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The launch a month ago of ESPN Chicago, a Web site for sports fanatics in the Windy City, has the potential to set off a digital war in regional sports as the existing stalwarts with local sports networks, Fox (NWS) and Comcast (CMCSA), prepare to fend off ESPN. Fox is launching new Web sites while Comcast is upping investment in its local sports sites, including expanded coverage. "I feel confident," says Jon Litner, president of the Comcast Sports Group. "That's because we've always been about local and we work where we live."
ESPN executives say they have no plans at this time to roll out more local Web sites. But it really seems like a no-brainer for the sports media giant because it can pull off that strategy with minimal new investment.
Fans can't seem to get enough sports online. Of 192 million unique visitors to the Internet in March, sports sites attracted about 80 million of them, according to Web tracker comScore (SCOR). The leading sites were Yahoo! Sports (YHOO), with 26 million visitors, followed by ESPN with 21 million.
In Chicago, ESPN is using editorial content from its local AM radio station, WMVP—aka ESPN 1000—as well as from the ABC affiliate there, WLS-TV. (ESPN and ABC are both owned by Walt Disney (DIS).) Anchors from ESPN's operations in Los Angeles and Bristol, Conn., do Chicago-centric video that is streamed as a Chicago SportsCenter and a local Baseball Tonight program on the site. ESPN.com writers are tapped to do Chicago-focused stories for the site and ESPN's existing Chicago multiplatform advertising sales team is selling ads for the site. The advertisers are a mix of national and local businesses, ranging from StubHub and MillerCoors to Chicagojobs.com and Binnys Beverage Depot.
ESPN's legacy Web offering in Chicago—the WMVP Web site, with much leaner offerings—is now part of the larger ESPN Chicago site. ESPN also owns radio stations in New York, Dallas, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles, where it might be able to replicate the Chicago model. In addition, the company has more than 300 affiliate stations.
Since its launch, ESPN Chicago has logged nearly 5 million page views from more than 1 million visitors, says John Kosner, ESPN's senior vice-president and general manager of digital media. Kosner says the traffic is exceeding initial audience projections for the site by 300%.
"The whole idea here is to superserve Chicago sports fans," Kosner says. "And they are passionate, so that's one big reason why we decided to launch a trial there. We can take our infrastructure from our newly redesigned ESPN.com and deliver it on a modular basis in Chicago."
The launch couldn't have come at a better time, with baseball season starting, the Bulls and the Blackhawks in the playoffs, and quarterback Jay Cutler being traded to the Chicago Bears. "And then, of course, there is the First Fan himself—Barack Obama—being so passionate about Chicago sports," says Kosner.
Those who follow the sports business say such a move was inevitable. "This is just another way that ESPN is extending its brand," says Neal Pilson, owner of sports media consultancy Pilson Communications, "and staying in touch with sports fans around the country on ever more platforms." Pilson says the move to local raises the question about whether ESPN one day might bid for local sports TV rights now secured by Fox and Comcast. "It will be interesting to see where this leads them."
ESPN has been predominantly a national brand and service with national rights deals. Back in 1998 it did attempt to enter the local sports market in Los Angeles through a channel to be called ESPN West. Those plans were abandoned when Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. bought the Los Angeles Dodgers and secured the rights to broadcast the team's games for its Fox regional sports network there.
While Fox currently does not offer local Web sites for its 19 regional sports networks, it plans to begin rolling out city-specific online sites for those networks later this year. A Fox Sports spokesman says plans for local Web sites (it does operate foxsports.com, the fourth most visited sports site) were already in the works before ESPN Chicago launched.
In turn, Comcast, which operates 10 regional sports nets, just hired an executive to head its online strategy in local markets and to bolster those Web offerings. On May 6, Comcast's Litner announced that Eric Grilly, formerly president of the Web site for The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, would become executive vice-president and chief digital officer—a new post for Comcast Sports Group. Comcast is going head-to-head online with ESPN in Chicago through its regional sports network's own Web site.
Between local bloggers, professional teams operating their own sports channels, and now even universities looking to launch 24/7 sports networks, the media market for hometown sports is becoming increasingly competitive. "What we do to distinguish ourselves is that we live, breathe, cry, shout right along with the fans, owners, and players in these cities," says Comcast's Litner. "We don't parachute in on a Thursday night and pull out of town on Sunday. We're there."
Lowry is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York.