You know the world has changed when ESPN launches a phone and Budweiser launches a Web site full of content. But we live in strange times.
It's no secret that ESPN has grand designs on being known as the "worldwide leader in sports." It is, after all, their slogan. And sports fans, those staunchly dedicated people, are probably one of the most attractive demographics in the world. Take, for instance, ESPN Zone, the brand's chain of eateries. Take no offense P&G, but I can't imagine a similar wait for a table at Charmin: The Restaurant.
The sports channel ascended in the mid-90s with a nearly flawless mix of sports commentary and irreverent pop culture. It was the first television entity to truly nationalize sports beyond key games and five-minute wrap-ups, finding athletics to be an engagement perfect for the medium. It signed deals and brokered agreements. It soared past whatever tried to compete with it.
But ESPN's hold on the sway of sporting fans both young and old is showing fissures. And the network's problems involve both traditional and new media issues.
Through the past football season, the company suffered through multiple acts of indiscretion from its former athlete talking heads, including questionable comments and personal conduct decisions. Those looking for information about those incidents, however, had to find the truth- or what appeared to be the truth- on blogs and the proverbial impropriety tracker, TheSmokingGun.com. ESPN, appearing hubristic, said little.
One such blog, Deadspin.com, has gotten a mile and a half out of the unhappy news coming out of ESPN. Deadspin, like many blogs, derives much of its strength from the commenters it attracts. So it would be one thing if the editor of one blog harped on the peccadilloes of a market leader, but you can sense the frustration with the "leader" in the comments the blog attracts.
Perhaps sensing the value in two-way communications, ESPN decided that its Web site was lacking in a comments function. Even though major media organizations have stumbled in the past to get new-media-ized (Washington Post, anyone?), ESPN launched a beta conversation, choosing to trial it on its most polarizing columnist's big Super Bowl write-up. As soon as Deadspin found it, the readers of the blog flocked to ESPN.com to effectively dismantle the experiment before it could begin. All of the issues of the past year that ESPN mostly brushed aside came streaming back, unofficially sanctioned by the company by appearing on its Web site. It didn't matter whether ESPN wanted to talk or not, the community was having its own conversation. It is safe to say that the comment moderator, assigned to weed out the profane or improper, didn't see the stampede coming. The company ended the comments experiment on its opinion pieces, but still allows them on news articles.
ESPN is, by no stretch of the imagination, in financial jeopardy, but it is under some duress from the upstarts in the sports coverage world. Thankfully, the network has the benefit of hefty exclusive contracts with sporting leagues, so no one, save for the networks, should be able to usurp its live sporting events coverage. But those exclusive deals are going to be ESPN's only value-add if doesn't acknowledge that the people want more transparency about the organization. Maybe the monolith can't get into the new media component of the sports equation. That's fine. But ESPN can no longer assume that because it doesn't talk about something, the conversation ceases.
What goes online is a regular column by PRWeek news editor/PRWeek.com editor Keith O'Brien