ESPN.com

20 years later, ESPN.com reaches more sports fans than ever before

Editor’s Note: In celebrating its 20th anniversary, ESPN.com unveiled its new site Wednesday. It’s the first major makeover of ESPN.com in more than five years, and it is completely rebuilt from the ground up. This week, Front Row presents discussions with ESPN.com’s leaders past and present exploring the sports news and information site’s growth.

Over the past 20 years, ESPN has been at the forefront of digital advertising. From postage stamp size banners in the late 1990s, to the introduction of video ads in the mid 2000s, to the current high-impact “Video Showcase,” ESPN continuously pushed the industry forward. Marc Horine (VP, digital revenue and operations) shares some key moments in time as it relates to the evolution of ESPN’s digital ad experiences:

Marc Horine: 2001 – “Back then, the biggest ad unit was a 468×60. So we introduced the “Big Ad Unit,” the brainchild of our president, John Skipper (then head of ESPN New Media), who wanted to jump start digital advertising and create a USA Today-like ad.”

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In addition to ad innovation, ESPN.com across digital platforms has grown remarkably in scale in its 20-year history. Its reach is at an all-time high and the level of engagement has never been better. We spoke to David Coletti (VP, digital research and analytics) about ESPN.com’s audience through the years:

How much has ESPN.com’s audience grown compared to the earlier years of the site?
The earliest marketplace data we have for ESPN.com is from 1998, and that year the site averaged 4.3 million unique visitors per month. Fast forward to 2015 and ESPN.com reached 74.2 million people in the U.S., and we reached 94 million people in total across all of our digital web, app and video content. Perhaps even more impressive is increase in the volume of usage we’ve seen for ESPN’s digital content. In 1998 ESPN.com received 1.2 million visits each day – that grew to 24.7 million visits a day last year. Needless to say, our growth has been staggering.

What are the top 10 most popular clubhouse pages of all-time on ESPN.com?
We have robust clubhouse data going back to when we instrumented the site for Adobe Analytics in late 2007. Over the past seven-plus years the clubhouses that have generated the most views are: (1) Los Angeles Lakers, (2) New York Yankees, (3) Dallas Cowboys, (4) Alabama Crimson Tide football, (5) Oregon Ducks football, (6) San Francisco 49ers, (7) New England Patriots, (8) Atlanta Braves, (9) Green Bay Packers and (10) Ohio State Buckeyes football. Four NFL teams, three college football teams, two MLB teams and one from the NBA – it’s certainly an illustration of just how much football drives traffic for ESPN.com.

How far along have we come in measuring usage on digital platforms and what more needs to be done?
It’s remarkable how much our measurement has evolved. As recently as a decade ago, measuring ESPN digital mostly entailed merely tracking the ESPN.com website on computers. Today, measuring ESPN digital means tracking a bevy of websites that are accessed on computers, smartphones and tablets, in addition to apps that live on hundreds of mobile devices powered by several different operating systems and on-demand and live streaming video content that is programmed across all those platforms. In fact last year across all of our digital properties, products and platforms, we sent more than three hundred billion server calls that generated our analytics data. And since there are dozens of variables attached to each server call, we processed trillions of data points that allow us to understand fan behavior. The future will be about connecting fan activity across devices, and using analytics data operationally to power personalized and targeted experiences. I couldn’t be more exited for it.

20/20 Vision: ESPN.com’s path
What have been the most important developments (or setbacks) since ESPN.com’s start in 1995 that shaped the way sports, digital media and technology intersect? And what will shape the next 20 years? General Partner, Google Ventures, M.G. Siegler, and Senior Vice President of Policy and Strategy at Uber, David Plouffe, answer those questions:

Siegler: In my mind, this is absolutely Twitter. The word “democratize” gets bandied about a lot these days, but that’s exactly what Twitter has done to the sports landscape. Now athletes can make themselves heard directly. Sports journalists now break stories as they’re happening rather than when an editor says they can. And fans can interact with all of this.

It’s going to take a while to perfect, but I think virtual reality is going to completely change the way we consume sports. I’ve seen short demos recently of both a boxing match and a football game that are nothing short of profound. If people thought the jump to high definition television was big, they’re going to be blown away by being placed right on the sidelines of every sporting event.

Plouffe: It used to be not long ago if you wanted to watch a baseball game on TV, you needed to be at home, planted on the couch, and could likely only watch one game. Now, everyone takes for granted that with the MLB app they can watch any game, anytime, anywhere. Of course the same is true for ESPN, the NBA, etc.

But on top of ubiquity, there’s a whole new community out there. You can be alone in your living room, open Twitter, and immediately be connected with other fans: React in real time to an amazing play, disagree with a coaching call or an announcer’s latest missive, and there are people from all over the world ready to challenge or confirm your opinions.

And if you missed something spectacular LeBron did, you just find it on your smartphone thru YouTube or now, Meerkat or Persicope. In my college years, catching up on the highlights used to mean sitting down on Sunday night for shows like the George Michael Sports machine. If you weren’t there watching, you missed that spectacular catch or dunk. Or maybe even the scores. The idea of being tied to a specific time and place to see what you want in sports is part of the history books.

Well, the easy part to see is a continuation of existing trends. New apps are gathering audiences in the hundreds of millions seemingly overnight. Last year, being active on Twitter might have been enough for a superstar athlete. Next year it could be Snapchat. The year after? That app might not even exist yet. And as smartphones make their way into the hands of literally billions, new fans will be found in Kenya, Indonesia, Uruguay for sports that might be played halfway around the world. The hard part is predicting how we’ll interact and watch sports. Virtual reality technology was talked about 20 years ago, but now is finally becoming real and will soon be affordable for many consumers. The possibility of sports broadcasting embracing that kind of “you are there” experience could profoundly change how people watch and relate to sports. Imagine sitting at home watching the World Cup from the perspective of the keeper or the Super Bowl from the vantage point of the quarterback. And with worldwide audiences who realistically never were going to see certain events live, this could make for a new generation of fans even more rabid than the last. Hopefully, we’ll still leave our houses from time to time.

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