With ESPN poised to launch local sites in New York, Los Angeles and Dallas, station executives in those markets are inverting an old adage: If you can't join 'em, beat 'em.
“I see it two ways: either they're formidable competition or we discuss the possibilities for partnership,” says WFAA Dallas President/General Manager Mike Devlin. “We certainly have a fairly large sports staff.”
ESPN's entry into those markets could not come at a worse time for the stations there. Staffs nationwide have been downsized and sports reports have been shrinking for years, as stations concede scores and highlights to ESPN's iconic SportsCenter and ESPN.com.
“You don't want them in your market,” says one general manager whose market is not yet being targeted by ESPN. “What's so scary is that they're such a trusted brand that they'll get eyeballs no matter what they do.”
Station executives were reluctant to speak about competing with ESPN, as reps from CBS, Fox and NBC did not comment on how ESPN might shake up the landscape in markets where they own stations.
Local TV outlets nationwide have increasingly found their niche in high school sports. ESPN has thus far had a limited presence there, but has expressed interest in boosting its teen coverage on the local sites.
ESPN is hiring about a dozen staffers for the sites, relying heavily on its local radio personnel. That may be a relief to station brass. “If you're going to be at the high school level, you have to talk to the teams, the coaches,” says one general manager. “You have to have relationships.”
ESPN launched ESPNChicago.com in April. A Dallas site is to launch in the fall, and New York and L.A. debut in 2010. ESPN is initially launching in markets where it owns a radio station, and may seek additional local partners. Because they share the same parent company, the ABC-owned stations in New York and Los Angeles are logical teammates, though there's been minimal synergy between WLS and ESPNChicago.com thus far. (WLS has a small box of links on ESPNChicago's homepage.) ABC does not own a station in Dallas.
“It's all very early, but I think we'll explore opportunities with our owned-and-operated stations,” says Jim Pastor, senior VP of ESPN's radio-station group, who did not rule out partnering outside of Disney. “We'll decide where it makes sense.”
Some wonder if ESPN's cozy relationships with the pro leagues will mean better access than what stations get. “I'm curious if they'll be under the same Draconian rules that we are about using video and stills on the Web,” says KDAF Dallas News Director David Duitch, “since they're broadcast partners with those leagues.” (An MLB rep did not comment at presstime and an NFL rep said the ESPN sites are “subject to the same restrictions” as other media outlets. Pastor says the sites comply with the same digital rights rules as ESPN.com.)
ESPN is in the early stages of a major local rollout. Pastor won't say how many sites will follow, but adds that ESPNChicago.com is enjoying a strong rookie season. “We're very encouraged by the results,” he states. “It's clear that sports fans have an appetite for this kind of content.”