How long will ESPN3 stay free?

After the recent U.S. match on ESPN3.com, its longevity as a free source of soccer action has come into question
by Herb Scribner   |   Wednesday, January 25, 2012

ESPN3.com the online soccer haven

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say ESPN3.com has been one of the top tech gizmos that has helped push soccer forward in America this past decade.

With a near constant flow of action from all over the world, it has become a stable outlet for soccer nuts and casual sports fans alike to watch the beautiful game.

The website, and to a larger degree the internet, is entwined with the game in The States due to both the net and soccer coming of age at about the same time in the late 90s. Much like how Twitter and other social media platforms have, ESPN3.com complements soccer’s usage of the internet for live games and overall publicity.

But it seems to me that we’re slowly but surely approaching the tipping point where ESPN3 will no longer be a free service. Much like Fox Soccer has with Foxsoccer.tv, I expect ESPN to begin charging a monthly service fee very soon.

And while I would love to see the website continue without a monthly charge, I can understand why a company like ESPN might be in favor of turning free viewers into paid subscribers.

Despite all of its layout pitfalls and bulky build, ESPN3.com continues to be a great gadget; giving soccer fans a free outlet to watch several games that aren’t aired on television. And, in doing so, it’s a better medium for viewers who just want to watch free soccer. Imagine if MTV had a television station with JUST music videos, kind of like how it used to be before all the reality and celeb fluff programming came along.

For soccer, ESPN3 has opened many eyes -- including yours truly -- to different leagues and tournaments around the world which may not have seemed appealing before this newfound ease of accessibility. Since its launch, a Scottish buddy of mine finally got the opportunity to watch his national team without having to search through virus-filled streaming websites.

The same can also be said for loads of U.S. soccer fans who can thank ESPN3 for putting the broadcast of the recent USA-Venezuela men’s national team friendly on the internet airwaves. Without ESPN3, some U.S. soccer matches wouldn’t have even been available anywhere, with the team exiled to the mothership’s outer limits on ESPN Classic -- which barely exists -- or when the Little League World Series is running too long -- ESPN News. ESPN3 is not ESPN or ESPN2, but at least it’s a number. Once you get relegated to the lesser ESPN channels with letters in the name, you are officially the Cousin Eddie of the sports broadcasting world.

As it stands right now, ESPN3 is perfect for the sport. It gives soccer fans a different, reliable and legal source to watch their teams play, whether it be an MLS, Bundesliga or national team game. Even big matches like the recent Copa del Rey clash between rival Spanish superpowers Barcelona and Real Madrid are shown on ESPN3. Sure you don’t get all of the English Premier League games or every single fixture in La Liga, but you do get a handful of soccer matches that otherwise would be difficult, if not impossible, to watch.

But the good times can’t last forever, especially when businesses know they can reap more profit. So what’s likely going to happen, soon, is ESPN3 will begin charging fees in some way, shape or form, much like Netflix, Hulu and Spotify have done for their respective services.

Because the website has stayed free for so long, it’s also quite possible that ESPN will allow the website to remain free but display ads within the programming or along the console. With a small fee receiving ad-free viewing and a higher fee possibly receiving premium features with more programming options and better quality video.

Luckily it would stand to reason that U.S. soccer and Barcelona games remain within the “free package” since they’d be on the channel anyway, with more marginal programming that wouldn’t be aired like the German Cup or Scottish SPL, part of the premium paid services.

It might have been the idea all along – get users to use the site for free, then start charging once it became popular enough. You can’t blame ESPN for going that route. If there’s a way to make money off a business that would normally be free, why not maximize it? It’s totally understandable that a company would begin charging for a once gratis service or product that they grew to be in large demand.

All good things must come to an end sometime, so how long can ESPN3 remain free?

That’s the question I’ve wrestled with for a long time. It’s also a question only ESPN can answer. If I had to wager however, I’d say it won’t be free to the public much longer. So use it while the good times keep rolling!

Herb SCRIBNER

Nationality:
USA
College:
UMass Amherst
Club Domestic:
NE Revolution
Club Foreign:
Bayern Munich
SN managing editor, award-winning journalist and recent college grad, Herb has always been known as "The Soccer Guy" wherever he goes. He's been published by the Boston Globe and has experience with film production and novel writing.
HERB'S SPONSORS