ESPN will hire bloggers to cover every NFL team, Rob King confirmed by phone Monday afternoon. “If you’re going to place a bet anywhere, place it on the NFL,” said King, ESPN’s senior vice president for content, digital & print media.
Jason McIntyre reported last June that ESPN planned the hires, but ESPN wouldn’t comment. Monday John Keim announced he was leaving The Washington Post to cover the Redskins for ESPN, and news broke earlier this month that Mike Wells had left the Indianapolis Star for the sports giant.
ESPN already has local sites that cover sports in New York, Chicago, Boston, Dallas and Los Angeles, as well as blogs that cover individual NFL conferences. “Everyone’s staying on,” said King, who is a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board. All in all, ESPN planned 19 new hires, King said, and the network has decisions or offers out on all but three spots.
Most of the operations will be one-person, but they will be bolstered by editors and producers who will work to move these bloggers’ work across platforms. ESPN has an “editing system that encourages sharing,” he said. By way of example, he said he has “every expectation” that Keim, whose job will involve covering Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, “will be seen across a number of platforms across the year.”
“Our hope is that it will be there during the preseason,” King said of ESPN’s NFL team. But, he added, “there’s a remote possibility we won’t have all 32 on Day One of the season.” ESPN launched its Boston site in September 2009, and the late start didn’t hurt, King said.
The idea is basically to give fans more content about the teams they obsess over, King said. ESPN.com Editor-in-Chief Patrick Stiegman looked at the site’s data for how much time users spent on the top 100 teams it covered. Of the 32 teams at the top of that list, 31 were NFL teams.
The Jacksonville Jaguars were the only NFL team that didn’t make that list, King said, but he said ESPN decided to cover all the teams anyway. Had ESPN made a selective foray into more intense local coverage last year — a move he said it considered — it might have skipped covering the Indianapolis Colts, he said. “We would have been absolutely wrong,” he said, citing Andrew Luck’s fantastic 2012 and coach Chuck Pagano’s battle with cancer. “Who’s to say they couldn’t have an incredible season?” King said of the Jaguars.
For many daily papers, NFL coverage counts among their biggest sources of online traffic. To compound the threat, ESPN’s coverage will be available for free, just as many local newspapers are embracing paywalls.
“At the end of the day we have to be better than anyone else and that’s our mindset,” Indianapolis Star Sports Director Ronnie Ramos said in a phone call with Poynter. “I’m confident that our staff will do a better job day in and day out and break more stories and set the standard, so you know we’ll pay attention [to ESPN], but I’m not worried.” The Star has two full-timers assigned to the Colt’s beat — the team is “our No. 1 driver of sports content,” he said, noting that the paper plans to replace Wells.
King said ESPN’s motivation is not eating dailies’ lunch; it’s more a matter of filling the “buckets of content” fans expect when they register with the site and say what their favorite teams are.
“We’re not doing that because we’re trying to compete or invade anybody’s market,” he said. “We just feel like the way we build stuff now drives us to getting to this level of coverage.”