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ESPN: The local leader in sports?
Published September 14, 2009
ESPN calls itself the Worldwide Leader in Sports, but it’s the company’s locally driven ambitions that have the sports media world talking and could have a seismic effect on how fans consume news about their favorite teams.
The company today will launch ESPNBoston.com, the second of its locally oriented sports sites following a successful spring launch in Chicago. Similar to the Chicago venture, the Boston site will feature a mix of beat coverage on the local pro, college and high school teams; audio content from ESPN’s 890 AM sports talk radio; Boston-oriented columns and podcasts from Bill Simmons, Peter Gammons, Michael Smith and others; a locally oriented online version of “SportsCenter”; and locally driven social media functions, among other material.
The Boston arrival, which had not been publicly discussed until late August, puts the ESPN effort into one of the country’s most passionate and hypercompetitive sports media markets. It also marks the beginning of a marked acceleration for ESPN’s local play, with a Dallas site slated for a late September or early October launch, and New York and Los Angeles destinations scheduled to follow early next year.
With an eye on starting ESPNNewYork.com, ESPN last week hired Bonnie Bernstein, who most recently has done studio and sideline work for the network, to write for the site and contribute to Michael Kay’s radio show that airs on ESPN’s 1050 AM in New York.
“We’re extremely bullish on this,” ESPN President George Bodenheimer said last month. “We’ve definitely been encouraged by the success in Chicago to date and see this as something really important going forward.”
The initiative in part seeks to exploit the gap in locally driven sports coverage created by the historic and ongoing economic woes of the newspaper industry and the resulting reduction of content. To that end, ESPNChicago.com has been greeted with some early success: Its tally of more than 700,000 unique visitors and 1.7 million minutes of time spent on the site in July was up 19 percent from June on both counts and up 87 percent in audience size from May, according to comScore.
In addition, comScore statistics show that the average number of unique visitors to the ESPN Chicago site for May, June and July (555,000) was more than the averages for the sports sites of the Chicago Tribune (424,000) or Chicago Sun-Times (256,000).
“They’re obviously a very big and powerful brand, and if they’re making this investment, then there must be something there,” said Jim Bankoff, chairman and chief executive of SB Nation, a network of more than 200 local and team-specific blogs. SB Nation is on its own marked growth curve and last week debuted a new national landing page at sbnation.com (see story).
“There’s definitely room for more players in this [local] space,” Bankoff said.
In Boston, ESPN hired Mike Reiss, former Boston Globe NFL writer, to cover the Patriots and be a key cog for the site. The venture, however, is competing against established online homes for the Globe, Boston Herald, Comcast SportsNet, NESN and WEEI.com, each of which has spent the past year significantly bulking up its efforts to serve the sports-mad populous in New England.
Entercom-owned WEEI.com, in particular, overhauled its site in March and now features a mix of live and on-demand audio content, daily team coverage, a series of blogs including Curt Schilling’s 38 Pitches, and audio streaming to mobile devices. The site garners an audience of more than 670,000 unique visitors per month according to internal metrics, a mark roughly triple what it posted a year ago.
“There’s a lot of repackaging there [with ESPN] I see with ‘SportsCenter,’ Simmons and so forth. At the end of the day, I don’t know what’s really new,” said Tim Murphy, WEEI.com vice president and general manager. “Mike Reiss has been here in this market. Bill Simmons and Peter Gammons, and so forth, already exist. But there’s lots of room for lots of players, and it’s a mistake to think about this strictly in binary terms. We obviously want to do well, stay on the growth curve we’ve been on, and just keep doing what we have been doing. But I don’t believe we’ve hit a saturation point in this market.”
Jim Pastor, ESPN senior vice president for business divisions and the key executive leading the local sites, denied that ESPNBoston or any of the sister destinations represents a simple repackaging of material from ESPN.com.
“There’s going to be very little content ported over,” Pastor said. “We’re not simply aggregating Boston content from other sources. This is really about seeing how we can deploy our resources in a better way to serve fans, and as a business, this is something where we see a lot of upside.”
Simmons, however, has noted that he has no immediate plans to write specifically for the Boston effort in addition to his primary writings for ESPN.com.
“I’m not writing new material for ’em. If I write a Boston-related column, it’ll just run there as well,” Simmons posted on his Twitter page upon the announcement of the Boston venture.
Pastor declined to specify whether ESPNChicago.com has become profitable or how much revenue the site was generating. He did say that the site has exceeded expectations with regard to user traffic and advertiser support.
Major media markets where ESPN has a strong owned-and-operated or tightly affiliated radio station with a local advertising sales force have formed the basis of the original batch of ESPN local sites. Pursuing that route has allowed ESPN to essentially relaunch the radio station Web sites as the expanded local hubs and have each station provide a constant source of audio content.
Pastor said the company is not necessarily beholden to that plan going forward and may consider markets where ESPN does not have a strong radio presence.
ESPN has owned and operated stations in Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York and Pittsburgh. ESPN’s Boston outlet is owned by a local consortium.
Revenue for the local sites has largely come via ad sales from both local and national brands. Typical of ESPN’s sales strategy, most of the buys have had some type of integrated element, blending some mixture of radio, online display, audio and video insertion, podcasts, and, in some cases, on-site activation. Local subscription offerings and other such premium-content elements are not currently in the mix.
In Chicago, advertisers have included big brands like StubHub and MillerCoors but also local operators, such as Binny’s Beverage Depot. StubHub, Dunkin’ Donuts and Covidien were signed for the launch of the Boston site.
The expense side, conversely, has not carried huge amounts of up-front capital, Pastor said. The new sites largely are leveraging ESPN’s existing infrastructure to provide elements such as back-end technology and the cutting of highlights for online distribution.
Beyond the impending site launches, ESPN is exploring how it can extend into additional mediums, such as mobile. Localized TV operations connected to this, however, do not appear to be in the offing any time soon, as the video efforts will be concentrated online, Pastor said.
“Mobile is definitely something we’re exploring with this,” he said. “We haven’t formalized any plans there yet but definitely want this to be an immersive experience that goes off in a number of different directions.”