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Across U.S., ESPN Aims to Be the Home Team

By BROOKS BARNES

Published: July 19, 2009

LOS ANGELES " Not content with being a sports colossus with broadcasts in 200 countries, ESPN is taking aim at hometown sports coverage, threatening one of the last strongholds of local newspapers and television stations.

ESPN has long dominated the coverage of national athletics, pumping out news and commentary on every major sport (and some not-so-major ones) via an expanding network of cable channels, Web sites and mobile services.

Now, after a promising test run in Chicago, ESPN is adding local offshoots to three more cities. On Monday, ESPN, which is owned by the Walt Disney Company, plans to announce local Web sites in New York, Los Angeles and Dallas " in what executives say is only the “first inning” of their effort to provide hyperlocal sports coverage in cities across the country.

“We look at this as a perfect example of offering a better product,” said George W. Bodenheimer, co-chairman of Disney Media Networks.

Chicago news outlets, which have some experience competing directly with ESPN, acknowledge that the threat is real.

“We are taking ESPN’s marketing push seriously, and we are looking forward to the local sports turf battle in the weeks and months ahead,” said Bill Adee, The Chicago Tribune’s editor for digital media.

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.

At The Los Angeles Times, which is about to face ESPN head-on, the associate editor, Randy Harvey, said: “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.”

Once ESPN establishes itself in local markets, it plans to move deeper into local sports " down to the high school level and perhaps beyond " by using social networking and other technology to inform its journalism.

Just as CNN offers news from everyday people through its iReport service, ESPN could augment its local coverage by tapping sports fans. Picture fathers uploading scores from their daughters’ soccer games.

“This initiative is perfect for exploring that opportunity,” said Mr. Bodenheimer, who also serves as president of ESPN and ABC Sports.

The company would say only that its costs are “minimal,” using existing resources to expand; in fact, ESPN says it is hiring only about 15 new people for the sites in Dallas, Los Angeles and New York. The Dallas site will start in the fall, the other two early next year.

These moves have challenges, even for a company with pockets as deep as ESPN. Sports fans, loyal to their local newspaper columnists, could balk at the continued march of ESPN across the sports news landscape, and the media giant could easily run afoul of local quirks. Costs also may be difficult to control, and maintaining editorial standards with content supplied by fans might be difficult.

Also, Fox Sports has successful cable networks in several regional markets, but its Web presence is minimal and for the most part does not focus on high schools.

Still, ESPN’s offshoots may hurt native news operations, possibly speeding the flow of fans from print to the Web. Local papers’ sports sections generally do not generate much advertising revenue, but sports news helps keep subscribers loyal.

The New York Daily News and The Dallas Morning News had no comment over the weekend on ESPN’s plans.

Sports also bring a global audience to the Web sites of local papers. ESPN wants those people, who are probably also checking ESPN.com, to stay entirely within its arms.

ESPNChicago.com, introduced on April 13, is the model. The site covers the city’s seven professional teams and sports at nine area colleges, much of it already offered on ESPN’s other platforms. Plans are afoot to expand coverage to area high schools.

There is also a focus on pickup leisure sports. Organizing a neighborhood softball league? ESPN Chicago has a tool to help. The site’s coverage, from news wires and ESPN staff, is augmented by original reporting from a local team of editors, columnists and bloggers " some of them familiar to sports fans from their previous work at The Chicago Sun-Times and the local NBC affiliate.

The site also offers a daily Chicago edition, three to six minutes long, of its flagship “SportsCenter” program.

“Huge” is how Stacey Woelfel, chairman of the Radio Television News Directors Association, described the potential threat to TV stations, in part because their Web presence in sports “tends to be fairly weak.”

ESPN, of course, is going after local ad dollars, as well as readers. Chicago Lincoln-Mercury dealers, Hilton Hotels of Chicago, MillerCoors and Hawthorne Race Course have been among ESPN Chicago’s advertisers.

A national sports brand that’s dedicated to your local market? It hasn’t really been seen before,” said Ray Elias, marketing director for ****, the ticket resale marketplace and an early partner with ESPN Chicago.

Although local advertising in print, radio and television has plunged in recent years " led by a drop in spending from car dealerships " online advertising is growing. The Kelsey Group, which studies local media, values the local online ad market at about $16 billion and expects it to double by 2013.

John Kosner, ESPN’s digital media chief, played down the competitive threat posed by his company’s plan. “You’ve got outstanding newspapers and television stations that have been in these markets forever and have strong followings,” he said. “Our presence will be additive.”

Mr. Kosner even hinted at collaboration. “It’s not a foregone conclusion that we will be independent” in every market, he said. ESPN already has some content-sharing partnerships with local newspapers.

ESPN, which broadcasts “Monday Night Football,” has looked for a way to go local for years, but the growth potential was always outweighed by the costs of deploying local reporters and ad staffs. Sites that simply aggregated what ESPN was already doing would be quickly dismissed by fans, Mr. Kosner said.

To address the costs, ESPN is building off its radio stations’ Web sites. The company owns five stations " in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Pittsburgh " and counts more than 350 others as affiliates.

“We decided to take those sites, set up to service the station, and turn them on their ear to service the consumer,” said Jim Pastor, senior vice president of the ESPN Radio Station Group.

Localization will not pad ESPN’s bottom line anytime soon. But it could turn into a significant growth engine over time.

“Efforts like this might not sound so meaningful,” said Michael Morris of UBS. “But if this area takes off, and ESPN’s success record is astounding, it could really add up in a hurry.”

From The NyTimes:

2009/07/20

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