Boston Sports Web Scene Will Be Telling

Traffic statistics show ESPNChicago.com is a ringing success, blowing away its online competition in the nations 3rd largest market, though it’s unclear how ESPN attributes traffic from many of the pages shared with its local site and core ESPN.com web property. Regardless, it’s next foray, into the Boston market, proves to be more telling.

Boston media outlets have already started to engage in their own online warfare, with Entercom aggregating all sports radio properties back on WEEI and ramping up its web presence, while NESN and the Boston Globe continue to strengthen their web presence, and Comcast New England enters the fray. Now comes the 900 lb. gorilla, ESPN – or is it?

Boston fans are as loyal and diehard as they come. NESN and WEEI each lay claim to exclusive Red Sox coverage (though nothing online is truly exclusive, they do have the other platforms), thus the broadcasters and former players that fans listen and see every day are under their umbrella. The Boston Globe rolls out Bob Ryan and Dan Shaugnessy, both synonymous with Boston sports and each with a well-developed following. Though ESPN touts Boston-ites Bill Simmons and Peter Gammons among its illustrious staff, neither is likely to pen Boston-specific content (or any more than they already do). Given that, is ESPN actually the underdog in what is a crowded local sports news market?

Unlike Chicago, where the local RSN and radio websites lack depth, and where ESPN had an established media presence on radio, Boston’s sports web entities are well-developed, offer deep, insightful coverage, and have powerful names behind them. ESPN did hire Mike Reiss away from the Boston Globe to cover the Patriots – and that is a key point that I’ll continue to harp on. Newspapers, particularly the Boston Globe and its web property Boston.com are approaching the point of insolvency, yet they still employ some of the most valuable local assets, writers with established reader bases that can move the needle. Competitors from other mediums that want to win the hyper-local web race need to procure these assets, showcase them through multiple mediums, and leverage the traffic that follows them. Since some newspaper journalists maintain a loyalty to print, RSN and radio media should offer a unique business proposition. Sign prominent newspaper journalists away from the papers, have them write on a similar schedule for the website, then license the content back to the newspapers for print and possibly distribution on the newspapers website. Paper still gets the content that subscribers want, yet minimizes the cost by offloading the salary, while the RSN/radio property gets the name, the fan following, an additional marketing platform through the distribution deal, and has multiple mediums through which to activate the journalist.

If ESPN swoops in with its purse strings and pulls off this strategy, forget it, they will win online. They already sort of have an in with Bob Ryan from his TV appearances, but if they get his written content that could be a game changer. Another area this battle hinges on is how well NESN and WEEI can leverage its exclusive Red Sox access. Can they take fans where the other web sites, including ESPN, can’t go. Can they offer premium content that the others can’t, or promotions with Boston-centric prizes that the others can’t match? Arguably, it’s the area many web properties have thus far failed, protecting and leveraging premium content – WEEI and NESN must master this skill to fend off ESPN’s challenge. Meanwhile, the Boston newspapers may not be sustainable in the long run, however their content and assets may tip the balance of power in the online battle. Perhaps the newspapers can leverage that to help keep them afloat or develop an alternate revenue stream.

Come September 14th the battle will start – and we didn’t even discuss how this battle may be fought and won on multiple fronts (or platforms). It’s not a zero sum game, however it remains to be seen how many significant sports entities one market can yield.

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