Since ESPN started launching local sports sites in a handful of large markets, it’s always been curious why it stopped there. Talk about a fastball down the middle: if newspapers are cutting sports coverage and ESPN has a bottomless budget, why wouldn’t it expand into at least the top 10 or 15?
Why is there no ESPNAtlanta.com or ESPNHouston.com? The online sports sections of the main papers in each town have a design best described as utilitarian, while video pales beside ESPN. Additonally, the sports on the Web sites of just the CBS stations aren't any more exciting.
Another problem: getting to the sports takes at least an extra click. Go to an ESPNAtlanta.com and a colorful story about the hometown Braves would scream with an accompanying point-and-click video.
As its stands, ESPN operates sites in the three largest markets – New York, L.A. and Chicago – along with ones in Dallas (fifth) and Boston (seventh). The sites are essentially a local sports newspaper, but with compelling video, including locally produced versions of “SportsCenter.”
In all but Boston, ESPN also owns radio stations in the markets, so it has a local sales force. Perhaps establishing one in an Atlanta or Houston would be a hindrance, but the ESPN radio affiliates there would surely jump at the chance to strike a partnership.
Perhaps ESPN considers it too expensive to hire the right talent. Strike that. It seems to pluck a top writer from a top paper every day.
General start-up costs? Seemingly modest. There's a video production machine in place. And, it’s not like it has to set up a printing press.
Is it possible – even with the relentless promotion ESPN gives the sites – that they are not doing as well as ESPN thought? Has ESPN had trouble establishing itself as a local brand?
Regardless, there have been suggestions ESPN misjudged the value of the lucrative regional sports networks (RSNs) as they were being established and mistakenly stayed out of the business. Investing further in the local sports online business – which is still evolving -- would seem to be a no-brainer.
As it stands now, the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Houston Chronicle have to be thankful that ESPN has not encroached. At some level,l it has thought about it. It owns the ESPNAtlanta.com and ESPNHouston.com domain names.
As ESPN stands on the sidelines, it became apparent this week that Gannett, with its fledgling USA Today Sports Media Group, wants to be a leader in local sports Web-work. (NBC Sports could also ramp up with sites linked with the10-plus RSNs it operates.)
As ESPN has tried to use its brand to establish a local .com presence in five markets, Gannett thinks it has a similar opportunity to funnel down with USA Today -- a brand that once held tremendous cachet in sports.
“We believed we had an opportunity to elegantly integrate local and national content in ways that others had tried to, but only failed to, before,” said Tom Beusse, the head of the USA Today group, speaking about its founding.
“Everybody who isn’t local wants to be local … ," he added. "Patch is desperately trying to become the new local. ESPN in the sports space is trying to crop dust into local from national and figure out how to get in there, none of them terribly effectively.”
Beusse noted Gannett has USA Today, but also 23 local TV stations, 82 daily newspapers and HighSchoolSports.net. It has a presence in 24 of 30 Major League Baseball markets and every SEC one.
The plan is to use USA Today content and bring it into the Detroits and Rochesters on multiple platforms -- including, yes, papers -- while using Gannett’s local content (such as coverage of Detroit Red Wings) to make USA Today a much more powerful national platform.
Beusse calls it a “virtuous circle.”
Gannett has recently boosted sports traffic by acquiring MMA Junkie and Big Lead Sports. Soon, it will re-launch HighSchoolSports.net with plans to establish a robust broadcast presence.
Beusse was speaking to investors, so while his vision made sense, his enthusiasm might have been a bit ambitious. ESPN has its own versions of virtuous circles, while there are many players producing high school sports content on multiple platforms.
By one figure, ESPN dominates online ad revenue in the sports space with $150 million (2010). Even as the arena grows, it will take Gannett and USA Today a long time to get come even close.
As ESPN has found, there is an insatiable desire for sports content and if much of it will be consumed on digital platforms, why isn't the worldwide leader going more local?
Certainly, fans in Atlanta and Houston starved for championships would be a captive audience.