SBJ SMT: Who Owns the Local Fan?

Local sports seems to be the new frontier for content companies and advertisers alike. At Sports Business Journal’s Sports Media Technology Conference this week in New York, executives from companies that focus on local sports coverage took the stage to discuss the growth in their business, the paradox of breaking news, and how ESPN’s local initiative has affected the marketplace.

“When you have the ESPN brand come in, people start to pay attention,” said SB Nation Chairman/CEO Jim Bankoff, opining that ESPN’s entrance into the market has been nothing but positive. “It’s helpful to have someone plowing the way so that we can all grow the industry together. What may have seemed threatening [the entrance of ESPN into the market] was actually a good thing.”

Not everyone, however, was aboard the ESPN welcome wagon.

“It made my life much more difficult,” said Tim Murphy, VP/GM of WEEI-AM/FM Boston. “It created a much richer pool for journalism in the local market. Good writers in town suddenly had much more leverage, and it’s become much more competitive to get good journalists. One outcome is the revival of quality of talent in the market in terms of journalism. Another is advertising. By having critical mass amongst all of us, they will accelerate the pace at which they learn how to buy local, regional spots.”

A Rising Local Tide
ESPN, however, is cheering for all the local players to succeed.

“The local Internet marketplace is a very underdeveloped marketplace,” explained Jim Pastor, SVP of ESPNLocal.com. “There is a marketplace to be had, but a lot of the traditional marketers that may have been involved in local TV are not that sophisticated when it comes to digital. We need to establish credibility going out in a unified front and create those opportunities that get them excited. That is a big challenge for us right now.”

Bleacher Report CEO Brian Grey believes that local reports can extend to national platforms. “We can take the scale of Bleacher Report into national bodies. They can still sell local, and we can extend our reach and our platform through those local relationships.”

Unlikely Competition
Some of the challenges to the local sports market have come from the teams themselves, which have become media outlets in their own right.

“This whole business has changed dramatically in the last 15 years,” said Jeff Price, president/publisher of The Sporting News. “The teams have become their own media, with the Patriots going directly to their fan base, for example. Without the teams [involved in this conversation], you are missing a core component of the struggle.”

Official team sites do provide a great deal of utility to fans, Pastor explained, but they struggle with objectivity, as it is difficult for a team staff member to be critical of his or her own players.

“It’s really important for us to be authentic to sports fans,” Pastor said. “We’re not a show for any team. On the ESPN side, we could have been an aggregator for a lot of content from Bristol[, CT], but we decided to have 90% of our original content originate from each market, and the rest is custom-developed from Bristol for each of the original sites. Sports fans will see through anything that’s not authentic.”

Beyond Breaking the News
While local sports sites focus on remaining authentic and relevant to the fans of that particular market, breaking news is not always their top priority.

“We’re not so wrapped up in the premium around breaking news,” Grey said. “When news breaks, we can swarm around those stories with a pretty wide swath of reporters, no matter how it gets out there. Today, there are plenty of sources out there, and people are increasingly oriented towards headlines and less towards bylines.”

For markets outside of the five where ESPN Local has set up shop – Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, and New York – the good/bad news is that ESPN has no plans to expand its local footprint.

“We have no firm plans to do any more than the original five,” Pastor said. “I am privately thrilled that we are focusing on those core five. There’s a lot of work to do on both the advertiser and user side when you are essentially developing a startup in five different cities.”