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.
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.)