Last April, ESPN Chicago debuted with a roster of writers drawn from the ranks of ESPN staffers as well as former Tribune and Sun-Times writers and bloggers, with their efforts supplemented by video tailored for Chicago and audio from ESPN’s local radio station.
Within three months it was the top sports destination in the market, surpassing the Tribune’s sports section. It has since been joined by ESPN Local sites in Boston, Dallas and Los Angeles, with ESPN New York to be rolled out soon.
ESPN’s deep pool of writers and video personalities and its radio network allow the sports colossus to launch local franchises that are impressive out of the box. Their brand name is catnip for beat reporters and columnists who seek national exposure and are worried about newspapers’ prospects. And ESPN can call on its impressive advertising-sales operations to find advertisers either as part of local deals or as part of larger agreements.
The new competition
In these paranoid days, it’s important to note that ESPN didn’t launch its local franchises to wreck local journalism, but because executives saw an ad-sales opportunity. Ultimately, the effect may be the same. Opinions and traffic metrics differ on whether ESPN Local steals readers from existing sites or simply provides an additional destination for sports-hungry fans. Similarly, local ad sales aren’t automatically a zero-sum game. If Miller Brewing Company looks at a city and decides the arrival of ESPN Local justifies increasing its regional ad budget, existing sports-news operations could be OK or even sell more ads.
But that’s far from certain, and local sports outlets should be nervous about the prospect of ESPN Local arriving in their town. The history of newspapers on the Web provides ample warning about what happens when strong new competitors seek your readers and the ad dollars that accompany them. And even the most voracious sports fan ultimately has finite time for Web surfing. Every minute spent on ESPN Local is a minute the local news franchise can’t use to strengthen its own connections with sports fans.
Get a game plan
So you’re a newspaper publisher or sports editor who’s just learned ESPN Local — or any other national sports-media company with expansion on its mind — is coming to your town. What should you do?
While I think sports sections need to be much more aggressive about adapting to the changing expectations of Web audiences, this isn’t the time for a radical rethinking of your site. Rather, look to build on your strengths and natural advantages.
Here’s a five-point plan for meeting the challenges of ESPN Local’s arrival:
1. Take a hard look at your own numbers. Which features are well-read, and which aren’t connecting with readers? Don’t just look at Web visitor counts; you need to think more broadly than that. What articles are getting shared by readers via e-mail and social media? Which writers are getting retweeted? Which columns consistently are a topic of discussion among local sports bloggers?
2. Double-down on your best brands. Think about which assets you can’t lose, such as your star columnist or your beat guy with the best sources or even the previously anonymous editor who’s cultivated a big Twitter following. These are the writers who have become closely identified with your organization and would leave the biggest holes if poached. Focus on building them into Web brands, working to make them destinations in their own right and the centers of loyal reader communities. This is a wise bargain to strike with your best talent: It protects you while showing them you care and offering them a bigger profile.
3. Invest in cross-platform programming. You need to match what ESPN Local will bring to the multimedia table. If you’re not already doing video, start now. (It doesn’t have to be pretty or expensive — timeliness and personality are more important than snazzy production.) If your market has one, find a non-ESPN radio outlet to partner with — and don’t just think about big radio stations. Look to college radio, or have a reader contest to find new voices for podcasts. Keep in mind that this is the ante, not the game: While you don’t necessarily need a huge expenditure up-front, in the coming years multimedia will become more important, not less.
4. Think community. Here, you really do have an incumbent advantage in terms of reader loyalty and physical roots in the community. Make use of it. But don’t just think about chats and comments and things happening on your own site. Community isn’t so easily hemmed in. Make sure your writers aren’t just tweeting but responding to readers through replies and direct messages. Create Twitter Lists that include not just your own writers, but rival writers, local athletes, team officials, bloggers, and dedicated fans. Hold special events locally for Twitter followers and Facebook fans. Listen to what readers say they want and give it to them.
5. Reach out to bloggers. For all the talk of the blog revolution, many local bloggers still crave recognition by established media outlets — and this is another place where your roots can work to your advantage. Beat ESPN to the punch by finding the best local bloggers and either making them part of your site or reaching out to them for coverage, reactions and expert opinion. For an example of a news organization that’s done this well, look at what the Washington Post has done with bloggers in The League, its Huffington Post-style blog about the NFL.
Your town isn’t in ESPN’s sights? That doesn’t matter. This isn’t about Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston and New York, but about Sacramento, Grand Rapids, Charlotte and Baton Rouge. It’s wise to ask, “What would I do if ESPN Local were coming to my town?” while you still have some time to answer the question.
After all, in one sense, ESPN Local already has arrived in your town. It’s just shown up in pieces, through new competition: college sports sites such as Rivals.com, regional cable sports networks that are moving online, team-centric blog networks such as SB Nation and as-yet-unaffiliated blogs by the dozens. All of these sites are new competitors clamoring for your readers’ attention. Protect your turf by playing offense before you find yourself on defense.
(Thanks to Dan Shanoff for his insights and counsel.)