Monday, July 20, 2009

ESPN.com vs Local Newspaper Sports

How big is ESPN’s move into local (or “hyperlocal”) online sports media? Very very big.

It was ground-breaking when they announced the pilot move into Chicago. And it’s even bigger today, when they will announce a move into New York, LA and Dallas.

So big that the New York Times put that story on its front page today.

So big that it should make the local sports outlets very very nervous.

Here is the money stat: "In less than three months, ESPN Chicago has become the city's top sports site, attracting about 590,000 unique visitors in June... Second place went to the Tribune's online sports section with 455,000 unique visitors."

The Tribune's online sports hub has been around for years, dominating the city. ESPNChicago.com has been around for...um...months. And it's already winning. (Or, perhaps, has it already won?)

Local was always a great play for ESPN -- they have the radio affiliates, ESPN.com has a ton of locally adaptable content (not to mention the promotional firehose), and -- on the flip side -- newspaper sports sites have long been neglected and/or mis-managed. That has caught up with the newspapers.

Here's an unintentionally funny quote from LA Times sports associate editor Randy Harvey: "It would be foolish to underestimate ESPN, but it comes down to resources. I don't see them being able to replicate what we do."

Do what, Randy? Cut your hockey coverage? Let marquee columnists like JA Adande leave for...oh, let's see, ESPN.com? (Um, whose content do you think will be leading ESPNLA? Let's see: You could be reading the leading columnist of LA sports on ESPNLA.com...or you could read the place he USED to work, before he bolted?) How about the way Harvey has let Bill Plaschke become more TV personality than newspaper columnist -- on...ESPN? (Again: ESPNLA will have Plaschke video from Around the Horn. What's LATimes.com got?)

The Trib's editor for digital media, Bill Adee, said this: "We are looking forward to the local sports turf battle in the weeks and months ahead." Memo to Adee: The battle seems to have been lost already. On your watch.

(And, Bill, if you think hiring Jay Mariotti will fix things, think again. Guess where Jay spends 250 afternoons a year -- and devotes most of his energy: ESPN. Instead of spending all that money on Mariotti, take his salary and cut it into 10 pieces, then go out and hire every top local blogger. I can offer that advice for free because of the confidence I have that it will go unheeded.)

What local newspaper sports editors don't get is that their reporting has become commoditized -- everyone gets the game recaps and the box scores. ESPN does a better job of presenting both, plus other kinds of stats, plus a better job of presenting the teams playing your teams.

Here's a basic case study: Does the Times think it has a lock on the Lakers? ESPNLA.com has (a) full-time TV reporters based in LA, (b) JA Adande, (c) a top Lakers blog (Forum Blue and Gold) as part of ESPN.com's TrueHoop Network, (d) a local radio affiliate and (e) the power of ESPN. Oh, and Bill Simmons is based in LA. Good night, game over.

As quickly as a good nugget can be reported by someone like the Times, a quick-acting (and inexpensive) ESPNLA intern (or low-paid editor) can have it on the ESPNLA site. It's called aggregation, and you can already find it daily on ESPN.com's Rumor Central pages. That's the craziest part: The economics of ESPN's local strategy are jaw-droppingly cheap, especially relative to local newspapers' costs.

Local newspapers' sports power was already under erosion on other fronts, besides ESPN: SB Nation has put together the best collection of team-based blogs found online, across every sport, in every market, with coverage that -- yes -- complements local news, but also goes a long way to displace it. Its distribution deal with Yahoo -- itself a traffic firehose -- amplified that power exponentially.

In an ideal world, the $8 million that SB Nation just got from Comcast includes a commitment from Comcast to use SB Nation to power its local cable affiliates' web presences. And here's one more idea for Comcast: Drop the notion of Versus as "place to find niche sports whose rights ESPN didn't want" and pivot it to be about "Your Team," leveraging Comcast's local sports networks and the new investment in SB Nation.

Meanwhile, Fanhouse, currently focused on broad national coverage, is well-positioned to leapfrog AOL's reinvention this summer with smart investments that drill down locally. When new AOL CEO Tim Armstrong (a huge sports fan, btw) talks about the success of AOL's content business, Fanhouse has to be near the top of the list. (Disclaimer: I began my career at an AOL-funded sports content start-up later acquired by AOL, and I most recently worked at an online media company whose original investor was Armstrong.)

NBC is also getting into the local sports game -- NBC has been building out their city-specific presences and, through Fanhouse alum John Ness, staffing them with quality sports-blogging talent that increases user value, drives search discoverability and gives the local TV networks something to compete with the newspaper sites.

Notice who isn't in that conversation? Newspapers. This isn't meant to be a "death-of-newspaper" pile-on. As any good sports blogger will tell you, we mostly LOVE the newspaper sport-beat reporters, as everyone should, because they are the ones who produce much the content that the rest of us spend hours and hours talking about. (That's not to say that can't change, won't change or isn't changing as I type this.)

As I wrote when ESPN first announced its intention to move into Chicago, it is brilliant -- they are serving fans of local teams as well (or better) than the longstanding newspapers in the city, at a fraction of the cost. I have no solutions for the newspaper companies -- except perhaps to suggest that they call ESPN.com and see if they can get a distribution deal via the ESPN local sites.

I have gotten a lot of emails and questions from folks about why I launched TimTeblog.com last week. For those who don't know, it is a site focused entirely on covering Tim Tebow -- credible original analysis, smart comprehensive curation, guest-posts, fun conceits.

In short: I am covering Tim Tebow as a beat -- just like someone covers Florida football or the SEC or college football generally.

It sounds a little crazy, right up until you recognize that Tebow is THE biggest story in sports for the next six months (and the three months after that, if you count his preeminent X-factor position leading up to the NFL Draft). Last week, I used the analogy of ESPN dedicating a full-time reporter to covering Barry Bonds. (Or even a journalist who spends a season "inside" with a team or player to write a book.) The feedback has been tremendously positive (maybe because fans -- Florida fans, college football fans, fans everywhere -- are intrigued by Tebow).

And, guess what? If you're looking for Tebow coverage, my blog is the best destination you'll find online. Better than the hometown Gainesville Sun. Better than the leading Florida football blogs. Better than Yahoo's college football blog. Better than ESPN. Why? Because Tebow is my entire focus -- you are better off checking my coverage, because I'll have everything those folks have PLUS everything else created by everyone else. (Properly credited, of course!)

What I don't have for my Tebow site is a major distribution avenue -- yet. It is increasingly showing up high on Google Searches. It will get linked from Florida football blogs (or other folks dropping in to cover something about Tebow); with that comes increased credibility and visibility -- the direct traffic will come when fans who want great analysis of Tim Tebow (or just a one-stop shop for their Tebow news) hear about the site and give it a try, then satisfied, make it a habit. And I can (and will) strike a partnership deal with a mainstream sports site that would benefit from expertly produced full-time coverage of the biggest single ongoing story in sports this fall.

In that respect, it is my own "hyperlocal" product -- "hyperlocal" reinterpreted. "Local" isn't where you live, necessarily; it is what you care about, in a very specific way. Just ask the 590,000 fans of Chicago sports -- many (even most) of whom probably don't live in Chicago but care passionately about their Chicago teams.

And are now being more than well-served by ESPN.

More as this continues to develop.

-- D.S.

UPDATE: Good read from SBJ/SBD about the pressure on leagues that decreased newspaper staffing/coverage creates. The alternative take is that the leagues should be partnering more aggressively with the innovators -- and obviously embracing more innovation themselves.

(Ironic detail: Lynn Hoppes, the former president of the Associated Press Sports Editors, is quoted; a couple months ago, he left newspapers to run my alma mater, ESPN.com's Page 2.)

8 comments:

Poster Nutbag said...

once again you have outdone yourself, mr. shanoff. excellent analysis. lets just hope the newspapers are, as you think they are, too stupid to heed your advice about mariotti. but then again, less mariotti is a good thing for us all...

Dan said...

A lot of this is really well said, but you really think newspapers don't "get" that their basics have been stolen, that box scores and recaps and all that are available elsewhere faster and better? From personal experience, I'd say every damn person in this industry "gets that," and has spent 5-to-10 years running around like an idiot trying to figure out how to respond.

The problem is, there is no response. There just isn't. It can't be that the people who run every single top-50 sports section are all uniformly morons, and the people who run espn.com are all geniuses. I mean, it's all the same people, and they were all in newspapers 10 years ago. It's just that the newspapering model broke. It doesn't exist any more. That's no knock on the people in charge, not when it happened to every single one.

And if you were gonna start PostSportsDC, or whatever, how many designers or guild-protected copy editors would you hire? How many printing presses would you buy? How many expensive downtown buildings would you rent? How much bureaucracy would you erect? Running a newspaper is just different than running a Web site; you can't convert instantly, especially when the paper part is still the part that brings in ad money.

Shannon Shark, Mets Police Chief said...

great piece!

Steph said...

Good read. I think that ESPN has been evolving this way for a while. The problem that most people have with the WWL (or any national outlet) is the belief that ESPN doesn't care to get it right with their favorite team. As with the ESPN NFL division blogs, the reporters are particularly focused on a division so can be better able to get content out that fans that is closer to being accurate and detailed than most of the generalized information that you normally see.

The problem with a lot of inexpensive local blogger based content is that everybody has an opinion on their local teams, but it is hard to search for the best local content out of the noise and garbage. There's more content than ever, but so much of it is painfully bad.

ESPN is leveraging its national size to attack something that has been a problem for it in the past--quality local coverage. Their resources can help them target the best local resources.

I am guessing it doesn't make sense to go local in every market, so perhaps this means even more big market coverage at the expense of smaller market teams/cities.

Lou Pickney said...

This is a savvy move by ESPN. Content is king, and if ESPN can find a low-cost way to provide interesting local content via the internet in major markets, it could set itself up quite nicely. Particularly with the economy being down, now is a great time for ESPN to make its move.

Greg said...

Whoa! You're saying J. A. is LA's best sports columnist? What a joke. He was bland, untimely, unconnected and can't carry Plaschke's laptop case.

The LA Times has had 25 columnists/sports writers better than Adande since 1975. Maybe 35.

I enjoy your commentary, but the Adande references were waaay off. He's pedestrian, which is all too familiar of internet writers.

RickWaghorn said...

This is all v interesting as I've always maintained that if I can do football out of www.myfootballwriter.com/norwichcity so someone can do www.mybasketballwriter.com/baltimore or www.mybaseballwriter.com/boston... that with an elegant enough organisation you can drive local and national advertising and arrange local and national syndication deals - particularly if you can get into the locker room where the decent stuff lies...

http://outwithabang.rickwaghorn.co.uk/?p=277

So, smart joined-up thinking from ESPN... IMHO.

Best,

R

Steven said...

Great piece- takeaways not just sports but the whole news pieces too. I have several associates that are going "hyperlocal" and developing profitable businesses with a deep connect with their customer base.Niches are the future- you Tebow, me- smallbiz and social media, my 13 yr son- Halo3, and 800 readers of his blog. Become an expert in something that you love and make it your biz. Great piece just sent it out to more than 15,000 twitter followers of smallbiz info.Your point of Bloggers is dead on- influence in their niches very very powerful.

This is from a die-hard UGA Bulldog fan that will have to deal with Tebow for the last time in November...( let us dawg fans in on any weaknesses you find, OK...
Great piece- Looking for your Tebow site right now...