ESPN Makes Local Splash, While CBS Flies Under the Radar

Last week’s confirmation of the inevitable – that ESPN will expand its locally focused web sites into additional major markets provides a major threat to the digital component of RSNs and seriously jeopardizes the long-term sustainability of local sports coverage in newspapers.

However, lost amid the ESPN announcement was CBS Radio announcing the launch of local sports stations in DC and Boston. CBS Radio already has the leader in NY, and established stations in Philly and Baltimore, giving it a stranglehold in the sports crazy Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. Its foot print extends to Chicago, Detroit, Dallas, and Houston among top markets. So you say talk radio is dying medium. Not quite, in fact, if CBS gets it right, they will be right there competing with ESPN on multiple fronts.

First off, radio is not exactly a dying medium across the board. Sports talk carries that special level of fan engagement that the web tries to recreate, but is unable to always capture the passion and spontaneity of live radio. Further, live radio broadcasting of games is an art form, sports version of fine literature. Plus, unless you are in front of a television (given the lack of mobile streaming) it’s the still the best option, so talk radio and radio rights to team games still have value. Look at the latest NY ratings, WFAN actually increased its numbers almost across the board.

Though not strongly integrated with radio, don’t forget CBS has a Top 3 web presence. If they can integrate it tightly with the web, similar in strategy but maybe different in execution to how ESPN is setup, put some marketing power behind it, and improve the streaming interface, then you may have a formidable setup. The integration opens the door for locally focused sites to compete with ESPN’s move. The radio stations have already created personalities with local followings in each city. CBS can leverage simulcasts, podcasts, use the talent for short-form video, and easily integrate UGC given the audience focus of talk radio. Integrating radio and digital expands distribution to the point CBS can justify hiring additional journalists in local markets – possibly beat reporters or the equivalent of columnists. See where I’m going here.

Almost every media discussion comes down to newspapers. Local sports writers have loyal followings. A player specializing in another medium is going to capitalize on that following at some point. It’s already happened in a few markets, but ESPN or CBS are best positioned to go after them, though I still think the major RSNs are asleep at the wheel for not locking them up, or at least doing a distribution deal with their newspapers to get content and more importantly hold the talent on retainer. That said, a CBS can either hire away beat reporters, then use them for exclusive radio beat reporting, online coverage, and short-form video packaged for online. At the least, they can strike a deal with newspapers to syndicate articles and get exclusive use of the talent for radio coverage and multimedia content. And once CBS and ESPN get rolling online, everything can be packaged for iTunes, mobile, video syndication, social media, and the myriad of other possibilities.

Don’t sleep on CBS. They have given no indication of taking this route, but you don’t have to look too hard to see that it exists. A successful push by CBS and ESPN could be another nail in the coffin for newspapers.

[Aside: this doesn’t even mention the power CBS can leverage through its broadcast channel]

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