ESPN taking aim at local web sites

ESPN is, hands down, the most visited sports site on the World Wide Web. Its multi-platform programming — television, radio, magazine and web — has made it the most powerful media entity in sports.

ESPN owns the broadcast rights to every bowl game in America. It owns Monday Night Football. When it hammered out a contract with the Southeastern Conference, it further cemented its dominance of college sports coverage.

And now, ESPN wants to be your local sports page. Well, in a few selected cities anyway, but with more to come surely if its experiment pays off.

ESPN this week announced that it is launching local dot-coms in New York, Los Angeles and Dallas, to join its ESPNChicago.com, that was already up and running.

They’re meant to be full-service local sports sites, with reporters and columnists writing local material supplemented by wire reports and ESPN reporting and video from its main dot-com.

Take a look at the Chicago site, and you’ll see what ESPN might well envision for major markets across the country. And here’s the concern for newspapers. In a short time, ESPNChicago.com has become the most-visited web site in Chicago, beating out the sites for the Sun Times and Tribune newspapers. At a minimal expense.

From The New York Times:

In less than three months, ESPN Chicago has become the city’s top sports site, attracting about 590,000 unique visitors in June, according to data from comScore, an Internet measurement company. Second place went to The Tribune’s online sports section with 455,000 unique visitors.

ESPN Chicago does not seem to have cut into The Tribune’s online sports audience as much as it has slowed its growth, according to a review of the traffic data.

This, perhaps, is a price papers will pay for stripping resources away. It makes it easier for national outlets to come in and replicate what the papers are doing.

Could such a site work in Louisville? I think an ESPN site would be formidable anywhere. National columnist Pat Forde is a former C-J writer and still lives here, though I hardly think ESPN would be served by having Forde hammer out local columns when he has created such a national following. Brian Bennett, another former C-J staffer, is blogging on the Big East for ESPN. Louisiville is further complicated by the need to cover the University of Kentucky as well as U of L.

For the moment, it would seem that ESPN’s approach would be best tailored for cities that have pro sports, but certainly it could work anywhere, and they’re setting up a model to make it work.

What about high schools? User-generated content could well cover it.

It bears keeping an eye on.

The fascinating part of it for me in a place like Los Angeles is watching how ESPN will use newspapers’ own personnel against them. It already has hired away one of the L.A. Times’ top columnists, J.A. Adande. And Times’ sports columnist Bill Plaschke is a regular on the newtork’s “Around the Horn.” ESPN may have more video options for watching Plaschke than the Times has.

So far, ESPN has limited this outreach to cities where it owns radio stations. Pittsburgh is the only city left where ESPN owns a station and hasn’t launched a local site. And of course, ESPN has radio affiliates in just about every major city.

It bears watching. Everything with ESPN’s brand has instant clout in the sports media. You can ponder the ramifications of how big ESPN’s umbrella is getting, but there’s no question they have an audience for what they’re doing. And I’d say there’s no reason for fans everywhere not to believe you won’t see this coming to a web site near you pretty soon.

For more reading, see this (front-page) story by The New York Times, and this fantastic blog work by Dan Shanoff, which is pretty much a definitive analysis of the situation.

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18 thoughts on “ESPN taking aim at local web sites

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