ESPNChicago and the Future of Local Sports Coverage

ESPNChicago launched this week to some mixed reviews — not of its content, which should still be the quality ESPN coverage you’re used to, but it’s existence at all.

Deadspin writer Dashiell Bennett’s wonders why we need this at all. Don’t newspapers already cover this? Isn’t this just “co-opting” what they do? Dan Shanoff, on the other hand, thinks it’s a great idea, wondering (the obvious question) why don’t they do this for all major sports cities?

The thing is, both sides are right. Newspapers have been the go-to for local sports coverage in the big cities for pretty much the entire century. The problem is that not only have newspapers not really improved the way they cover those sports (beyond finally incorporating blogs, which happened about 3 years after they became relevant) but they’re also bleeding money.

The question isn’t why is ESPN suddenly moving in on newspapers “turf,” but why didn’t they do this years ago the way they’ve done with radio and television? ESPN.com launched in 1995 and has been, more or less, in its current form for about the last decade. As maligned as ESPN has been, especially their television product, their web presence has been one of the best destinations for sports information for years. You maybe can get more in-depth analysis elsewhere, but nobody matches ESPN for breadth of content.

Now, I see Dashiell Bennett’s point of “Why Chicago?” because, well, just doing one city seems ridiculous. And it is. But does anybody honestly expect this to stop at Chicago? It is ESPN, after all.

The Boston Globe is dumping cash and could easily be closed down soon. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer had to go online-only. The Miami Herald could go next. As Shanoff brings up, both Chicago papers are unlikely to remain solvent for much longer. There is no dearth of sports writers out there and ESPN is certainly capable of filling in the gaps that these papers might leave were they to go under.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, if and when these newspapers go under or cut their sports coverage in major cities (other than Chicago), there’s really nothing in place to fill that coverage gap. I opined at the time that blogs could potentially fill that gap, especially with things like TrueHoop’s network providing a blueprint for local coverage on a blog-by-blog basis. The only thing missing in that scenario is a measure of legitimacy (and by extention, access) that only backing by a media outlet would quickly provide to writers.

In this scenario, though, the media outlet (ESPN) just provides the writers, too, which probably makes more sense in the end. There are certainly bloggers who do more than their due diligence and are great writers in their own right, but most of them have clark kent jobs and probably aren’t planning on dumping those to cover sports full time, even if some might.

The question I have is what do the papers who are already in these towns do next? Even focusing on just local sports coverage, cutting down on travel budgets, asking for salary concessions, and buying out the most highly paid columnists has hardly led to a sudden rise in profitability for newspapers and, given the amount of debt most are carrying, probably never will.

It’s clear that major cities can support at least two outlets and it’s been difficult, if not impossible, to break into many of these two-paper markets until now. But when an outlet with the cachet of ESPN rolls into town, how can a debt-ridden newspaper hold on to their maket share, let alone compete?

If I was a betting man I’d say you’ll see ESPNChicago hang around for awhile. It’s in a city that has a number of very popular sports franchises that have national followings. It’s also a city whose newspapers are taking major economic hits with sports desks that may not be around much longer. The only thing that would really derail it is if ESPN doesn’t put their full backing behind it. But with the number of Chicago-raised and Chicago-based columnists they already have, I doubt you’ll see a lack of quality which should guarantee a measure of success for the site.

It’s also not hard to see where the next moves for ESPN could be. Dallas papers are in trouble, Miami as well. The NY Times gave up on their Play Magazine not long ago and the Post and Times are both saddled with debt. Boston’s in a similar situation, although WEEI.com is already doing what ESPNBoston would try to do.

LA is an interesting situation as well as ESPN just opened their LA studio and, if an NFL team ever moved back there, they’d be in on the ground floor, not to mention the coverage of other LA pro ballclubs, UCLA and USC.

There are limitless opportunities for expansion here and it wouldn’t cost ESPN much other than some real estate and maybe the loss of some traffic to their national site. It might not make ESPN the “Worldwide Leader” just yet but it’d certainly give them an even better grip on the title as biggest sports media company in the US.

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0 comments

  1. The thing that’s missing from the ESPNChicago model, as far as I can see, is the original material. If I’m a diehard Chicago sports fan, I’m not going to settle for ESPN’s flyover coverage with occasional saturation in a Cutler trade-type moment, even if it is all packaged in one place. I want the minutiae–the daily notes coverage of the Sox, an in-depth position-by-position analysis of the Bears, a look at the Bulls’ cap situation and potentially good-fitting free agents. I want to read features about what Buehrle did to his curveball (or whatever) during the offseason.

    There’s no way ESPN can give me that kind of detail in several major sports cities at once–that would require a massive increase in reporting resources. I agree that ESPN can make this fly for a while based almost solely on its brand power and reach, but it’s going to fizzle out if there’s no real oomph behind it.

  2. Well that’s the question: Will ESPN put the reportorial resources behind this idea? They’ve got a ton of writers beyond their top-level national staff. Their page 2 writers and several of their other guys have lost a bit of their cachet, especially in the last two years as national guys (Simmons, Wojciechowski, Reilly, Olney, etc.) have risen in popularity.

    Many of their writers already have roots in these cities (read: Scoop Jackson’s piece on ESPNChicago specifically) and by becoming more provincial, they could certainly develop a better market following in these cities.

    The key would be seeing enough of an investment opportunity to justify hiring the type of staff you need (beat writers, editors, etc.). I think you could definitely see it, especially as these papers continue to struggle. I think it’ll be more than ESPNChicago just being an aggregate portal for Chicago news that breaks but an opportunity to invest in developing a local bureau.

    Certainly the writers already in these cities would probably jump at the chance to write for ESPN and have a stable future and I think there is more than enough return on investment there for ESPN to justify bringing in the writers, especially since they have so many writers on the main espn.com that get so little coverage as it is. If they go that way, I think fans will benefit, writers will benefit, teams will actually benefit with move coverage, and ultimately ESPN will benefit.

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