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Are larger changes on the horizon for ESPN.com?

The Big Lead had a scoop earlier this week on ESPN reportedly looking to hire a full armada of beat writers covering every NFL team. 

"ESPN.com is bolstering its NFL coverage significantly this summer – I’ve learned that the website is hiring beat writers for all 32 NFL teams.

According to a source who interviewed for one of the openings, the goal is to have beat writers for every team in place by August. Previously, ESPN.com had just one writer in charge of every NFL division."

The article would go on to say that with ESPN local writers already in house (New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Dallas) as well as the NFL Division blogger coverage already in place, ESPN only has to find beat coverage for 15 teams.

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A thread on SportsJournalists.com, an online message board consisting of those in sports media, provided some more insight although you'll have to it with a grain of salt given it is a message board. Some details there include:

- To the surprise of the community there, these look to be full time positions with benefits.

- Citing some rumored salaries of ESPN college bloggers, the believed salary range is believed to be north of 80k, a number that is believed to potentially lead to a "mass exodus" from the struggling print world. 

- Only 19 of the 32 positions are technically new hires and some of those are already filled. The other 13 positions will be staffed by existing ESPN talent who were either doing the division blog coverage or writing at a ESPN local sites. 

- A poster cited that Michael C Wright who was under the ESPN Chicago banner will provide the ESPN.com Bears beat coverage going forward for the Bears.

Again the details above should be taken with a grain of salt but that being said, this aligns with a tip we received a month ago. 

We were informed of the possibility that ESPN was considering, or potentially in the process of, pivoting their local strategy. In particular, some of the ESPN local sites were going to be closed down and ESPN was looking to do more of a Heat Index type model for local coverage of approximately 40 of the most popular sports teams in America. 

We followed up on the tip and spoke to several ESPN.com local writers. Although none would give confirmation, the majority of the feedback we got consisted of the following: "I wouldn't doubt it", "sounds about right" and "we've felt something possibly coming for a while."

In particular, we learned these tidbits from local ESPN writers:

-  ESPN Boston and ESPN New York in terms of promotion, resources, and communication with Bristol seem to be much more beloved and safest from any type of strategy change.

- ESPN Dallas, Chicago, and Los Angeles are "a lot more automated" now than they used to be.

- Dallas, Chicago, and Los Angeles have over time seen their staffs reduced, the amount of teams they cover reduced, as well the travel allowed to cover the larger teams decreased as well.

While this was all very interesting, those who might be in the know gave us the old corporate PR 2 step when contacted.

Since then, ESPN has undergone major layoffs and reports indicate resources from local sites will help drive enhanced beat coverage, at least for the NFL and maybe even beyond.

ESPN decided to dip its toe into the regional portal/hub in 2010 and although early on there was much back patting and chest beating on the initiative, it's been mostly quiet the last couple of years. No more local hubs have opened up, which signals the success of the first batch of cities was a mixed bag.

If ESPN were to move away from the regional hub and original content model, they'd actually be following the lead of SB Nation. Right around the same time in 2010 that ESPN did their PR blitz on the regional site initiative, SB Nation embarked on their own sports regional hub journey announcing they'd roll out 20 sports local sites as well. Below is a graphic of the rollout schedule of those sites in 2010.

It appears these sites have gone from hubs of mostly shortform local news coverage to curated hubs that funnel visitors to SB Nation's team specific sites. Essentially, there is no more original content on these sites and the writing staffs have either been let go or moved to SB Nation or their team specific sites. Looking back at some of these sites' Facebook pages indicates that the change took place around the new year for most of these sites.

The point to extrapolate here is that both ESPN and SB Nation saw the same opportunity. 15 years ago people at the local level were dependent on the newspaper for their localized reading fix. Newspapers staffs have gotten smaller and now a lot more of our content consumption occurs online. Newspapers haven't done a great job transitioning to online and hence there is now a media Royal Rumble at the local level between newspapers, local network affiliates, sports talk radio affiliates, sports regional channels, and blogs. SB Nation and ESPN in the summer of 2010 both thought they could run into the ring with their pedigree and expertise and basically do this. While ESPN and SB Nation to some degree still seem to be in the ring with their local hub concepts, it's probably not at the level of success both were hoping for and there is nothing wrong with that.

SB Nation's team blogs continue to grow and now that they are rolling sites outside of sports, it probably makes a lot of sense to invest in those efforts and continued development across video and mobile. 

It's not clear if ESPN will also begin to wind down their regional platform but with what looks to be the first wave of editorial talent moving over to ESPN.com, I'd imagine we could be hearing more on this front sometime between now and the fall.

If Bristol is truly looking to do ~40 or so "Tier 1" teams with beat coverage, outside of the NFL you'd imagine the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox, Knicks, Bulls and Lakers would be no brainers given they all hail from cities that have ESPN local resources already deployed. Beyond that, who knows. Of course, given this information stems from tips, rumors, high level research, and conjecture I could be totally offbase and ESPN could make me look like an idiot by having a press release this week saying "REGIONAL CITIES FOR EVERYONE!! EVEN SALT LAKE CITY AND PORTLAND!!" I highly doubt it though.

If ESPN does in fact add a handful or dozen more teams to their beat coverage initiative outside of the NFL, what will the reaction be from fans of teams and cities that are deemed not worthy of ESPN beat coverage? Although the Heat Index drew a lot of ire and ruffled some feathers, the outrage on that front seemed to quell over time and perhaps ESPN can withstand the collateral damage of admitting that not all teams, cities, and fanbases are created equal.

Another thing to keep an eye on going forward is ESPN's lesser known sport specific site networks. 

ESPN's MLB Sweetspot network has been stuck with about 2/3 of all MLB teams covered and has been somewhat rudderless since the departure of Rob Neyer and recently suffered the loss of one of their largest sites as Capitol Avenue Club merged with SB Nation's Braves blog Talking Chop. In their farewell article they cited a lack of resources from ESPN as a reason, something I've bemoaned before in past articles as well as to ESPN directly. From their goodbye post:

"Begun to hit the ceiling of what we could really do given the sort of ‘do it yourself’ ethos of the SweetSpot Blog network and a wordpress blog that we paid for out of our pockets."

Given full coverage of all MLB teams with some continued churn and retention that tie back to questions about their model, you wonder if ESPN decides after this season that the initiative has ran its course and focuses elsewhere.

The most glaring digital effort to keep an eye on is ESPN's continued failing effort trying to get a piece of the lucrative college recruiting network business. I've wrote about this extensively in the past and you would think given the the significance of ESPNU and college football and basketball to ESPN at some point they would have addressed this shortcoming. But since missing out on acquiring Scout or Rivals (now owned by Fox and Yahoo), ESPN's efforts to break into this space have been nothing short of embarrassing with almost no market share or basic awareness at the local level.

Considering Yahoo recently said in a Forbes article that 25% of their sports revenue tracks back to Rivals, you can see why ESPN would continue to fight to get into this space. Unfortunately, a lack of expertise or a vision has relegated them to an almost unknown competitor in this niche. If you're not aware of ESPN's efforts here, in a nutshell this is worse than Wendy's trying and failing to have breakfast and more akin to Taco Bell's attempt in the 90's to serve french fries. Worse, this is their second crack at having a college recruiting network of their own.

Unlike Sweetspot or True Hoop, their current boondoggle into the space is a venture that is requiring a lot of investment with multiple full time and part time writers and one that is yielding almost no return on investment. I've heard that a lot of the writers who man these digital ghost towns which mostly show no signs of traffic or engagement spanning comments, social shares, or forum posts, have contracts that expire right before the 2013 football season. 

It's hard to imagine given ESPN's belt tightening and the continued lack of success that they would continue down the road they're currently on especially considering startup 24/7 has gobbled up a lot of the industry growth and market share. Along with the local sites and increased NFL coverage, it's definitely something to track as we get closer to the fall. A large scale shakeup could be on the horizon across a variety of ESPN.com's platforms.

Ultimately ESPN and others have a responsibility to a) invest in new initiatives they think can have a lucrative outcome and b) rein in initiatives that are not performing and require significant capital that could be better utilized elsewhere. Those two tenants should guide ESPN's online strategy in the short and long term future.

Have information about what's happening at ESPN.com or other sports media stories? E-mail us tips, leads, ideas, etc. at awfultips@gmail.com.

Ben Koo

About Ben Koo

Copying and pasting my Twitter bio. I'm also refusing (for now) to write this in the third person. This is me - CEO of @Bloguin, GM at @AwfulAnnouncing, world's greatest chinese jew, proud Buckeye, funny dude, and sports and digital media zealot.

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