ESPN Pursues Local Sports Coverage Online

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I met my buddy David Fine nearly 25 years ago, when the two of us came up as swimmers at the New Canaan YMCA here in southwestern Connecticut.
Dave, more than I, would form part of a core group of guys that would emerge as one of the state's elite men's teams about a decade later, as a group of 16- to 18-year-olds - from New Canaan as well as surrounding towns - peaked late in high school under the direction of an insanely dedicated coach, Rich. The club would send more than one swimmer to what was popularly known as the "Junior Olympics," including a relay team.
We practiced from 5:20 to 7 a.m. every weekday morning, and then again from about 3 to 6 p.m. every week night, with a grueling 6 to 9 a.m. practice on Saturdays, for which Ludeman saved his most sinister set creations. That schedule held for all but a handful of weeks out of the year, with even more intense practices book-ending holidays.
We were, for our age and in our sport, an elite athletic team. We swam under the umbrella of the YMCA system - part of U.S.S. Swimming - rather than on a high school team, because the public schools' swimming program in our part of the state simply wasn't competitive.
Yet swimming was just swimming back then. The high school sports that drew the most interest from boosters and the press were football, lacrosse and hockey.
The local paper, the New Canaan Advertiser, did not cover our team, and it was difficult even to get a friend from school to come watch a meet. (My parents stopped going at some point, too.)
That's part of what made it so thrilling, last year, for me to attend a few high school swim meets - Dave is now an assistant coach of the team - and to see hundreds of spectators in the stands and dozens of athletes competing in the pool. For the first time in decades, New Canaan bested Greenwich, a town three times its size, for the county title, and then went on to dominate at the state level.
With a large demographic of kids coming up through the system, a swimming program poised for growth and infinitely more interest in the sport, news coverage of the team also increased exponentially.
Yet it isn't clear, as newspapers such as the Advertiser hemorrhage advertising dollars to the Web and the papers themselves become more "regionalized" - a pleasant word for the scaling back of editorial staff and local coverage - what the future holds for news coverage on town or even county levels.
An interesting article in today's Sports Business Journal looks at how one U.S. sports media behemoth - ESPN - is starting to address the shortfall.
The article, by Eric Fisher, tracks ESPN's pursuit of local sports coverage through sub-Web sites - first in Chicago and now in Boston, with is next on the list.
"The initiative in part seeks to exploit the gap in locally driven sports coverage created by the historic and ongoing economic woes of the newspaper industry and the resulting reduction of content," Fisher reports. "To that end, has been greeted with some early success: Its tally of more than 700,000 unique visitors and 1.7 million minutes of time spent on the site in July was up 19 percent from June on both counts and up 87 percent in audience size from May, according to comScore."
Make no mistake - what ESPN is pursuing is designed to replace the "old" local newspaper coverage system, and it is.
According to comScore, the average number of unique visitors to the ESPN Chicago site for May, June and July (555,000) was more than the averages for the sports sites of the Chicago Tribune (424,000) or Chicago Sun-Times (256,000), Fisher reports.
Specifically, the "local" ESPN sites will offer a heavily localized "SportsCenter" airing, as well as locally driven social media functions - in addition to radio streaming from local ESPN affiliates and, as noted, a heavy emphasis on local pro, college and high school teams.
ESPN President George Bodenheimer recently described his company as "extremely bullish" on the effort.
"We've definitely been encouraged by the success in Chicago to date and see this as something really important going forward," he said.
The company has a sound business model.
As Fisher notes, revenue for the local sites has largely come through local and national brand ad sales.
"Typical of ESPN's sales strategy, most of the buys have had some type of integrated element, blending some mixture of radio, online display, audio and video insertion, podcasts, and, in some cases, on-site activation," he reports. "Local subscription offerings and other such premium-content elements are not currently in the mix."
And expenses are down, because ESPN isn't reinventing entirely new Web sites when it launches in a local market.
As someone whose roots in journalism are in newspapers, I fear for reporters who already are losing out in the local market to Internet coverage. But hopefully ESPN's model will succeed enough, and generate enough money in ad sales, to expand editorial staffs and hire the reporters who have been working local sports beats for years. The historical knowledge and contacts that those professionals make are unique.
Who knows, but that in a few years the sports media giant won't launch a Greater New York site that has a special tab for New Canaan swimmers.
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This page contains a single entry by Michael Dinan published on September 14, 2009 2:44 PM.

Stealing Sports Programming through Cable, Satellite or IPTV: Ongoing, International was the previous entry in this blog.

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