ESPN+ streaming service hits 1 million paid subscribers

Disney's first streaming service launched five months ago.

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ESPN+ has racked up a million subscribers in the five months since Disney's sports network launched the streaming video service, Disney said on Thursday. 

With ESPN+ and a planned streaming service with its blockbuster movies and shows, Disney is aiming to battle deep-pocketed tech companies like Netflix, Apple and Amazon that are pouring money into original video. Next year, Disney plans to launch a streaming service to rival Netflix, sometimes referred to as Disneyflix. 

By comparison, HBO Now took twice as long, about 10 months, to hit 800,000 members. HBO Now was one of the first streaming services that let people watch its network with a direct subscription, rather than requiring them to pay for a cable or satellite package. (But it's worth noting that HBO Now cost three times as much as ESPN+, which is about $5 a month.)

ESPN+ doesn't have the live sports or shows you'll find on the traditional ESPN channels. So: no NFL, no NBA basketball games. Instead, ESPN+'s programming includes sports like Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer and National Hockey League games, as well as Grand Slam tennis, rugby, golf, cricket and other sports. The service also lets users stream the library of ESPN films like its 30 for 30 documentaries. 

One analyst has questioned ESPN+'s subscriber numbers, saying they may be inflated. BTIG's Rich Greenfield, who's known as a Disney bear, or someone who recommends against investing in the company, noted that Disney may "juice" its subscriber tally for ESPN+, which is also $5 a month, by counting members of a different ESPN program. A month ago, Disney extended ESPN+ subscriptions to people who already subscribed to ESPN Insider, a paywalled section of its site for people who pay about $5 a month.

The company rejected that idea Thursday. In a statement, Disney said the vast majority of customers included in the 1 million figure are new subscribers who signed up for ESPN+.

"Adding ESPN Insider to ESPN+ did add some subscribers, but they account for a significant minority of the total," the company said. 

Kevin Mayer, Disney's chairman of direct-to-consumer services like ESPN+, said the 1 million milestone "in such a short amount of time is an incredible testament."

First published Sept. 20, 8 a.m. PT. 
Update, 8:28 a.m.: Adds details and Disney's response to the analyst's claim.