ESPN has ridden the rise of satellite and then cable TV to the very top of sports programming, becoming a byword for sports coverage. ESPN hopped on mobile early as well – continuing its trend of embracing new technologies to keep sports front and center for those who don’t just want to know, but need to know.
We looked at how ESPN has evolved from one of the largest traditional media networks, to a publisher with must-have sports apps, and a strong, focused digital strategy.
The Sports Empire
From its founding by Bill and Scott Rasmussen, the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network’s core mission has been to show sports coverage without interruption. When the channel went live on September 7th, 1979 with the very first SportsCenter and a bold promise; “If you love sports…if you really love sports, you’ll think you’ve died and gone to sports heaven.”
A total of 30,000 viewers witnessed that first broadcast, and with the addition of professional basketball and football, the channel took off. Recognizing the success and potential of the network, ABC purchased the channel in 1984, then Walt Disney purchased ABC in 1996,. Under Disney, ESPN continued to expand. In 2016, ESPN has eight U.S. Cable channels, a number of regional and pay subscription channels, and 26 international networks, reaching all seven continents, including Antarctica.
ESPN’s expansion didn’t stop at TV either. The sports empire can be seen on many other ventures such as radio, multiple websites, ESPN The Magazine, event management, and even ESPN “theme parks” inside Walt Disney properties.
According to an analysis published by Barron’s Magazine in February 2008, ESPN “is probably worth more than 40% of Disney’s entire value… based on prevailing cash-flow multiples in the industry.” (Since then, Disney purchased Star Wars, which isn’t exactly a small part of the House of Mouse)
When it comes to apps, ESPN is where sports fans go for news, analysis, and more. In 2016, users spent 4.4 billion minutes on ESPN mobile content. When it comes to streaming, the WatchESPN and ESPN apps chalked up 8.2 million unique devices and 1.8 billion minutes per month.
That type of mobile success doesn’t come from nowhere. Although ESPN’s brand had a solid base to build on, their journey on mobile started very poorly.
False Start on the Offense. Three Year Penalty.
In 2006, according to These Guys Have All The Fun, ESPN presented to the Disney board with the idea for Mobile ESPN – a sports-centric mobile service. Not a phone, not an app, a whole network.
Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs, a member of Disney’s board, did not mince words. “Your phone is the dumbest ******* idea I have ever heard,” Jobs reportedly told George Bodenheimer, ESPN’s president at the time.
Mobile ESPN was an abject failure. The system used the the Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) model to lease excess cellular capacity from Sprint. ESPN built an entire business on creating a wireless service specifically for sports fans. The service required a special phone on which fans could receive score updates, launch GameCast, browse ESPN.com content, and a host of other features. For the privilege of “carrying sports in their pockets,” ESPN expected fans to put out as much as $300 for the phone itself, and from $65 to $225 per month for content.
The phone was clunky as well, even by 2006 standards.
In the days where virtually all phones were contracted and subsidized down to almost free, the upfront price and high monthly fees for content, on top of a minutes and text plan, the plan failed to find an audience. According to BusinessWeek, ESPN spent $150 million on the Mobile ESPN project, including $30 million on a Super Bowl ad.
Less than a year after Steve Jobs eviscerated the idea, ESPN shut down the project.
Learning from Failure
Rather than being a total failure, Mobile ESPN gave the company a leg up on its competitors, such as Fox Sports, when the app ecosystem exploded onto the scene three years later with the Apple App Store and later Google Play.
Mobile ESPN featured push notifications before anyone knew what to call them, background app refresh, dedicated apps for browsing news and updates, reading articles, watching video highlights, and even streaming live games; all on your phone. Sound familiar?
In 2009, the year Apple debuted iOS 2.0 and launched the App Store, ESPN launched a slew of apps, starting with the ESPN ScoreCenter, which was downloaded over 4.5 million times. People loved it. Other launches included including ESPN Radio, ESPN World Cup, ESPN Fantasy Football, and more.
By 2014, ESPN’s enthusiasm for apps had gotten the better of it.
The network had 45 different apps, which led to fans having to figure out exactly which app they wanted. News from the SportsCenter app? How about the WatchESPN app for live streaming? What about a dedicated sport or regional app for other news and clips? Or one of the number of other apps targeting fantasy leagues and specific sports?
Since then though, ESPN’s digital team has worked hard to prune unnecessary branches from the control ecosystem they created. In 2015, the SportsCenter app was renamed to simply ESPN, incorporating many of the fragmented apps’ features into one place. The website was redesigned, and the company is down to just seven iOS apps and 11 Android apps.
This more streamlined approach has helped ESPN’s apps flourish once again. In 2016, an average of 69.3 million unique users opened an ESPN app per month.
With a strong dedication to usability, ESPN’s team has made sure that everyone can use its apps, regardless of their technical acumen. The user experience is also customized based on his/her geographic region – Indian users see cricket information, Europeans see the latest soccer news, and so on. ESPN has even embraced wearables, including the Apple Watch, as a faster way to view notifications of ongoing games.
Ryan Spoon, ESPN’s SVP of Product Development, characterized this new approach as “doing fewer things, better.” ESPN’s goal is summed up very simply – fewer apps, more screens.
By The Numbers – ESPN 2016
- 69.3 million unique mobile users on average
- 4.4 billion minutes with ESPN mobile content
- Up 7% and equal compared to 2015
- 85.4 million uniques in a September high
- 8.2 million unique devices and 1.8 billion minute streamed per month through WatchESPN and the ESPN app
- 32% share of minutes in the sports app category
- 64.3 million unique visitors per month to ESPN.com
Focused on the Future of Mobile
In an interview with Nieman, ESPN’s vice president and editorial director for domestic digital content, Chad Millman, put the company’s dedication to mobile in positive, stark, terms – “If we’re thinking about anything else, we’re failing the audience.”
At its core, ESPN is a company of sports fanatics. It was founded by sports fanatics, and it’s always been run by sports fanatics. More than perhaps any other media company, ESPN knows its viewers and users because they’re one in the same.
This understanding of the need for constant updates and the almost permanent attachment to smartphones led the sports giant to jump the gun with the Mobile ESPN cellphone network. However, with experience and a new strategy, ESPN successfully translated its sports dominance from traditional media to the world of mobile.
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