By Team Hashtag • 29 min read
The signature news and information program on ESPN since 1979, SportsCenter invented a genre and set the standard for serving sports fans…something it continues to do today. But SportsCenter hasn’t been standing still — it has consistently evolved for more than 37 years, changing along with fans, across decades and devices, screens and experiences.
Today, SportsCenter is truly a multiplatform brand that goes beyond television. Millions of sports fans connect with SportsCenter on digital and social media platforms, and the evolution of SportsCenter leans toward a true mix of linear and digital — it has been underway and will continue to accelerate. In this session from Hashtag Sports 2017, two executives involved in its evolution on a daily basis, as well as one of ESPN’s best-known and most social media active anchors discuss the process.
Check out the full video and transcript below!
Daniel Roberts: Hey everyone, I know we’ve already done intros. Let me just say anecdotally that as our sports business guy I cover a lot of digital media. I cover a lot of TV. And, I’m sure this will surprise none of you, but ESPN is always a very hot topic of debate. Always a topic that no matter what the story is, big or small, news or analysis and that kind of thing, it always blows up in the comments.
A lot of people have a lot of opinions on ESPN. We know that to be true. So, all that being said, let’s start this way. And, you know we’re here to talk about distribution, programming, digital, the digital future of SportsCenter. Not really here per se to talk about layoffs, but obviously recently there was a big round of layoffs at ESPN, and I just want to start this way. On that day, when ESPN announced that and also announced a number of programming changes, the President of ESPN John Skipper had a public memo and, in part, it said the following:
Our content strategy is primarily illustrated in recent months by distinct, personality-driven SportsCenter TV additions and digital-only efforts.
And, that term is really interesting to me, “personality-driven.” I think that’s been a sort of hot topic for our readers at least at Yahoo and we write about ESPN’s business. So, let’s start with Jemele. You are one of these personalities that they’re talking about. What does that term mean to you, “personality driven?” And if John Skipper is publicly saying, you know, we really want to emphasize personality-driven what does that mean to you?
Jemele Hill: I think the goal was just to have SportsCenter(s) that were distinct, either by the content in the show or by who’s presenting the content. I think just on television, in general, we’re all basically dealing with the same ingredients. We’re dealing with the same stories. It’s just a matter of who you like and who you don’t like. Who you want to hear that content delivered from.
And, so for me, I guess, as one of these alleged personalities, it was an opportunity for Mike and I to bring, you know, our vibe, our flavor to, you know, the baby of the company. And I think we’ve seen SportsCenter, it’s funny this is just life in general. What’s old is new, what’s new is old again. So, I think SportsCenter has always been really personality-driven, certainly from the days of Keith Olbermann, Dan Patrick, Craig Kilborn, Rich Eisen. Like it always was, but now I think we’re just being maybe more blatant about it before between Mike and I, SVP, you know Coast to Coast, just every one of them you get something different. And so I think this was just our opportunity to make it even more blatantly distinct for the viewers.
Roberts: Yeah, it’s definitely true that it’s not a brand new thing. I mean it’s always been anchored by personalities who bring their own opinions into it. SC6 relaunched in February with you guys. When you and Mike think about the show, and it’s important we note, I assume many people in this room have ESPN, but, you guys formerly had a talk show, His & Hers, that’s very successful. Kind of great with the banter between the two of you. Moving to hosting SportsCenter, did you think of that as a shift away from having kind of a talk show or how do you guys approach it in terms of: “Is it news? Is it the two of us debating?”
Hill: I think we’ve definitely figured out that we have to be a little more “all things to all people,” whereas, when we did His & Hers and especially on ESPN2, which did a marvelous job of branding E2 as the personality debate, discussion, conversation arm of the network. And so, it was never out of place to have some of the discussions that we had on E2 because I think we pretty much trained the viewers to expect that between Mike & Mike,
and First Take, us, at one point or another HQ was on E2, Sports Nation, like they’ve all done their time there.
So, moving over to the main network, and moving over to SportsCenter in particular, there’s a certain expectation that comes with being SportsCenter. People do have an expectation that they’ll get breaking news and developing stories. And we were always covering news of the day on His & Hers, but we have to do it maybe visually presented differently.
The interesting thing about the six o’clock SportsCenter is that it’s always been conversation-based. It’s just that what people were accustomed to seeing mostly was anchors teeing up analysts or anchors teeing up reporters. Well, in this case, you have to train journalists so you sort of eliminate, in many cases with stories, the middleman so to speak. We don’t always need an analyst because we have our own opinions, so we’re serving, kind of, a couple different masters at once. And, so we realize that for people who had that expectation or certain expectations at six o’clock that this has probably been an abrupt change even though, again, we’re still covering the news of the day. So, for us, we don’t feel like we’re limited in any respect in terms of our conversations, how we plan and think about the show is a lot different than the platform we left.
Roberts: It’s interesting when you say it might have been an abrupt change for people. I mean, Mike, you’re VP of Content Strategy. You know, when you guys think of the audience and you think of the people who have always watched SportsCenter at 6 PM, to what extent do you try to have the programming tailored to A) the audience that you think you already have at certain time slots or B) the audience you might want at certain time slots? And I think it’s important we mention that SC6 already, from what I know, has attracted a much more diverse audience — and in the past younger, more diverse — but at the same time at the four primetime evening slots, ratings across the board, although it varies by how much, are down versus one year ago. Now of course we talk about cord cutting and all the changes in cable, so I think a lot of this is part of that.
Michael Shiffman: I think for the target audience, when we look at the SC6 and the Van Pelt show, the personality driven shows if you will, that at 6:00 fans know the news and the headlines. And what Michael and Jemele can bring is a unique point of view that’s additive to all these other interesting topics that are circulating all day long.
With Van Pelt at midnight, people already know the results. Fans know the results, and it the show needs to be fan focused on: How can we engage the audience and increase what they already know? So, Van Pelt at midnight, just like Michael and Jemele do with the news or interesting topics, is take those results, add his point of view on things with video, and that appeals to the audience. And as you mentioned, I think a major upside toward SC6 is a much more diverse audience and we want to do them the most interesting things to the most people in all these shows.
Roberts: Yeah, I mean across the board, what’s interesting at ESPN and I want to ask you this, Nate, as a VP of Audience Development, like many other things in sports media or even like certain sports leagues, I use this example with pro golf all the time. You have this balance that you have to hit right now of catering to the people you already have.
People who have been watching ESPN for 20 years, maybe they’re above a certain age I’d say, they’re going to watch it and they’re still going to watch it on a traditional television box. And then you want to attract the people who might not have cable, they’re younger, they might not yet be people who rely on ESPN every day, but you want to hook them in because you want to have them for the rest of their time. I mean I think golf has the same problem where they want to get younger audiences, they want to get kids to be fans, they don’t want the only fans to be old white men. So, Nate, how do you sort of balance that when you’re thinking about SportsCenter and you’re trying to- you know, we’re here talking about the evolution of SportsCenter, it is the flagship brand of ESPN, so how do you bring it into the next few years and reach new audiences without alienating the existing audience?
Nate Ravitz: Well, I mean I think ESPN has always been about a variety of different kinds of content and different things. It’s meant different things to different consumers. Whether it was live games or opinion-based shows or SportsCenter, you know we think about every platform as a front door into our content and the front door tells you something. Where are they coming in?
If they’re coming in through ESPN.com, they are interested in, perhaps, some combination of news highlights, video, long-form storytelling, etc. If they come in through their Apple TV, they’re just looking for video, could be different kinds of video. If they’re coming in through YouTube, that’s just video. If they’re coming on when people check Facebook or Twitter, it’s often times when you’re standing in line or when you’re listening to somebody pontificate on a stage and you’ve lost interest, and we’re the first thing. And that could be an experience that is 15 seconds all the way up to a couple of minutes. You don’t open up WatchESPN on Apple TV intending to spend less than 15–20 minutes. I mean that’s just not a behavior that happens.
So, when it comes to SportsCenter, I think the shows have gotten more and more distinct in terms of what Michael and Jemele are doing and Van Pelt and the new morning show and others, and that gives us a variety of options. I mean we have, it’s the challenging part of my job, but we have the privilege of just an enormous volume and assortment of content. So, you know, the key is to try the best we can to find the audience that wants it most. On our website and our app, that involves quite a bit of trial and error and really much more aggressive use of metrics than we’ve ever done in the past.
Hill: It was funny that you use the front door analogy because the analogy we like to use is the party analogy, which is you want to bring as many people to the party as possible. Some people already know about the party that bought the ticket on Evite that, you know, already have their tickets purchased, but there’s a lot of people who hear about the party and say “Hey, I heard there’s going to be a dope party.”
So, how many more can you bring into it? And, what I realized, and it helped me sort of reshape how I think about who our show is reaching, is the relevancy part. I hope this doesn’t sound ridiculous, but the relevancy part almost matters just as much if not more than the ratings.
And the reason why I say that is because I run into people all the time who say, “Yeah, I’m not home at 6:00, but I saw this YouTube clip” or “I saw this on SportsCenter’s Instagram from your show” or “I saw this on yours.” So, people are just consuming our content in ways that just goes way beyond traditional television. And, the more we continue to sort of limit how we look at the success of certain things just through TV, it can be a very restrictive conversation because they’re absorbing our content in so many ways. [There are people] who only listen to the podcasts of certain shows…So, the front door thing is not only applicable to the content, but the way they’re consuming it.
Shiffman: Real quick on the ratings — Show of hands, how many people saw the Jordan Spieth walk-off golf shot live? (A few hands raise)
How many have seen it since Sunday? (Many hands raise)
Roberts: But, now the question would be, did you see it through ESPN?
Hill: I did! (Laughs)
Shiffman: But, I think that’s, to Jemele’s point, we’d love for everyone to consume it live in the moment, but as long as the gateway is through SportsCenter, whether it’s a live show, whether it’s social media, whether it’s our app, what have you, that’s our win.
Roberts: Well, yeah, and I’m glad you said that about people finding clips online, I mean, I always say there’s a lot of noise made about what Fox is doing and FS1 and people like to say, “Oh, FS1 is coming.” But, actually, I mean, I would say ESPN’s biggest competitor really is just the internet because there’s been a proliferation of clips. I mean, you can find a play now on Snapchat. You can find it on Twitter. You can find it on Instagram. It used to be you could see it on Vine — Vine sports clips were very popular. I mean, there’s so many different gateways. So, with that said, let’s go back to these digital-only efforts. I read earlier that, you know, John Skipper was talking about digital-only efforts. Just within the last month ESPN launched something called SportsCenter Right Now. Do you want to talk about that, Mike, for a sec?
Shiffman: Sure, I think with SportsCenter Right Now that the goal is to provide digitally and they’ll be TV instances, as well, but the best content at the right time, not tied to necessarily a clock. So that when something is happening, whether it’s traditional news breaking or just a story is resonating, like say Lavar Ball last night on WWE, that we need to be in that space digitally and be talking about that with video to supplement it. And we also have ways with a producer panel to measure what fans and what our fans are talking about and what’s resonating. So, I think it’s just an opportunity to deliver content to fans where they want it.
Roberts: Well, and in addition, I think it’s worth saying just to put it in direct, you know, what will this actually mean in terms of what’s new? These are, correct me if I’m wrong, clips with talent, news updates that are shot in studio just like the other shows, but immediately put online on all the different online platforms. The app, the homepage.
Shiffman: Yes, and produced for a digital audience. So, sound off, sound may be up, extra font or text. So, it’s produced knowing where it’s being consumed and I think it’s using the word ‘news’ sometimes elicits sort of old-school news. If it’s not a transactional news, it doesn’t fit. Now it could just be an interesting story that the latest on Paul George and Carmelo Anthony may be bought out and they’re both going to the Cavs. It may not have already happened, but there’s discussion about it, our reporters are reporting on it, so how can we augment that experience immediately online?
Roberts: Yeah, or we wrote about this a month ago, Yahoo, and I was speaking with Rob King who oversees SportsCenter, and he used the example of let’s say one of [your] reporters is at a Giants practice and talks to Eli Manning at his locker for a second. Eli says something surprising. I hate that I’m saying Eli Manning again. I talk because I’m a Tom Brady and Pats fan. But, Eli Manning says something interesting, you know. Get the reporter on camera, you play the clip of what Eli said and you also have the reporter explaining what this means and why this is newsy and, you know, two minutes throw it online, right?
Shiffman: Yes, we realize that everyone with their phone obviously and mobility, they have a TV. They have multiple TVs in their pockets. And so if Eli has an interesting anecdote, we need to then serve that fan immediately.
Roberts: So, it’s interesting because, you know, first of all let’s say, this is a big step. I saw the sort of mini-SportsCenter studio that adjoins the main SportsCenter studio where this will be shot and some of them will have someone at a desk even though some of them will be in the field. And this is going to involve a lot more production time. A lot more sort of social listening. And, you know, when we discuss this, and I was talking to people who are in this industry, some of them the first question they ask is, “Well, what took so long?” Right?
I mean this is something that many online-only sports outlet — Yahoo included, Bleacher Report, SB Nation — a lot of them do things like this and have done them for a few years, shooting clips, live shows, two-minute segments, someone talking about news that happened. So, I guess I want to ask, what were you guys doing before that sort of fell under digital-only and why do you think it took until now to decide, “Hey let’s really ramp this up…”?
Shiffman: I think maybe it’s an exaggeration to say right now it’s being ramped up, I think it may just be packaged differently. There was content being shot from the field that went immediately to digital or taking segments from shows that went immediately to digital, from shooting segments that were specifically for digital. I think it’s just the packaging around SportsCenter and the anchor, sort of hosting these, whatever they may be — with a reporter, there’s a great video moment from the night before that the host will wrap around and add their point of view to it. Some of it’s just that the packaging is different.
Ravitz: Yeah, I mean we’re two and half years into our run on Snapchat Discover which is ESPN branded but features SportsCenter content prominently. And that’s content that is totally custom format. It literally doesn’t exist anywhere else — in terms of the vertical video. I mean vertical video now exists elsewhere, but that really pioneered us there. Since we got on Instagram we’ve been doing more in the one-by-one format that exists there.
Some of these things are just re-editing, but a lot of it is actually custom shot, original for the platform. So to Mike’s point I don’t think the notion of doing video just for digital is new. But let’s face it: there is some tension. We produce an enormous amount of content for screens like [this projector on-stage]: it’s aspect ratio. By the way, all live events are that way and I think they’re going to stay that way. So we have to be in both places, and there’s times when a great television segment makes a great digital segment, there’s times when you can just tweak the formatting, and there’s times when you’re better off shooting something original. What Mike’s describing, increasingly — and this is an industry trend — you have text on top of video. I don’t know how many people watch all the way through with sound off, but the goal is to give people a glimpse of what’s going on and what’s bringing them in. Because ultimately what we’re trying to do is create a deep connection with our content and our personalities.
Roberts: Jemele, we talk about how a lot of these clips we’re going to do depend on news of the moment, something that’s trending. I used this term earlier: social listening. And Nate I know your team oversees social. When you guys are in your production meetings for something like SC6, and as Mike referenced SVP at midnight has the benefit of the “sports of the night” have happened. Now we can just go over these games, show the highlights at six. A lot of it ends up being more of a preview, right. And we are looking forward to what’s going to happening tonight. But you also want to be on trend, and on the moment. To what extent are you kind of mixing it up on social and looking at what’s happening right now and trying to parse through it and trying to determine what should make the show tonight?
Hill: Well, getting back to what I said earlier, a lot of it is again we’re all dealing with the same ingredients, but who do you want to hear it from? Because on our individual social accounts me and my co-host Michael Smith, we will get a barrage of fans if something like… I can’t tell you the number of times [today] I’ve been asked already what do I think about Lavar Ball and his WWE appearance.
So we already know even though its 10:30 A.M. right now, that going into our broadcast this evening that people want know hear what we have to say about what he did. So you can just kind of put that as one of those topics that will just last all day. Because it’s just that hot.
And then, yeah we’ll spend a considerable amount of time looking at, okay what’s going on tonight? Or, maybe by the late afternoon (this happens everyday), there is other video, or other news (or something else goes viral) that we’ll put in the show. I mean we look for a combination of the freshest things, along with what people are still talking about. On our car ride down here, Serena Williams’ Vanity Fair cover was published. So now we have those photos.
So it is a lot of looking back and looking forward. And that’s the challenge honestly being at 6:00 because even though you want to look forward, there’s a lot of things that happen throughout the day that depending on how long a viewer or consumer is on social media or watching our network, that you don’t want to hit them with the same thing they’ve been hearing literally for hours. At 6:00, we just have a different challenge.
But there is just a lot of news that frankly just transcends a traditional cycle — that people just want to hear what you have to say about it. The NBA Awards, people want to hear what we have to say about some of the things that happened. Not all about necessarily restarting another MVP debate. But I am pretty sure James Harden, the way he was staring at Nicki Minaj, will probably make our show tonight, if I had to guess off the top of my head. Draymond Green’s outfit. That is something that will probably make tonight’s show. More than anything, what Mike and I had realized is you have to build a community around your show. That this is not just about you just delivering the news, that this is about some sort of one way relationship. Build a community around it so that some of those topics that might expire, or seeming like they should expire, in some kind of traditional news cycle, your viewers will want to hear what you have to say about that specifically.
Ravitz: I think the notion of content or topics expiring is interesting because fifteen to twenty years ago something would happen and the show would be whenever it was. Hours later or sometimes days later. And if you had a connection to the personalities it didn’t matter, you wanted to hear what they had to say.
And I think maybe five years ago as social media really took off there was this notion particularly with people who were sort of social natives that “Oh, we missed the window.” And it would be [after] two, three, four hours. As soon as you tested that, you just found it wasn’t true. We could have the Jordan Spieth highlight today and it would do well. Or if you turned on SC6 today and maybe you don’t have the volume yet, but the lower font tells you that they are talking about Draymond’s outfit. As long as you have a connection to Michael and Jemele, and maybe even if you don’t, there is interest there. So I think we’ve figured out that we have a lot more latitude and with topics you need fresh perspective on it sometimes, you need fresh video, etc. But the appetite of the audience extends longer than maybe we’ve thought.
Roberts: Well, and Jemele some of those topics — and maybe it’s not fair to label them so distinctly — but you know, we talk about someone’s outfit, the way somebody looks at another celebrity, there’s sort of hard sports news right, and then there is sports-related, pop culture bleed in. All of these things overlap. Have you and Micheal sort of decided that we don’t need to so rigidly define us as a “SportsCenter” compared to the way that, there’s sort of the idea of SportsCenter as a news show where anchors are telling you what’s happening today. Is that something you are even conscious of? Or is it better to just [go with] whatever interests [you and Mike] because as you say, people who are watching the show, they want to see specifically what you two have to say about this?
Hill: I think where a dramatic shift has been in sports in general is that the athletes are letting us into their lives in ways that are unique to how they were before.
We know a lot more about them because they have their own social media accounts. Sometimes there are things we can’t unsee, and that’s because these days you do have a social media audience that’s watching say the NBA Awards as an example, and tweeting at the same time. People are making a bunch of observations, so this culture that is building around sports, you can’t ignore that either. Yes we will give you the news if John Wall is recruiting Paul George to the Wizards, you’ll get that in our show. But you’ll also get Russell Westbrook’s amazing speech last night, some of his Snapchats that he put out as he was receiving the award. Some of the one-liners that Drake had. Athletes have always shown a variety of interests, but we are just seeing it more I think in full technicolor.
For us, we got labeled in some of this, the brilliance of the ESPN marketing in many ways, came back to bite us in some degree because I think we’re fun personalities Mike and I, we’re fun people we’d like to think. But when the commercials said “Music. Sports. Movies + More…”
We’re not on there giving movie reviews, right? We’re still giving you sports. I mean we may mention the fact that Power premiered on Sunday, and sort of at the end of the show when we tend to have sillier moments, we will maybe give our 20 seconds about what we thought about the premiere of Power. It’s still a sports show, and we’re still very much serving sports fans. But, we also realize there are alot of casual sports fans who are interested in that side-culture that has developed.
When LeBron James, I think when Kendrick Lamar’s album dropped, and he talked about what Kendrick Lamar meant to him as an artist. There are a lot of sports fans that are interested in that.
So, yeah, you’re going to have some traditional viewers that we do hear from who rebel against those kind of things because they just want sports and that’s it. Well you will get that, some of that is what the bottom line is for, alright? We can all see it. But you will also get this other part of it, and maybe that’s why our numbers in terms of the youth of the people watching our show is what it is. It’s because they are very much interested in that aspect of sports. They want to know the stories, they want to know where these guys come from, what they are listening to, what they are into. They ask us those same questions, they want to know…you know we have a playlist on Apple Music because they want to know what kind of music Mike and I like. So this is a part of the sports culture that is expanding, and I think generally in very positive ways.
Shiffman: And I’ll say with Harden and Nicki Minaj last night, if we’re looking at what our audience is engaging in and seeing that that’s over-indexing…
Roberts: That’s the social listening?
Shiffman: Yes, the social listening. That, while of course Michael and Jemele have a point of view on it today, that Kenny Mayne and John Buccigross could offer a totally different, but just as entertaining point of view last night, as could SVP, as could Neil and Stan, as could our producers who could come up with “Here’s a great video treatment of other NBA players and pop stars, interactions” or what have you. They are always courtside. You could treat it in multiple different ways for multiple different platforms across multiple different shows, and to Nate’s point of the lifespan of that story, it very well could have started last night and gone through Michael and Jemele who will bring their own point of view to it tonight.
Roberts: Jemele, you mentioned the marketing that ESPN gives to various shows and certainly, with SVP’s show and that re-launch and then with you guys, there was a very obvious push: Here’s the new thing and [you should] watch it.
I don’t want to harp too much on this but I’d be remiss not to bring this up. I want to ask each of you about — because you know one thing that’s come up in the last year or so, and it’s just shocking to me — is the volume of the noise and this idea that ESPN went liberal. Anytime I read anything about ESPN now, the comments are all like “I don’t watch anymore because it went liberal! ESPN is liberal!” And you know there are various things that people point to and they say here’s the moment or this is what is was.
Personally, I think it’s fascinating and kind of strange because I’ve always thought, if anything, a sports network tends to err conservative. I’m sure people in the audience have their own opinions, but I just wonder, is that something you guys watch, listen to, are cognizant of, or care about? Anything truth to it? Any thought of “We should be careful to make it clear that we aren’t political.” Or maybe it’s the idea that sports are always political now.
Hill: Sports have always been political. That’s the immediate line.
I’m annoyed by the storyline, because I think it’s just a really dumb narrative. I’m annoyed by it on a lot of levels. One is that I think ESPN has always been the leader in terms of diversity, in terms of the personalities that we have on-air and behind-the-scenes — it’s just a diverse company in general. But I’ll just narrow it to what people are seeing on-air.
And I just have noticed the correlation between us being called more liberal as you see more women in a position on our network in terms of driving content, as you see more ethnic diversity, that all of a sudden ESPN is too liberal. So I wonder when people say that, what they’re really saying? So that’s one part of it.
The other part of it as well it’s that we’re journalists and people have to understand that these uncomfortable “political” conversations (and people are also pouring way too much into the political crockpot), some of it is social commentary, some of it for some people is just an issue of morality. But the athletes are dragging us here. I didn’t ask Colin Kaepernick to kneel. He did it on his own. Am I supposed to act like he didn’t? Gregg Popovich every week at his press conference is having a ten-minute soliloquy on Donald Trump. Am I supposed to act like he’s not doing that?
You know, the athletes saying they’re going to the White House or not going to the White House, that’s all sports news. It didn’t just start with this generation of athletes. It’s always been that way. Sometimes when I hear from a viewer or get feedback from them and they say they don’t want their politics mixed with sports, I say “Well what do you think about Muhammed Ali?” And then all of a sudden, it’s just glowing praise. And I’m like “Well the reason you’re saying that is because you know he turned out to be right.” So when you know they’re on the right side of history, it’s so much easier to accept. But when you’re still at this point where it’s “Well, are they right or are they not? Do I agree with them or do I not?” then it’s “Well, I don’t want you to mix the politics with the sports.” Again, we’re just responsibly covering the news. It’s not about how we feel about that, it’s about what’s there and what’s in front of our face. And you’re not going to be able to put that toothpaste back in the tube in sports anymore. You know this as somebody that covers sports business, a lot of these people saying they don’t watch anymore, I’ll say “Ok, so who’s your favorite college football team? When that game was on our network, you didn’t watch?” You can’t call up cable and say “You know what, I hate ESPN. Cancel it all.” Yeah, that’s not happening. So that’s why people who say “Because of Colin Kaepernick, I’m not watching the NFL.” Sure — until your team comes on.
Ravitz: That’s one of the key points. The Kaepernick thing happened. We covered it. And when talk about social listening or we talk about being more data driven or caring about what our fans care about — there was audience against this topic every week. On the website, we ran several weeks in a row a simple headline: All the NFL Players Who Kneeled This Week. I remember five, six weeks in, me asking in a meeting, “Do we really to keep doing that? Are people clicking on that?” And the answer was yes. There is interest in this every week.
So all we’re doing in that case — that was not that different than something like Lavar Ball or Brett Favre’s retirement. When you hear “You guys are just beating this into the ground.” But the data says otherwise. The data says the interest in still there. The other way we do talk about it is the same way we’ve always talked about it — from a journalistic perspective. Are we being fair? Are we being balanced? Is there another perspective that we’re presenting here? And we’re certainly aspiring to do that at all times.
Shiffman: Yeah, the data says there’s interest. The responsibility to cover Colin Kaepernick, who was within this much of winning a Super Bowl, that to me is an easy decision. And now imagine if we hadn’t covered it the way we did, and now he’s not on a roster, and an enormous layer of the story, wherever you stand on it, is what happened this past fall. So just being forward, we have to be there throughout that story arc and whether he lands on a roster or not come Week One, I don’t think that will be the finality to it, but we have to see it through from the beginning.
Roberts: So let’s go back to talking about trying to reach people where they are, the many different doors. It’s something we talk about as an online website all the time, it’s just the idea that people usually aren’t reaching you through the homepage anymore. And maybe that’s different for ESPN.com but in terms of news sites, usually they’re finding a story because they see a link on Twitter, they see a link on Facebook, they Google it — whatever it is. So let’s apply that to television.
Let’s talk a little bit about ESPN and OTT — catering to audiences that don’t pay for a typical cable subscription. So I want to mention — and I think it has happened kind of quietly — but suddenly ESPN is on, or has agreed to be on, HuluTV, YouTube TV, Sony PlayStation Vue, AT&T, DIRECTV Now, and is on Sling TV which is the first one they agreed to. Now these are all subscriptions you can get without cable, you play a flat fee per month and you can get all of ESPN’s programming. Can we talk a little bit about looking down the road, what is the end result here? There was a time when we thought you really wouldn’t be able to see any ESPN stuff without a cable box. Now you can. What is the obvious inevitable next progression or maybe ESPN doesn’t really want it to get to that point where you can get everything a la carte.
Ravitz: It’s funny, I wasn’t sure where you were going because you said “You can get ESPN on all these devices without cable” and I’m like “Which devices…?” You’re using the term “cable,” but what you’re actually talking about is a subscription for our content.
And those are all, every one of the products you described are offering, at various price points, a bundled subscription that includes not just ESPN but the broader Walt Disney Company portfolio and many other things. I think the future certainly includes more choice so in the case of everything you just described, people may have an affinity towards Hulu already or YouTube already. Some of these platforms may be coming out with really innovative, new user interfaces, etc.
But the other thing that’s interesting — and this speaks to something Jemele was saying earlier — on the larger TV, which pretty much everything you described there is, I mean you could certainly get YouTube TV on your phone — is being able to present you with choice. You open it up after the NBA Finals… We actually did have two different versions of SportsCenter that night — we had the Van Pelt show and we had one that was a little more focused on press conferences and post-game analysis but we may also have Michael and Jemele. You guys are available right? You’re talking about the game anyway.
Hill: Yeah! (Laughs)
Ravitz: That format, in terms of you have this larger screen and the ability to present thumbnails, gives an array of options. So it’s great that consumers have options, it’s great that we’re all these places. Our default position is to be places, not to not be places.
Roberts: Now I think what a lot of people want when you look down the road — for the longest time HBO was a good example. You can’t get HBO Go unless you pay for HBO the channel on TV but now there’s HBO Now. They went over-the-top. You can get the standalone product and pay $15 or $20 and you can just get HBO’s entire library. Every episode of any HBO show — it’s on your iPad, it’s on your computer, your AppleTV device. A lot of people would love to pay for something like that for ESPN, and we’re not quite there yet. Obviously there are these endemic deals and long-lasting relationships with the various leagues and the providers. Do you feel like ESPN is resisting in a sense, like dragging its heels? We know that people who don’t pay for cable, are never going to pay for cable.
Ravitz: What was the question there? You ended with a statement. (Laughs)
Roberts: I guess I’m asking, what is your view of the next ten years and whether ESPN will eventually offer a standalone product, and if that’s something that has to happen to keep it relevant to young people?
Ravitz: I don’t know if there will ever be a standalone product. Many years ago, people felt that nobody would pay for music when Napster came along. And it was just like the music industry is dead and you’re never going to pay for music. That was a point of disruption that wasn’t sustainable because the artists were never going to let it happen, let alone the music companies. But then the iTunes store came along and eventually Spotify, Pandora, etc. I think the formats will adapt, the delivery systems will adapt, and what those forms will take, you’ll have to wait and see.
Shiffman: I agree with Nate in terms of distribution. I just think from a content point of view, what we’re focused on and whatever the screen is, whatever the delivery mechanism is, we need to be great when Jordan Spieth happens. If that’s immediately — the “one play” and soon thereafter, whether that’s perspective on it or a great video treatment. Personally, I was drawn to the walk-off golf club flip which made me think of Jose Bautista, the chest bump or side bump made me think of Steph and Draymond or Steph and Durant, others in our newsroom saw the folks tasked with holding the “quiet please” signs dropping them. So in terms of the content, we need to be great when Jordan Spieth happens in the first second and then whether that’s 12 hours, 24 hours, or 48 hours with our content delivery and serving it to fans where they want it.
Roberts: Let’s end this way, we’re talking about the evolution of SportsCenter as a brand. I think it’s important we mention, absolutely regardless of how many people say, “I don’t watch ESPN anymore, or I don’t pay for cable, or ESPN isn’t relevant to me.” I mean SportsCenter as a brand is still THE biggest sports brand. It has more followers on many social platforms then the main ESPN handle has. So when we’re trying to take into account all of these different time slots, and personality-driven, I mean what is SportsCenter to you? How do you define it in terms of what the public reputation is, what audiences should think when they think of SportsCenter? Maybe Jemele is a good place to start.
Hill: Well, it was funny Mike and I we were talking to Mike McQuade. He has a big title I just don’t remember what it is. But he’s a boss, right under Rob King. Anyways, he said that Mike and I are helping to redefine SportsCenter. That’s true and not true.
Maybe the way in which we are used to it being packaged to some degree. But I think that SportsCenter as you pointed out, remains a commanding brand, and I think it will always be, not only keeping the lights on at ESPN, but it will be the vehicle in which sports fans are served. We look at it very basically. We are there to maybe redefine SportsCenter, but certainly not to reinvent it.
Mike and I joke all the time based off the commercials people thought we were going to do SportsCenter backwards. But no, its still going to be entertaining, and journalistically sound vehicle in which to inform sports fans. We just want to make them a part of the experience of ESPN in general and consuming our content. So really, I tell this to younger sports journalist all the time: what we do remains very basic, and always will be. Telling people things they don’t know, developing sources, breaking news. It’s just the delivery and the technology changes how you do it. But the basis of what you do never changes.
Shiffman: I don’t think it’s any one thing, right? The morning shows look far different than Michael and Jemele’s shows, which look far different than SportsCenter at midnight, because they should. The audience is different, what’s going on is different, the topics are different. I think SportsCenter is with personality, great video and highlights, great storytelling, great news gathering, and dissemination that information.
Roberts: Let’s leave it at that. Should we take a couple questions?
Audience Question: Nate, you were talking about Snapchat, where you have a whole dedicated effort and you create great content for the Snapchat discover platform. I think you’ve been doing it for a year-plus.
You know, it’s interesting when you were talking about this concept of paying for cable, because when Iwas growing up the only way I could get access to SportsCenter was my parents had to pay for cable, or I had to pay for cable, and I had to wait and watch whenever SportsCenter was on.
When I go to Snapchat discover, I get a pretty good dose, and especially a millennial, gets a pretty good daily dose) of everything that’s happening in the world of sports. Not just from SportsCenter, but from the NFL and NBA who are publishing organic content. But they don’t pay. There’s no paywall, I mean advertising is literally as fast you can tap the screen you don’t see the ads. I mean it literally gives you tap syndrome. Isn’t there a kind of inherent tension of, you’ve got a business trying to drive people to pay essentially a big number every month, whether its $40 or $80 every month for cable to get ESPN, but they go on to Snapchat and they get the best of what’s going on in sports for free everyday, and how does that end?
Ravitz: Well, I think one of the things we’re not doing on say, Snapchat, is broadcasting the games live, or broadcasting Michael and Jemele live. So I think live is not a place we’re not going. We’ve actually been doing that for two and a half years. Snapchat for us is by far the youngest demographic of any of our own platforms, or social platforms. And I think it’s really important that we build that connection with those fans.
My personal anecdote has always been this: I got to college in 1995 which was kind of like the dawn of the internet. My class at college was the first class that was issued an email address as SOP — it was actually Netscape. They brought us into this computer lab, and I had never really seen the internet. I’d seen Prodigy and things like that. And the first thing I did was type in ESPN.
I had no idea what was going to show up, I was just a sports fan, and ESPN defined sports to me. Up popped up ESPN.net. SportsZone. So I think when we’re talking about Snapchat, we need to make sure that we create great experiences for that audience so we have a brand foothold with that audience. So whatever their thing is, thats me typing in ESPN, which may be the App Store or whatever the next thing is. We need to make sure they do that, because they are not going to buy a cable subscription at 13 years old.
And we don’t know what the cable subscription package is going to look like by the time they get to 22, but we need to make sure they have that brand connection first. So, you could look at it as a little bit of a trade off, but there is advertising, and not everybody taps through it right away, and we definitely feel confident that we’re building a connection with those fans.
Roberts: Great! Can we get a round of applause for the panelists? (Crowd applause)
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