In Chicago, ESPN Tries Local Coverage on for Size
By Carolyn Braff
Being a sports fan is, to some extent, an exercise in geographical loyalty, and this week, the nation’s largest sportscaster announced plans to dip into the waters of that local loyalty — the Chicago River, to be specific. In April, ESPN will launch ESPNChicago.com, a Website dedicated exclusively to Chicago sports.
“Our goal is not to talk at Chicago sports fans but to talk with them,” explains Marc Horine, VP of digital partnerships for ESPN digital Media. “We want to provide a tool that Chicago sports fans can use to communicate with each other and communicate with us. We want to build a really strong, robust application that evolves and grows, that Chicago sports fans see as a destination where they can get anything and everything Chicago sports.”
Building Out a Local Base
For local sports coverage to succeed, the media outlet must be seen as part of the community, and having already spent 10 years embedded in the Chicago market, ESPN is well equipped to do just that. ESPN’s AM radio station, WMVP, has been building a footprint in Chicago for a decade, as has the Website associated with it. Prior to launch, ESPNChicago.com will tap into that network to fill its staff with local talent.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel here; we’re already there in Chicago,” Horine says. “We feel that we’ve done a great job of embracing the Chicago sports fan and the local communities, and the new site is a logical extension of that.”
Chicago-native ESPN columnists Gene Wojciechowski (a former sportswriter for the Chicago Tribune) and Scoop Jackson will contribute content for ESPNChicago.com, as will WMVP radio personalities Tom Waddle and Bruce Levine, along with other ESPN contributors.
All of the tools and applications built on ESPN.com will be available for the Chicago portal, but the top feature currently set to debut on the new site is a daily Chicago-specific version of SportsCenter.
“We’re going to produce a daily, custom, Chicago SportsCenter, and we’re really excited about that,” Horine says. “We’re fortunate because we have the radio station there in Chicago, so we have some facilities, but the actual video production will be done in Bristol and Los Angeles.”
The daily three- to five-minute video segment — currently the only video scheduled to run on the site — will be produced in ESPN’s existing production facilities, as there are no plans to build a production facility in Chicago just yet.
As on ESPN.com, there are opportunities for fan photo submissions and limited video contributions, and the ESPNChicago.com team is moving towards a wider rollout of those capabilities as the site gets closer to launch.
Ready for the Rights Buy
WMVP’s history in the marketplace means that ESPNChicago.com will have a jump on rights-gathering, since the station already owns some local rights. Partnering with Chicago’s regional sports networks is also a possibility, but Horine says that, when it comes to content, his team is still in the brainstorming process.
“We’re not going in with all of the answers,” he says. “We’re going in to build this thing and create a unique and compelling destination that might include local rights and might not. We haven’t quite gotten there yet.”
A Portal, Not Just a Website
In addition to putting content on a new Website, the ESPNChicago.com initiative will provide local sports fans with a portal to ESPN’s other digital ventures. Topping that list is access to ESPNRise.com, the network’s high-school–sports site that launched last summer. The site has team rankings and social-networking opportunities for young athletes, and, given ESPN’s dominance of the professional and college sports scene, it’s no surprise that high school is the next market to tackle. With a local presence in the Chicago market, tapping into that market will be more meaningful than ever.
Social networking will also be a part of ESPNChicago.com, through the network’s ESPN Fan Profiles online community. The tools embedded in that application allow Chicago fans to create localized groups around not just favorite players and teams but recreational sports and social activities. ESPNShop.com will integrate Chicago sports gear into the site, and an agreement with StubHub will allow one-stop shopping for tickets to Chicago sports events.
The partnership that is perhaps most outside the lines for ESPN is the network’s agreement with Orbitz. Through ESPN Sports Travel Passport, Chicago sports fans can turn to ESPN for help in planning and booking trips to other sports destinations, as well as catalog experiences from past events in Chicago and around the world.
Paying for Innovation
The existing sales team in Chicago will take care of advertising on the site, helped along by MillerCoors, which has already come onboard as the charter advertiser for ESPNChicago.com.
“When ESPN.com was redesigned in January, we built a whole new suite of ad units for the site and created a lot of custom treatments for advertisers,” Horine says. “We’re taking the same technology and ad units that we did for the new ESPN.com and applying them to Chicago, so we have some really exciting, engaging, impactful ad units for our sellers to get out on the street and talk about.”
One City at a Time
Although the logical reaction to ESPN’s move to Chicago is to ask where the network’s next stop might be, Horine says the company is taking its trip down the local line one stop at a time.
“This is kind of an incubator for us,” Horine explains. “Getting involved in the local space is something that we feel is important, and we’re really excited about it, but we have no plans to move beyond Chicago today. In a tough economic climate, it’s exciting that the company is supporting something like this.”