ESPN changes online viewing options just days before the season kicks off

Over the course of the Olympics this past summer, social media became a hub for fans to express their displeasure with NBC’s coverage of the games. And with college football season right around the corner, it’s looking like fans may again take to social media, this time to express some frustration with the Worldwide Leader in Sports, ESPN.

The impending controversy centers around ESPN’s two platforms used to watch games online: ESPN3 and WatchESPN. The former, is a service available to 73 million users nationwide, that in the past has allowed all games that have been aired on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU to also be televised online if ESPN3 was part of your local cable package. The latter, is also fee-based service limited that allows access to games both online, as well as on mobile devices. It is however, in just 40 million homes worldwide.

Essentially, ESPN was asking subscribers to pay for two separate services that had few differences other than WatchESPN’s mobile capability. Basically, if you didn’t want to watch games on your phone, you didn’t need WatchESPN.

At least until today, when ESPN changed up the game.

That’s because a report from Deadspin seems to indicate that the ability to watch games available on one of the three ESPN networks will no longer be available on ESPN3 and will now be unique only to WatchESPN. ESPN3 will become a hub for only “exclusive” events not found anywhere else on the company’s airwaves.

From Deadspin:

The Protean identity of ESPN's online network ESPN3 shifts again this week, as the former ESPN360 attempts to distance itself from similar offering WatchESPN. The Worldwide Leader has elected to end the simulcast of sporting events shown on ESPN's cable nets to ESPN3—a service available to 73 million cable subscribers—and instead restrict those online feeds to viewers whose cable provider subscribes to the WatchESPN service (which reaches about half as many viewers).

WatchESPN is the service that allows subscribers to watch ESPN, ESPN2, or ESPNU programming on their computer or mobile device; ESPN is now limiting ESPN3 to "exclusive programming," such as Sri Lankan Premier League cricket which is currently airing on ESPN3.

So how will this affect your upcoming college football weekend?

Simple really: Unless you have WatchESPN as part of your cable package (which most of us don’t right now), you won’t be able to watch any game broadcast by ESPN, ESPN2 or ESPNU digitally anymore. Not to mention any regional games not being shown in your area (say, a Pac-12 game on the East Coast) also won’t be available to viewers unless they have WatchESPN.

I think it’s safe to say that we can all agree on one thing: This sucks. A lot.

Of course as much as I hate to admit it, this does make complete sense for ESPN. After all, they are in the business of making money, not bending over backwards for customers. And while I personally was a huge fan of the ESPN3 platform (I usually pulled up whatever second-tier my computer just to limit my channel-changing), I do understand why they’ve elected to do this.

For one, they’re getting ahead of the game on the mobile front. As more people continue to access content from their phones, iPods and iPads, ESPN has decided to force people to pick up the service, even if it is a year or two before they might have initially planned on doing it. From a business perspective, this actually makes a lot of sense for ESPN. In essence, they’re saying “We know you’re going to need this service eventually. But we’re going to make you pay for it now.”

Of course despite it all, we all know backlash is indeed coming. No one likes change. No one likes change this close to college football season. And no one likes change that will not only fundamentally alter how they spend their college football Saturdays, but also takes coin directly out of their pocket. Frankly, it’s hard to blame anyone for that.

But it’s also because of that, that ESPN has elected to take the pre-emptive stance to warn their on-air personalities that a tide of negativity could be coming. Later on in the Deadspin report, they reveal an internal document sent to ESPN staffers to tell them how to handle any inquires, especially ones that come from Twitter.

Again, this internal memo is courtesy of Deadspin:

Subject: ESPN3 Simulcast Transition

As you may know, simulcasts of network content are going to be (mostly) removed from E3 beginning today. WatchESPN is the primary digital destination by which to consume content from our linear networks. ESPN3 will continue to focus on exclusive events, with more than 3,500 in the next year alone. See this Front Row story for more:

Because there is a gap between those who have access to ESPN3 (73m) and those who have access to WatchESPN (40m), we're anticipating some negative fan reaction beginning with the first weekend of college football (9/1). We are concerned that talent might be hit on Twitter with questions about the changes. We don't want you to have to get involved, but we do want you to be prepared and know where to direct fans, should you get questions.

We suggest that you respond to fans by saying,

@ESPN_FanCentral can help you with questions about WatchESPN and ESPN3 content.

If you have any questions please feel free to reach out to Amy Phillips or Kristie Chong in Communications.

Thanks so much!

Poor Amy Phillips and Kristie Chong are in for a busy weekend.

It’s safe to say there will be a lot of unhappy campers this weekend.

For all his opinion, analysis and insight on college football, be sure to follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.

About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.