How a digital focus will help ESPN prove it is a worthy UK contender

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ESPN International’s head of digital media Tom Gleeson and ad sales chief Alan Fagan present the sports broadcaster’s plans for gaining ground in the UK against major players Sky and the BBC, and using interactive elements to up the stakes.

MW: Tom Gleeson, as vice-president of digital media for ESPN International, you look after the brand’s digital platforms globally outside the US. What are the challenges of managing the different platforms across these markets?

Tom Gleeson (TG): We still distinguish between the ESPN TV business and other platforms but increasingly they overlap if you have an iPad you can see everything. I don’t see myself as a digital expert I’m not a technology guy. I’m much more interested in how our viewers are accessing our content and whether we are putting that content in front of them in the best way we can.

With mobile particularly, there are potentially billions of people who don’t have a computer but who could access our content through their phone. We don’t have the benefit of giant TV networks internationally like we do in the US, so the mobile service might be the only service we have in some markets. Mobile entails everything from a basic Nokia handset, SMS, and basic web services right the way through to high-definition video. Then there are tablets, which blur the boundaries again.

Our challenge is making sure it is the ESPN service putting content in front of people, whatever it may be. The mobile operators used to control what content people saw but that’s no longer the case. Few people use services like Vodafone Live, they use apps.

MW: ESPN’s Goals app, which shows goals and highlights from every Premier League game, was £2.99 a month and is now free. Why the change?

TG: We want to get the app as widely distributed as possible it will support our TV business in the UK. To develop our business here, it is important we get people to see our products and be exposed to the brand as much as possible. It’s advertiser-funded and we’ll be using [Google-owned ad technology] DoubleClick to serve our advertising on the app rather than iAds [Apple’s own ad-serving function].

We see score-related sport content as a big driver of mobile usage. Mobile devices are less about watching a live game, it’s about getting scores quickly.

Alan Fagan (AF), ESPN group director of advertising and sponsorship sales for EMEA: The Goals app could be a quick way of getting into the hearts and minds of younger consumers. It was a significant cost last year but we have proved that the app does focus well on the English Premiership. It’s the first time I’ve had advertisers phone me up and ask how they can get involved with a product.

MW: ESPN in the UK is not yet optimised for mobile and there isn’t yet any live streaming on the website. How will you develop these?

TG: Both are on our roadmap. ESPN.co.uk for mobile will come but development takes a long time, and we don’t have live streaming. We occasionally run ice hockey and college sports through our ESPN Player on-demand service.

We need to take into account the rights, because holders want to break down their rights into as many different packages as they can. On the other hand, broadcasters want as few rights and as few variations as possible. In the US, we buy all rights, all platforms, all territories for college sports. We don’t want to spend millions on some of the broadcast rights [in the UK] we can’t see a model at the moment that would give us a good return if we did that.

MW: How does ESPN’s strong position in the US compare with the rest of the world?

TG: In some markets, we are number one for particular sports we are the number one cricket site in India and Pakistan, for example. In Europe, however, we have a long way to go; we primarily run English content.

Globally, we are the number two [sports content provider] behind Yahoo! (see chart, below). It has the advantage of an email and messaging service to push people to news stories. Our goal is to be number one globally.

MW: Disney owns 80% of ESPN. What kind of relationship do the two brands have?

TG: On the digital side, there are shared technical services. Beyond that, not a great deal other than in a market where a sport is important to children cricket, for example. On the TV side, we work with Disney as we have a shared sales organisation for affiliate sales. We sit in the Disney building in Hammersmith, London.

MW: What do you think advertisers will want from ESPN in future?

AF: Innovation, integration and something that goes beyond advertising. That is fine but we also need to give something to the fan that wasn’t there before. Just sticking a logo on something won’t work. Advertisers need to get involved to help us deliver that.

I’ve brought the digital and TV sales teams together. But I think my job is one of education people don’t really understand what [products and services] ESPN has in the market today.

ESPN the real story

ESPN launched in the US in 1979 and is now available in more than 200 countries with 350 million subscribers. Its challenge in the UK is to find a way to compete with Sky Sports and the BBC’s sports coverage. It is focusing on its digital properties to grow the brand, launching its UK website in January 2010. It also operates ESPNCricinfo, a global cricket website.

This year it has also launched live streaming for tablets and smartphones via ESPN.com in the US, enabling users to access around 4,000 live events annually.

The company is run by George Bodenheimer, who joined the company in 1981. He was promoted to the top role from executive vice-president for sales and marketing. ESPN.com was launched in 1995 and now has 55.4 million unique users, up from 43.2 million last year according to comScore figures for July.

ESPN real-time reader response

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@JPMHLondon

In terms of stealing a march on the big three broadcasters Sky, the BBC and ITV, is there an area in which ESPN feels it could differentiate?

Tom Gleeson (TG): We try to scale our ambition to what is possible within a market. Are we going to overtake the BBC or Sky Sports? That is pretty unlikely. ESPN is a global business the UK is an important market but it is one of many for us. We have to consider what the opportunity is. Clearly there is one but you have to balance it against opportunities elsewhere.

The investment we are making in Premier League rights for TV broadcasting is very significant and that applies equally to our digital business we want to build it. Potentially, we can be number one for cricket content, and for football we’d like to be more substantial.

Alan Fagan (AF): Our approach is more at the grassroots fan level, such as getting into the changing room with players and providing the fans with a new experience by accessing areas they have not seen before. We have a portable studio set up pitch-side, so we are in among the crowd.

The truth is we need to work harder, but we don’t have the scale of Sky. It is about creating something that goes beyond a straight solution. We will focus on digital here in the UK first, taking some of the things that work really well in the US and bringing them over here this year.

One sector we are looking at is luxury goods Tissot and Longines, for example. In some cases it is about trying to get in on relationships that have been in place a long time with Sky [to get them to advertise].

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@RPMLtd

Will the recent [phone-hacking] publicity around News Corp have any negative effect on advertisers, given that Sky is your biggest platform?

TG: It’s interesting to see how this has been driven by public opinion. It could have disappeared but things like Twitter spread it. We employ a lot of sports journalists, but from an advertiser perspective who knows? It’s out of my control.

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