Thursday, September 17, 2009

In My Humble Opinion

I think the jury is still out on these "ESPN Local" sites.  ESPN has certainly been pleased with the success of ESPNChicago, which launched in the late spring. Over the summer, in the first few months after launch, the Chicago site averaged 555,000 unique viewers, more than the number of unique viewers to the Chicago Tribune or Chicago Sun-Times on-line sports pages (424,000 and 256,000, respectively).

In principle, I think ESPN has made a shrewd marketing decision here in attempting to fill the power vacuum currently being left by local newspapers and news stations.  Newspapers have been digging themselves into a hole for a decade now, and ESPN's quick rise in the local market, if isolated to one or two cities at this point, speaks to that decline.  To average just shy of half the market share in just three months is staggering - and the number of unique viewers continues to grow (700,000 to ESPNChicago in July). How much contempt for their own product do newspapers have?  At least the Sun-Times doesn't have that "rat" Jay Mariotti around anymore.  

The early success of ESPNChicago certainly speaks to ESPN as a brand, even if they are trying to cater to a local audience by luring local writers and reporters and securing local advertising to these sites.  By virtue of name recognition, ESPN can certainly draw viewers to these pages.

As the previous post noted, ESPNBoston is the latest in this venture, soon to be followed by Dallas, Los Angeles, and New York editions.  As someone who lives near the city, I will be following the success of ESPNNew York closely when it launches in a few months.  To me, the success of the New York site may dictate the ultimate direction of this project.  New York is the largest city of them all - it will be tougher to compete for market share there - with a total of nine local professional teams.  Moreover, New York already has well-established outlets for sports-related discussion: WFAN, the Post, the Daily News, etc.  ESPN Radio has never been able to compete with WFAN, and despite the FAN's downturn in the last two years, I would expect it to remain comparatively successful and the go-to station.  

Considering that local coverage is as poor as it is, I hope ESPN goes beyond just its brand name here.  I won't measure its success in page views, but rather whether it can replace suffering local institutions with substantive commentary.  If it can't, kudos to them on a wise business decision, but this venture should be about more than proving how many people can recognize the brand.


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