A new game for ESPN

The cable sports network has had to adapt its offering and communications strategy to reach an even wider audience.

The cable sports network has had to adapt its offering and communications strategy to reach an even wider audience.

On the wall of his office at ESPN's headquarters in Bristol, CT, Chris LaPlaca, the network's SVP of communications, has hanging a 20-year-old picture from a defunct cable-programming magazine portraying a battle of David and Goliath.

In the TV-network-themed photo, David, donning shoulder pads and a helmet with the ESPN logo scrawled across the side, is aiming his slingshot at a three-headed Goliath, also in shoulder pads and helmets, symbolizing ABC, NBC, and CBS. The irony of the photo doesn't escape LaPlaca. "If you draw that picture today, we would be a lot bigger," he concedes. "But those other folks would not necessarily be reduced in size."

LaPlaca keeps the photo up as a reminder, not of how big the company has grown, but rather of the attitude that helped make ESPN one of, if not the, top sports entertainment brands.

"I still bring that mentality with me to work every day because that's all I know," he explains. "I understand our perception externally is different. But I want our team to be hungry every day and thinking about how we can do things a little bit better than the day before and how we can take better advantage of [new] technologies and all of our different products."

That point about optimizing technology and the company's offerings reveals another level of irony within the photo. To fully serve the needs of today's sports fan, ESPN has had to become its own five-headed monster, offering content not only on TV, but also on the Web, radio, mobile devices, and in print. LaPlaca and his staff are aware that despite having six TV channels in the US, the company needs to continually increase its use of new media and its number of consumer touch points.

"Our mantra is to serve fans anywhere, any place, anytime, and through any device," LaPlaca says. "And we've had to adapt as we've grown to [be] a global brand."

LaPlaca has been with ESPN for 27 years, virtually its entire existence, and has seen it grow from a small building and trailer on two acres of land to what is now known simply as "The Campus." Home to 11 buildings, 3,000 employees, and more than 30 satellite dishes varying in size from huge to small, "The Campus" resembles an airport - not just because of its 100 acres, but also because of the amount of construction and expansion taking place. ESPN's two main channels, ESPN and ESPN2, are in 96.2 million and 95.9 million homes in the US, respectively.

Driven by digital

And like other consumer-oriented brands today, ESPN is expanding its reach digitally. To that end, it has launched a number of new Web- and mobile-based services for consumers.

Currently, its primary focus in the space is the relaunch of ESPN360.com, a broadband sports network that will deliver more than 2,000 live sports events in the next 12 months, "more than ESPN and ESPN2 combined," LaPlaca says.

"It's now the home for sports online, and that's how we're positioning it," says Amy Phillips, ESPN director of communications and one of the people helping guide the network's digital push. She says the digital space is a huge priority and "very much integrated into everything we do."

ESPN360.com's new interface allows fans to see a full programming guide of current live events, recent events available for replay, and upcoming events. Paul Melvin, manager of communications at ESPN, who is also aiding the digital advance, says the globalization of sports has created an audience for everything, hence a need for this type of service.

"When you have a UEFA [Union of European Football Associations] under-20 soccer tournament and 50,000 people get on their computer to watch that," Melvin says, "and you extrapolate that out to a small cable network, those numbers start to be of interest. And people clearly want that live content."

In promoting ESPN360.com's relaunch, Phillips says the department spoke to consumer and trade publications about the new strategy, programming, and interface.

But when a company is seemingly everywhere as ESPN is, the media can reach a point where they feel enough is enough. "One of the challenges across our entire department is that sometimes the media we're dealing with don't want to hear about another thing we're doing," Melvin says. "So you have to find that line and temper it and talk to them about things that are of interest to them."

To that end, the PR efforts focused not only on the new strategy and technology, "but we really tried to localize and regionalize the content and messaging," Phillips says. "We really have a lot of opportunities to go into those markets and really show the value of the service by focusing on those events that are significant for any specific market."

Other digital-based services the network offers include its ESPN MVP news and information service, which is available on Verizon and provides users with real-time scores, news, video, personalization features for their favorite teams, and the ability to manage their fantasy teams.

ESPN offers a 24/7 broadcast TV channel on Qualcomm's MediaFLO, providing consumers with sporting events, breaking news, and real-time sports scores and game updates on their mobile phones. Other online shows ESPN has launched this year include the SportsCenter Minute, Fantasy Focus, Countdown Daily, and Fantasy Football Now.

Ubiquity in demand

There's no doubt ESPN gives its consumers what they want, when and where they want it.

But that level of ubiquity has engendered a high level of criticism from many, the most vocal being sports bloggers. However, LaPlaca doesn't believe that ESPN has oversaturated the sports media landscape.

"Fans want it when they want it, so we have to be there with a product for them," he says. "I don't think there's too much, and I know that sounds crazy. And some of the people in the blogosphere think, 'Oh, enough with all of the ESPN stuff!' But you know what - fans, in general, like it."

Utilizing the latest technology to communicate with its consumers and give them the content they want has always been a priority for ESPN.

"The one thing we keep doing is try new things," LaPlaca says. "We do it as a team and as a company. And not all of them work, but many of them do. But one of the hallmarks of our company has been getting on board early with technology and worrying less about the business model, but being ready when the business models emerge."

Visit prweek.com for a Web exclusive on how ESPN deals with its critics.

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