SBJ/August 15-21, 2011/Media

ESPN plans recruiting sites tied to schools

Texas and Southern Cal to be first; total could rise to a dozen by end of year

ESPN plans to launch up to a dozen college-specific websites by the end of the year that will focus on high-school recruiting.

The first two sites will target BCS powerhouses the University of Southern California and the University of Texas. ESPN hopes to add four more sites by early fall, and plans to end the year with as many as 12.

The sites mainly will focus on basketball and football recruiting news at the schools, niche content often outside the scope of mainstream sports outlets.

The move appears to be a direct competitive challenge to Yahoo!-owned Rivals and 24/7 Sports, both market leaders

in the area. Like those established sites, much of ESPN’s recruiting offerings will be behind a pay wall available to its premium Insider subscribers as the content targets highly avid fans and will be primarily monetized through a subscriber-based model.

ESPN, though, plans to make some bigger stories available for free on its various sites, from its local pages to ESPN.com.

ESPN executives played down competition with sites like Rivals and 24/7 Sports, saying its plans represent an extension of its local online strategy, which in the past two-plus years has seen the company launch market-specific local sites in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles and New York. The first site launches will occur in areas where ESPN already has launched local sites: USC (ESPN Los Angeles) and Texas (ESPN Dallas).

ESPN’s local strategy also led to the “Heat Index,” when the media company embedded a team of reporters last season to cover the Miami Heat. Two “Heat Index” columnists, Michael Wallace and Brian Windhorst, were the two most-read columnists on ESPN.com’s NBA section for the year. ESPN executives believe those stats show that even the most local stories can become popular nationally.

The college website launches also represent an extension of ESPN’s recruiting business, which started in 2006 with the acquisition of Scouts Inc.

“The tipping point was the ‘Heat Index’ that we launched last year,” said Patrick Stiegman, ESPN.com’s vice president and editor-in-chief. “We’re in this for the long haul. We’re not going zero to 60. This will evolve over the course of the next two or three years.”

Shannon Terry, founder and president of 24/7 Sports and a key executive leading Rivals.com to its $98 million sale to Yahoo! in 2007, said ESPN’s brand power will undoubtedly attract an audience. But he added the company will face a stiff challenge within the recruiting space.

“They’ve been planning for this for at least a couple of years,” said Terry. “And leveraging off the local sites, which have been really successful for them, is a smart play. But I don’t know what they can offer that’s different from what’s already being done. … It can be more difficult for big companies to build highly specialized products like this and be as laser-focused.”

In most cases, ESPN plans to hire local writers and editors to staff the new sites. It is planning to move an ESPN.com editor from its Bristol, Conn., headquarters to Texas and has made offers to up to three Texas-based reporters. ESPN would not identify the reporters, since the deals haven’t been finalized.

But at USC, ESPN is partnering with the local site WeAreSC.com, which already has a staff in place. The WeAreSC.com website already describes itself as “an ESPN affiliate.”
Stiegman said ESPN will hire editors and reporters to staff new sites, rather than partnering or acquiring existing sites.

In deciding where to launch college sites, ESPN also will look into alumni population, interest level and available talent, Stiegman said.

The sites will be independent of the schools; ESPN will not need to obtain rights to launch these sites. But Stiegman said it’s important for ESPN to maintain good relationships with the schools it covers.

Stiegman said the sites will feature news, video and message boards. He doesn’t foresee any problems of the sort that have affected Longhorn Network, which has been criticized for plans to show high-school games.

“The high school coverage and video coverage we will include will be entirely independent of what happens with Longhorn Network,” he said. “We will be an independent voice covering the team.”

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