ESPN’s Rob King on the future of ESPN.com

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Ed Note: The following interview from ESPN Media Day in Bristol, CT appears courtesy Keith Thibault of Sports Media Journal.

Here is my interview with Rob King, SVP of Content for Digital and Print Media from last week’s ESPN Media Day. The interview came after a panel on the new SportsCenter Digital Studio tour. Rob made a point to mention how the SportsCenter brand will be integrated across many platforms…

Q: We’re here in this new facility where SportsCenter will be anchored, talk a little bit about how SportsCenter is going to be part of a brand that will transfer into what you do in digital.

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ROB KING (RK): SportsCenter is the most important news and information brand we have. We drive incredible highlight video the people are passionate about; we have stories that we tell very broadly that’s accumulated over time; and SportsCenter does an amazing job with that across all those hours of programming. So we become a much better environment in the digital space if we give people so much access to that as possible. So we’re looking at how we present video; we’re looking at alerts and notifications so we can let people know that SportsCenter is covering something or something is going to be on SportsCenter or there’s breaking news. We look at things like how we can actually present a banner of SportsCenter trending topics on the site so you can just click on that topic…click on Tim Tebow… and get a full-blown site that is around the topic of Tim Tebow featuring SportsCenter content. 

The magazine’s work will be amplified through SportsCenter because SportsCenter is the entity that touches so many fans. So it’s really kind of a two way street. But, you know, when we say the word SportsCenter here, everybody has reason to feel proud. So it’s an exciting opportunity as digital thinks about ways in which we can drive SportsCenter even further.

Q: You mentioned a change in the look of ESPN.com which will launch next year. What can people expect to see with the new ESPN.com?

RK: We’ve learned a couple of things when we launched an application called the SportsCenter Feed that encouraged us to look at a site in the future with the idea that we want to elevate the core experiences like watching video, or playing fantasy, or getting scores. And we also want to make our site easier to use and customize. The SportsCenter was the first shot at that in app form. Burt we think the site is going to enable people to be recognized when they arrive, find their favorite stuff faster, enjoy video in a much richer way and get the scores quicker. The whole point of the re-design is to make our site easier to use. We’ve got a working prototype right now. We’re testing with users. And we are now starting to put on the layer of beautiful design. We’re pretty happy with our site now, and I think that there are a lot of people who are, so we’re going to make sure we honor that and not change for change sake but make the site easier to use.

Q: You’ve go the local sites as well (New York, Boston, LA, Dallas and Chicago). How are those faring? People are looking at local and getting information about their local teams. With a national site how difficult is it to push that local angle?

RK: That goes back to making the site easier to use. We want to make sure that fans can customize their experience with ESPN.com and with ESPN Mobile. So right now you can customize your scoreboard and your team’s score will appear on the left corner in bright yellow so you can find that easier. But we’re also spending time looking how people spend time with our site. We know, for example, that 31 of the top 100 teams in terms of times spent on our site are from the NFL. Which embolden us to take local to the next level and hire NFL reporters in alll 32 cities. And that’s a function of making sure that when somebody comes to the site they want to personalize their site and say they’re a fan of the Washington National Football club, as I happen to be, that there will be reporting from a guy like John Keim that makes that experience rich rather than content that just happens to bubble up or, God forbid, no content. We want to make sure that we’re driving into those buckets that people create really rich content. So local for us really gets down to, on some cases, the team level. We learned that lesson vividly with the Heat Index. When LeBron James moved to South Beach we created the Heat Index, almost half of our NBA pageviews were to that site. So we know that at the team level, fans can be super-served. So that’s what we’re working on.

Q: So there won’t be any new city sites but more emphasis, on the national side, on team-specific information?

RK: We’re not really thinking about launching another city, but I would say this…The reporters who are doing the NFL project, for example, are writing at a very local level. What’s interesting is we’ve done this with the Lakers in Los Angeles and the Red Sox in Boston. Those are also sort of national brands. The nice thing is we’ve worked so closely with TV that we will be able to do things like have these NFL reporters show up on the NFL Insiders show talking on a national level with local knowledge. We think we can have it both ways. But the hiring process has demanded that we find people who are good at what they do and people who are good across all platforms.

Q: You’ve got the other ESPN specialty sites; espnW and Grantland. We hear that Jason Whitlock is coming back to ESPN to do some writing. And (ESPN President) John Skipper mentioned that there may be a special website around an African-American audience. Anything you can share about that?

RK: It’s early yet. First of all I am happy that Jason’s back. We look forward to the way he can contribute to what we’re doing. He’s a very unique guy. We are thinking about the possibility of creating a site that could address issues that are in front of us every day. Whether it’s Riley Cooper, or RGIII, there’s opportunity there. What exactly that site’s going to be, we don’t know. But Jason is going to help bring creative vision to whatever it is we build.  

Follow Keith on Twitter @SMJournal and visit Sports Media Journal for more coverage from ESPN Media Day.

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