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ESPN.com yesterday launched its expanded NFL Nation network, consisting of a dedicated blog with team-specific writers for every NFL franchise. The 32 team-branded blogs each have direct access points on ESPN.com's main NFL page, while some of the more visible links on ESPN's market-specific sites such as ESPNBoston.com have been rearranged. The team blogs include original content from the dedicated writers, along with aggregated content. Prior to this expansion, NFL Nation consisted of dedicated blogs for each of the eight NFL divisions. ESPN plans for each blog's primary reporter to contribute to TV coverage with "NFL Live," "NFL Insiders" and "SportsCenter," as well as ESPN Radio and ESPN The Magazine. With a week left before the Ravens-Broncos season-opener, NFL Nation is still a few writers short, with plans to fill the open positions in the coming weeks. ESPN Senior VP/Editorial, Print & Digital Media Rob King recently discussed the company's strategy in developing team-dedicated blogs within ESPN.com, saying their research shows that "a huge percentage of traffic across mobile and online comes through 100 teams, and six sports. ... It turns out that 31 of the 32 NFL teams are in the top 100." King joked, "Now, we're going to cover Jacksonville anyway." He said ESPN's strategy for team-dedicated blogs is "to do as many of the top 100 as possible, and really start organizing around that principle." King: "We probably want to give ourselves some room to adjust. ... We really want to get the 80s, then be able to relegate teams. Someone might retire and the franchise might lose all of it's relevance, so we need that leeway. The other thing is, we're not going to broadcast, 'Hey, these are the top 100 teams, and you're not in the list.' We're going to serve people as they're already coming to the site."
PREGAME SHOWS SHAKE THINGS UP: ESPN's "Sunday NFL Countdown" will focus more on its talent lineup than in years past. ESPN NFL Studio Shows Senior Coordinating Producer Seth Markman said he aims to make former players Ray Lewis, Keyshawn Johnson and Cris Carter the stars of the show, with the goal of "hearing from them as much as possible over the three hours." Meanwhile, Suzy Kolber will have a bit of a different role on the show, reporting from a small set at the site of the early afternoon game that ESPN deems the biggest of the day. Markman said the show's new on-site set will feature Kolber alongside either Ron Jaworski or Merril Hoge. "Sunday NFL Countdown" also will more prominently feature fantasy expert Matthew Berry, who will appear each week as soon as inactives are announced around 11:45am to give real-time fantasy advice. Markman said this element was something the show "has been lacking in the past," adding he is sure "the audience is out there for it." ESPN's "Monday Night Countdown" sees a few changes this year as well, most notably the addition of Lewis to the on-site crew of Stuart Scott, Steve Young and Trent Dilfer. Markman said ESPN also will "change the balance of the show." Whereas previously the show's studio line-up led by Chris Berman has driven most of the content, the majority of the show will now come from the crew on-site.
WEEI-FM was "once a Boston radio powerhouse that had the local sports market to itself," but it "already has lost many listeners" to WBZ-FM The Sports Hub since that station's '09 launch, according to a front-page piece by Callum Borchers of the BOSTON GLOBE. Though WEEI "takes in much more money than its new competitor, revenues at WEEI are down nearly 20 percent since The Sports Hub began broadcasting." WEEI also "remains saddled with an expensive contract to broadcast" the Red Sox. In addition, turnover has been high as the station "fired some of its biggest names, while others have quit." WEEI parent company Entercom Communications said that it will "continue with the current format and programming and argues WEEI’s brand remains strong." Entercom President & CEO David Field said, "We’re very pleased with the macro perspective of where WEEI is today." Borchers notes while The Sports Hub broadcasts Patriots and Bruins games, the "loss of the Celtics leaves WEEI with just the Red Sox -- a powerful draw, but an expensive one, too." The annual payment to the Red Sox "eats up much of WEEI’s revenues." Contracts with longtime morning hosts John Dennis and Gerry Callahan "expire next year, and critics feel the duo exemplifies the station’s problems: They are highly paid -- reportedly in the $1 million a year neighborhood -- and can be polarizing." Dennis "defended the style of his show, saying the hosts' occasionally abrasive tone prompts listeners to be more engaged." Dennis said, "If you don’t ruffle the feathers of your listeners, then you’re not doing your job." Field "downplayed the competition between WEEI and The Sports Hub, saying a sports-crazed market like Boston can easily sustain two stations." Borchers notes Entercom’s agreement in '06 to pay an average of $20M per year "made the Red Sox’ radio rights the most expensive" in MLB "by far." Field said that the Red Sox contract is "manageable for a large company like Entercom" (BOSTON GLOBE, 8/29).