ESPN’s invasion prods RSNs to finally make Web upgrades

Regional sports network executives insist they are not concerned by ESPN’s move to launch local Web sites. They say they will treat ESPN like they do any other local competitor.

But their actions tell a different story. RSNs plan to do whatever it takes to keep ESPN from dominating the local sports landscape. In fact, RSNs are planning significant online upgrades to meet the challenge posed from Bristol.

It’s about time.

RSNs have spent years virtually ignoring their Web sites, largely using them as placeholders while waiting for a digital business to develop. While ESPN was developing video and social-media applications, RSN sites offered little more than tune-in information.

In their defense, RSNs had no reason to ramp up an online strategy that promised little revenue. But that inaction is as responsible for opening the door for ESPN to expand locally as the problems local newspapers face.

“Look around at the existing local Web sites,” one RSN executive told me. “We knew that once we spent money on our site, we’d beat [local newspapers and radio stations]. But now that ESPN is looking at my market, things are different. ESPN does sports so well that if they come in and dominate, we might not get that audience back. We have to control the local audience.” launched on the same
day ESPN broadcast the Patriots’ Monday
night game.

Controlling that audience will be harder to do with ESPN given the breadth of its national resources. ESPN launched this spring and last week. It also has plans to launch in Dallas later this fall and in New York and Los Angeles early next year.

Last week offered a good example at the potential ESPN has to dominate local markets. On the day it launched, Sept. 14, ESPN hosted “Monday Night Football” from Foxboro. Coincidence? ESPN ran several promos hyping the site to its biggest TV audience of the year, about 14 million viewers. How many local Web sites are able to promote to that kind of audience?

RSNs, though, believe they have a competitive advantage thanks to the local relationships they have developed with the teams and their fans. Several teams hold stakes in Comcast’s RSNs, including baseball’s Giants and White Sox. In Boston, NESN is partly owned by the Red Sox. Just last week, team owner John Henry launched a blog on and told a personal story about David Ortiz.

“That’s the kind of access I’m going to have and no one else is going to have,” said NESN President Sean McGrail.

Most RSNs I talked to believe they will start streaming live local pro basketball and baseball games within the year, something they expect will give them another competitive advantage over ESPN, which will not have those rights. To do that, though, RSNs need to upgrade their sites, and that is something most are already planning.

Comcast plans to roll out a new digital media strategy in the next six to nine months to attract local sports fans.

“We want to build a moat around our local markets and create a brand where people come to us first,” said CSN President Jon Litner.

Its RSN in New England, for example, is the only Comcast regional that does not have a nightly news program. It plans to launch one and share stories and video with its soon-to-relaunch Web site.

Similarly, in New York, YES Network is re-tooling its site this month to allow for more community features and social-media applications (see story, below).

“There are certain built-in advantages to being associated with the Yankees,” said Michael Spirito, vice president of business development and digital media for YES Network. “We have found that fans typically use two screens while watching the Yankees on YES, and we have taken full advantage of that.”

RSN executives insist these plans were in place before ESPN’s plans became known. Whether or not that’s true doesn’t matter. The point is that RSNs are finally valuing the online arena.

Hopefully, for their sake, it’s not too late.

John Ourand can be reached at

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