered a few more user-friendly features, but the newly launched service is off to a promising start.
ESPN+ Cost and Availability
You access ESPN+ through the same apps and websites you've been using to check on sports scores and news. On ESPN's website, there's a new ESPN+ tab added to the menu bar. For mobile users, ESPN updated its self-titled app for Android and iOS to include a Watch tab that highlights ESPN+ content. ESPN's Apple TV now supports ESPN+, and the sports network says the new service will work on Amazon devices (Fire TV set-top, Fire TV Stick, Fire TV smart TVs and Fire tablets) as well as with Android TV and Chromecast.
ESPN+ costs $4.99 a month, but you can get the discounted annual rate of $49.99 (which comes out to $4.17 per month) if you sign up for a full year of service. You'll get a seven-day free trial, which is pretty standard among streaming services these days. However, sign up before April 19, and you'll get a full month to try out ESPN+ before you're charged the monthly fee.
How to Get ESPN+
I tested ESPN+ on my iPhone SE and fourth-generation Apple TV. Getting the service was as simple as launching the updated ESPN app on my iPhone, tapping the Watch tab at the center of the menu on the bottom of the screen, and following the on-screen prompts to sign up for the service, with iTunes helpfully reminding me that I wouldn't have to pay until May 13. On my Apple TV, all I had to do was log in to my ESPN account, and my ESPN+ subscription transferred over.
The process works exactly the same on Android devices, with the Android version of the ESPN app prompting you to sign up for ESPN+ when you select a live match or original programming associated with the service. One disappointment: The ESPN app on my Pixel 2 XL wouldn't recognize that I had signed up for the service on my iPhone, even though I was logged in to ESPN on both devices. A similar thing happened when I tried to access the service from ESPN.com on my MacBook Pro.
ESPN says that if you buy ESPN+ from a mobile device, you should be able to access the service on multiple devices by going to the settings of the ESPN app and linking your account. However, the Subscriptions section of the ESPN app on my iPhone wouldn't let me do that; it gave me a message that it was still processing my purchase. Perhaps this is a kink ESPN will work out as the free trial period for ESPN+ proceeds, but it's a hassle I've never experienced when watching Netflix on multiple devices.
What You Get
ESPN+ puts a lot of its own content front and center, though this isn't programming you're going to find on the cable channel. SportsCenter, for example, is boiled down to a "best of" package of its feature stories.
Instead, you'll get ESPN+ exclusives such as Draft Academy, which is a behind-the-scenes look at some of the top players angling to be selected in the upcoming NFL draft, and a 30 for 30 documentary on disgraced basketball coach Bobby Knight. Other original programming includes a nightly hockey highlight show, a Kobe Bryant-hosted series about basketball, and the roundtable soccer discussion program ESPN FC, which has moved over from cable to this service. You also get access to an on-demand library of past ESPN programs and documentaries.
You'll still need a cable subscription if you want to enjoy ESPN's marquee programming — NBA games, big-time college football and basketball matchups, and Monday Night Football.
If that were all ESPN+ had to offer, you'd expect the company to pay you $5 a month to watch it. But ESPN+'s value lies in its live sports coverage. You'll get a daily Major League Baseball game, though it's subject to local blackout rules. (A Seattle Mariners-Oakland A's tilt slated to be on ESPN+ is unavailable to me because a local cable channel holds the broadcast rights in my area for A's games.) If you want more baseball, you can tack on MLB.TV to ESPN+ for an extra $24.99 a month.
The service is especially appealing to soccer fans, as ESPN+ is absorbing the MLS Live service that carries Major League Soccer games. That means you'll be able to watch more than 250 out-of-market soccer matches at a significant discount — MLS Live costs $80 a year, compared with the $49.99 annual rate ESPN+ will run you. Throw in matches from overseas — I'm writing this review while an Aston Villa-Leeds match from the second tier of English Football streams in the background — and ESPN+ is a no-brainer for soccer fans.
Other sports feature prominently as well. ESPN+ promises to feature 20 PGA tour events, Grand Slam tennis matches and live boxing. You can expect college sports featuring schools from outside the major conferences, as well as sports like softball, volleyball, track and swimming, which don't always get the spotlight on cable. Cricket, rugby and Canadian Football League action are on the docket as well.
ESPN+'s value lies in its live sports coverage. The service is especially appealing to soccer fans.
That lineup gives you a pretty good sense of just who ESPN+ is for. While sports fans with eclectic tastes will certainly like the streaming service's variety, fans of sports that don't regularly get a lot of airtime on U.S. television — that would be you, cricket and rugby — may find $5 a small price to pay to get their fix.
Should ESPN+'s slate of sports intrigue you, you can expect a pretty solid viewing experience, once you navigate your way through a fairly cluttered menu to find the exact sport you want to watch.
I've got no complaints about the stream itself, which is delivered in HD quality. Even on a 4-inch iPhone SE screen, the action in that Aston Villa-Leeds match looked crisp and clean enough for me to follow along. A Pause button lets you halt the stream, and you can rewind and fast-forward by dragging on a timeline. I wish those two latter controls offered finer control, like a 30-second rewind button.
ESPN built in some fairly clever controls, like a picture-in-picture feature that lets me still watch a livestream while I peruse other areas of the ESPN app. Tap the picture-in-picture icon, and your livestream shrinks to a little window in the lower corner of the app, freeing you up to check scores and news.
When it comes to streaming original or on-demand content, the app remembers where you left off if you pause to handle tasks outside the app, like answering emails or making a phone call, or if you switch between programs during single viewing sessions. Try to resume watching that program on another device — say, moving from an iPhone to an Apple TV — and you'll have to start over. Again, that's something that will surprise fans of Netflix's seamless viewing experience.
The biggest flaw of ESPN+ right now is clutter, particularly on a mobile device's limited screen. ESPN+ stacks programming in a series of scrollable tiles featuring live events, upcoming shows and featured on-demand content. To find what you're looking for in this layout, you've got to hunt and peck.
A better option, at least in the mobile app, is to tap on the calendar icon. That brings up a list of upcoming events that you can filter by sport or network. Of course, there's no apparent way to set a reminder for a live broadcast you're interested in. Even tapping on the event in the Upcoming section only brings up a pop-up menu telling you when the event takes place, but there's no way to enable any notification.
ESPN+ offers a healthy variety of live sports in a very inexpensive package. However, the sports giant needs to find a way to make it easier to discover and remember when those live sports are scheduled. A more immediate concern, though, is to smooth out the kinks so that subscribers can watch on multiple platforms — mobile, web and set-top boxes — without running into too many obstacles.
If you're a mainstream-sports fan, you're unlikely to find enough on ESPN+ to justify the subscription, even at $4.99 a month. (One exception would be baseball fans who want the daily out-of-market game but don't want to pay five times as much for MLB.TV's more extensive offering.) But if you're really passionate about sports outside of the Big Four of baseball, basketball, football and hockey, ESPN+ has something to offer, especially with its extensive soccer lineup. It's no cable killer, but ESPN+ will serve the needs of sports fans with a very particular set of passions.
Credit: Philip Michaels/Tom's Guide