TV providers such as Dish Network and AT&T have raced to offer packages of traditional channels as Internet-based apps; the outlook for those efforts is still uncertain, but some analysts say ESPN faces a steeper challenge than most because of the rapidly rising cost to the network of acquiring sports broadcasting rights. That figure is expected to grow another 30 percent by 2020.

Disney chief executive Robert Iger tends not to micromanage parts of his business unless he perceives a serious problem, Hill said.

"He's a very, very, very hands-off guy as long as you're making money," Hill said.

Eventually, ESPN may conclude that its subscriber losses are so great that the only way to retain those customers is to begin offering cable content more widely on the app, said Dawson.

"I do see ESPN eventually doing an HBO Now-style online service," he said.

Media executives are aggressively courting the 20 million U. households of cord-cutters or people who have never had a TV subscription.

HBO, Showtime and CBS have all launched stand-alone video apps as a way to lure customers into paying for their television content.

A spokesman for Disney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

ESPN is hardly the only programming company facing long-term pressure as consumers increasingly opt for Internet-based video streaming that undercuts the legacy cable bundle. it's a scary time all around the barn right now for sports, and that's another thing that Disney's eyeballing." The cost of media rights for sports programming reached a collective .3 billion last year, according to a report from Pricewaterhouse Coopers - up 50 percent from 2011.

The upshot, according to Martin, is that if ESPN is truly at risk, the outlook for other types of programming may be even worse.