ESPN Takes Step in Right Direction With US Open Coverage

ESPN executives would only acknowledge “significant” growth in digital ad sales for its Thursday and Friday coverage of the US Open. Digital is still a fraction of TV – both in revenue and viewership, which can hand in hand – however, as ESPN improves and expands its digital coverage of major sporting events, the revenue continues to follow.

Teaming up with DirectTV and Dish Network on an Interactive TV application, ESPN expanded distribution beyond ESPN360.com. They made major progress in the area of interactivity, a key to enagaging viewers, offering a mosaic with six different cameras. Viewers could simply watch Tiger all day, one camera followed his every move, or choose to flip over to a press conference, or watch Torrey Pines signature third hole for an hour. While ESPN it is still not full customization, where the viewer can decide exactly what they want to see, they did have a variety of options, or the opportunity to watch a variety of action simultaneously. A key attribute TV does not provide.

On the sponsorship side, with six different views, ESPN could conceivably sell six different sponsorships – one per camera view – that are displayed in the video player when the camera is selected. What sponser wouldn’t pay a higher CPM rate to advertise on Tiger’s camera? Another reason flat CPM rates are a mistake in sports, but I digress for now.

Syuccessful digital coverage requires access to information. ESPN’s website is of course a plethora of sports coverage. At the Open, they stepped it up a notch, with live blogging from golf writer Jason Sobel, podcasts, and your typical leaderboard coverage. The podcasts and live blogging probably drew the most engaging interest. At this point leaderboards should be an afterthought, automatically included. In fact, users should have the option to have a live leaderboard stick on the side of the video player, if they choose.

More content leads to more viewers and subsequently more advertising dollars. Two ways ESPN can enhance the information aspect of the coverage is first by providing a live blogger with each of the camera views offered. Second, make it interactive, one feed where the blogger is posting, a less formal version of commentary (that’s what blogging is supposed to be, right), then have a message board side by side for fan’s to discuss. Taken a step further turn it into an game, where viewers predict what club the player will use, or what will happen on the next shot. That thought may be far-fetched by open the door for fans to play Monday Morning Quarterback and second guess a players decision – either via message board, or some form of interactivity with the live blogger.

ESPN can easily unleash text messaging – and another sponsor along with it – into the equation. Have fan’s vote on the shot of the day, or Best Performance of the Day via text message. The network can even market that on television.

The more creative ESPN becomes with its digital coverage, the more indispensable it becomes. Fans will begin to gravitate more and more toward online, or Interactive TV, even if regular coverage is an option. When TV’s not an option, at the office, or on the road, particularly in golf, tennis, and the NCAA Tournament (for CBS), which are all played during business hours, digital will have great traction. Even when TV is an option, the more interactive digital coverage becomes, the more viewers will use it to supplement regular coverage. That casual golf fan who tuned in to the US Open coverage at home, may still want to use the computer to track Tiger’s every move, since the TV will not (though, sometimes it seems that way). The more engaged viewers are, the higher the CPM ESPN can charge advertisers.

Quietly, ESPN also found another way digital can help the bottom line, low cost coverage. Prior to both the first and second round coverage, ESPN aired a US Open Extra show. The show, sprinkled with a few pre-recorded packages, relied heavily on the lower-cost digital programming for live action. Not only is digital programming cheaper, albeit at slightly lower quality, the network already planned to use it. ESPN did not have to deploy any extra crews or equipment. Kill two birds with one stone.

Another step in the right direction for digital coverage. Next up is the tennis US Open. Now, if only ESPN can get wider distribution for ESPN360.com so some of us can actually watch this, that would help.

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