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Men aged 18 to 34 spend more time on ESPN.com properties each month than they do anywhere on the Internet except Google, Facebook, all of Yahoo’s sites combined, and all of Microsoft’s sites combined.This week, we caught up with the man behind this success, ESPN senior VP of digital media John Kosner, and asked him where ESPN.com will be in 5 years, how Bill Simmons got so huge, and what he makes of Yahoo and all its turmoil.
BUSINESS INSIDER: What does ESPN and ESPN.com look like 5 years from now?
JOHN KOSNER: You’re going to have the content you want delivered on any device you can imagine, customised to the screen and the context of that screen. Using the Australian Open as an example, you’ll be able to watch that on any screen, call up replays, talk to your friends about it, share clips. All of these things are coming and more, and there appears to be a fairly insatiable demand.
BI: Yahoo’s gone through lots of turmoil over the past maybe five or six years. They were once the biggest sports site on the Internet. Are they still? What’s the state of that competition?
KOSNER: They continue to be the biggest in terms of uniques. I think for the last month of December they had 52 million uniques and we had about 40.
The metric that we think matters is more of a television metric, computed through multiplying the total minutes we have against our total number of uniques and then looking at our share of category. And under that metric, ESPN had, I think, about 29% of the sports audience in December and was clearly bigger than Yahoo.
In addition, looking at that metric for just 2010, ESPN was up in total minutes to just about 38% and Yahoo was up in total minutes 3%.
They have a tremendous traffic engine off their homepage where if they put links up around their homepage, especially to general interest stories like the Metrodome roof collapsing, they can generate a tremendous number of uniques. What we think is really valuable are the uniques that come all the time and spend a bunch of time.
Yahoo also has very good fantasy football. However, we’ve really focused on the the last few years between our game and talent like Matthew Berry and we’re poised to actually topple them over the summer based upon how the numbers are coming in.
They also have a great franchise with Rivals.com. That’s a business that you will see us in.
They are worthy competition, but there’s no other ESPN. And if you take a look at any sort of fan surveys about other top sports sites, if you look at the surveys that other sports websites do, ESPN is clearly number one. And one of the reasons I believe is that all the different media that ESPN brings including TV, radio, print, the quality of that brand, and sports is just one thing that Yahoo focuses on.
I’m actually more concerned with the guy and the gal in the garage and what startups can bring out than some of the traditional competition, which while formidable, is almost more predictable.
BI: I follow a local sports blog called JoeBucsFan. I still read plenty of ESPN content, but only if it’s about the Bucs, and those guys find it and link to it. It’s the same with the local paper’s sports stuff. I don’t read it unless JoeBucsFan links to it. Am I normal, am I an outlier, is that an increasing trend, what’s going on there?
KOSNER: I think it is an increasing trend. As to whether it’s mass yet, I’m not sure, but it doesn’t matter because you’re the kind of fan we want. And so our whole focus for this fiscal year is all around personalisation because we think super-serving the fan and what each fans wants is different is ultimately how we win.
I’m not sure that one model is right. Clearly – and you look at Bill Simmons who has a million and three followers on Twitter – people are finding voices of influence, curators in all media, including sports.
BI: Let’s talk about Bill Simmons. He’s a star, right? He’s huge. Maybe not everyone’s familiar with the story. Where did he come from and how did he get to be a guy who hosts a podcast that sports heroes, authors, and movie stars beg to be on?
KOSNER: Bill is now probably the first true national sports columnist. I think he’s the most popular sports writer ever. And it started modestly for him, as a freelance writer and a guy who was online in Boston who was discovered by several people. (I think the list of people who discovered Bill will get longer and longer in time, but it certainly includes a few executives including John Walsh, who’s executive editor of ESPN.)
Bill started to write for Page 2 in early 2001 – and his popularity and style have grown steadily through the years.
BI: What’s his secret?
KOSNER: It’s the combination of sports and pop culture. It’s the passion that Bill brings – a unique voice.
He’s also been aggressive in terms of looking at different media. Not only was he online earlier, but he got into podcasting early and discovered that and now is the number one guy on the iTunes chart. He also got into Twitter early. And that’s been a big part of his success.
If you had to put your finger on one thing, it’s probably that he sounds like a really informed friend that you have who has the coolest gig going. And he’s unabashed about that, right?
And I want to say this – he’s funny. In any medium, there are very few people who are truly funny, and he’s one of them.
BI: Well, you brought up podcasts. I’m curious about them – are they working? They have advertisers now. It seems…
KOSNER: Yeah. They’re growing by leaps and bounds. While it’s a small percentage of our overall ad revenue, it is growing. It feeds into this total minutes of engagement strategy, because people spend a lot of time of time listening to them.
It really works with Bill because not only is he doing the podcasts and doing them on a frequent basis, but so many people download and listen to them, that it’s really got advertising appeal and getting noticed. It’s one thing to have something cool and relatively few people use it, it’s another thing to have something that’s cool and tons of people use it.
I think there’s also a dynamic in the iTunes store that once you set a subscription, you have to unsubscribe. So once you decide to subscribe to Bill, you have this content on your device and it’s easier and easier to discover.
If you have a chance, go and listen to the Bill Simmons podcast with Buzz Buzzinger, or with Al Michaels, or with Bill Carter from the New York Times. There’s a real interesting discussion that’s being had, that would be hard to get to writing a column or just printing an interview. You can hear the interaction between the two. You can hear the inflection in people’s voices.
BI: ESPN podcasts and columns more often touch on topics that aren’t necessarily immediately to do with sports. They can also feature deeper, intelligent conversation than what you’ll hear on SportsCenter. It’s almost like digital stuff can go places where a certain successful formula on TV can’t. Is there a different brand there? Is that a recognised advantage in digital?
KOSNER: It’s all part of the ESPN brand. John Skipper, who’s my boss who heads up content, has done a masterful job of encouraging the editors, producers, business leaders of different media to take advantage of what’s unique about what they do.
For instance, in digital where we can theoretically provide an infinite amount of content, we actually do about 600 original pieces of sports news, opinions, features, video, blog content every day.
In our case, that you’re a Tamp Bay Buccaneer fan enables us to potentially serve you at a much, much, much less expensive cost of content than if we wanted to create a television show about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Also television is ratings-driven. It’s more established. And the folks who program PTI or Sportscenter or the ESPN live events, they’ve figured out over time increasingly what people want to watch and that’s how the networks are programmed.
We are still evolving in digital. We get wiser all the time but it’s still an evolving medium. But I think the fact that we have almost endless room to program at any time of day to any audience give us flexibility that other media doesn’t have. The senior management at our company has encouraged us to experiment, to take chances, and that’s how some of these wonderful things have happened.
BI: In sports right now you have all these collective bargaining agreements between the leagues, the owners, and players. How is ESPN Digital planning for either contingency? Is it bad news, or is it good news because it means lots more stories?
KOSNER: Well, it’s bad news if the games aren’t played or if there’s a bunch of time and attention focused on off the field negotiations, because no matter what anyone says, fans in general don’t care about that. They just want to see the games.
I’m not plugged in enough to be able to predict whether we will have work stoppages. I do know that there’s going to be lots of discussion about work stoppages, which is my point of view is not great for business.
However, the beauty of ESPN is that it’s not seasonal, it’s not limited to one sport, so we have an incredible assortment of college football and college content that you’ll see in the fall. We do great coverage of major league baseball, NASCAR, and this summer the women’s World Cup is coming.
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