Disney's (DIS - Get Report) ESPN sports channel behemoth, which reportedly agreed recently to acquire a one-third stake in Major League Baseball's video streaming unit, is negotiating as well with the nation's largest online distribution companies to carry its programming, according to two people with knowledge of the talks. The negotiations are believed to include Amazon (AMZN - Get Report) and Facebook (FB - Get Report) , both of which are looking to expand the amounts of live programming they offer to consumers.
There is no certainty that the discussions will be successful or that an announcement is near, according to one of the sources. Still, the overtures represent an increased effort by ESPN to diversify the distribution of its rich cache of live sports and other programming beyond cable and satellite at a time when those subscribers continue to dwindle as some consumers "cut the cord" in favor of online video.
ESPN and Facebook representatives had no comment, while an Amazon representative did not immediately return a request for comment.
The talks represent a delicate balancing act for Disney, which has made it clear in public comments that it is leery of upsetting cable and satellite operators that pay the media giant hefty affiliate fees for carrying its cable channels. ESPN is TV's most expensive channel, collecting $6.10 a month for each subscriber, according to research boutique MoffettNathanson.
Disney plans to unveil an online package of programs it will sell directly to consumers, technology site The Information reported in early July. That programming is not expected to include some of ESPN's more valued programming, including professional football or basketball, but could include lesser college sports. Last year, ESPN sold a 49-match package of cricket matches to online subscribers for $99.99, as well as making the matches available to the Dish Network (DISH - Get Report) satellite service and other cable operators.
The cricket effort is one of several diversification moves ESPN has taken in recent years, even before the decline in its subscriber accounts became noticeable.
It began streaming instant replays of college football games on Twitter (TWTR - Get Report) in 2013 and in 2015 helped launch Snapchat's Discover platform with its content. ESPN also makes many of its programs available to mobile users.
The sports channel took its biggest steps to stream its programming with Dish's SlingTV over-the-top subscription service in 2015 and earlier this year with Sony's (SNE - Get Report) Vue subscription service. In both cases, ESPN was packaged with other Disney-owned cable networks.
Those deals likely allow ESPN to charge even higher rates for its programming to over-the-top services than it collects from cable operators, said Blair Westlake, a former Universal TV chairman and one-time Microsoft (MSFT - Get Report) executive who negotiated with media companies for its Xbox Live service.
"The smaller-bundle OTT services are permitting consumers to 'cherry pick' channels and have significantly smaller subscriber bases than even the smallest cable operator, [so] paying a higher per-sub fee for channels is the business model they have to live with today," he said.
It's not clear whether Disney is discussing offering the entire ESPN channel or standalone programming with specific sports. Amazon's Prime video streaming service offers subscriptions for premium cable networks Starz (STRZA) and CBS's (CBS - Get Report) Showtime in addition to its selection of movies and TV shows.
Facebook, which has stepped up its efforts to bring in media companies for its Facebook Live offering, made an unsuccessful bid earlier this year to carry the NFL's Thursday night football games. ESPN already provides video snippets on its Facebook page, such as a behind-the-scenes look at Major League Baseball's home run derby on Monday, which preceded Tuesday's All-Star game.
"ESPN is still a monster at generating interest among consumers on every platform," said consultant Bernard Gershon, a former top Disney media executive and president of Gershon Media. "All of those services likely will benefit ESPN. It's a new ball game, and ESPN will likely be hitting more singles and doubles and not as many home runs."