As beleaguered newspapers and television stations across the country shed reporters and pull back on coverage, sports powerhouse ESPN is aiming to hit into the yawning gap.
On Monday, ESPN announced that it would launch localized websites in Los Angeles, New York and Dallas within a year to showcase sports teams, including the Dodgers and Lakers, that draw legions of loyal fans. The rollout follows a successful pilot project in Chicago, which has generated a robust online audience in less than four months of operation.
The Walt Disney Co. network's strategy is to draw on its ESPN brand and vast resources -- including its marquee "SportsCenter" show and its ESPN radio stations and personalities -- to provide stories, analysis and game highlights that can be accessed online or with wireless devices such as cellphones.
"We can make a strong case for local advertisers and super-serve local sports fans," said Marc Horine, ESPN's vice president for digital partnerships, who has led the project. "We think this is a really smart way to pull all of our resources together."
Horine said ESPN's goal was not necessarily to invade the turf of newspapers, local TV stations or even traditional television rivals Fox Sports and cable giant Comcast Corp., which each own regional sports networks.
Others weren't so sure.
"Around the country you have communities where the local newspaper is going out of business, but people are still interested in local sports, particularly a significant portion of the men," said Mike Vorhaus, a top executive with media consulting firm Frank N. Magid Associates. "So people are going to try to fill the vacuum, and that seems to be what ESPN is doing."
John Kosner, general manager of ESPN Digital Media, summed it up this way: "Online, everyone competes with everyone."
In the future, localized ESPN websites could provide high school sports scores, game highlights and athlete profiles -- coverage that once was the bastion of newspapers. In late 2007, ESPN bought the high school sports media company that owned Rise magazine and turned it into ESPN Rise, which now includes a website profiling high school athletes.
Metropolitan daily papers and television stations in larger cities have been struggling to keep up with the bounty of high school teams in their region or bring in the ad dollars necessary to support ambitious coverage of prep sports. The problem has become more pronounced in recent years as papers and TV stations have eliminated staff members amid a steep downturn in advertising revenue.
ESPN declined to discuss its budget or financial goals for its new ventures.
The company plans to hire about a dozen people to help run the websites. It expects to unveil the Dallas site in October, and sites dedicated to Los Angeles and New York are expected to launch during the first half of 2010.
ESPN is targeting the largest media markets, in which they also own a sports radio station. John Ireland, a talk show host on ESPN-AM (710) in Los Angeles, will also be featured on the website, but ESPN executives declined to say whether their most popular radio hosts, such as Colin Cowherd and morning duo Mike Golic and Mike Greenberg, would cross over.
There will be a three- to six-minute "SportsCenter" wrap-up program on the local websites, and the company has other rights in its arsenal. ESPN-AM takes over the radio broadcast rights to the Lakers next season, allowing other coverage opportunities. ESPN opened a West Coast studio this year at L.A. Live, across the street from Staples Center. The radio station also has rights to USC Trojan games.
"Having a 24/7 radio operation in these cities gives us a point of differentiation," Kosner said, adding that Los Angeles' large Latino population offered opportunities to expand ESPN's Spanish-language coverage. "We can bring something new to the equation, and sports fans will ultimately benefit."