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ESPN’s Got a New Game. And It Starts Before Players Take the Field

 ESPN’s newest game starts hours, even days, before any team steps onto the field of play.

The Disney-owned sports-media giant heads this weekend into a massive round of live broadcasts across its flagship cable outlet, ESPN2, ESPNU, the broadband service ESPN+ and ABC that will showcase everything from the NBA Playoffs to UFC and Top Rank Boxing matches to a Mexico-based Major League Baseball game. But the kickoff for events like these is starting earlier than ever for producers and analysts.

“It’s not just that we want to be in your life at 8 p.m. before the game comes on at 8:15,” says Connor Schell, executive vice president of content at ESPN, in a recent interview at the network’s New York offices. Through use of digital media, he says, producers are working to start conversations about sports events days and even weeks before they take place and “hopefully build interest that we can pay off in a big way” on the live broadcast.

ESPN has reason to turn its TV broadcasts into the equivalent of a series finale, rather than having  them serve as a starting point for contact with fans. The fees paid out to broadcast everything from “Monday Night Football” to an NBA championship are massive, and the network gets its biggest audiences – and can charge its highest ad prices – with live sports telecasts. Those “have always been our bread and butter,” says Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming and scheduling. “Those are the large audience-aggregating devices and the tentpoles of our schedule.”

In an era when more consumers are migrating to new ways of watching video favorites – including sports – coming up with new ways to broaden ESPN’s appeal is critical. It’s no secret that subscriptions to the ESPN cable networks have, like those to other TV outlets, fallen over the past few years. To gain new connections to sports fans, ESPN a year ago launched the subscription-based broadband outlet ESPN+, part of a larger bid by parent Disney to cultivate digitally savvy consumers in a new era for the media industry.

ESPN’s efforts to talk to audiences earlier about sports events appears to have gained momentum. Viewership for the most recent season of “Monday Night Football” was up 8%, compared to a 5% gain in viewers for the overall NFL season on TV. Viewership for its Major League Baseball coverage last season was up 1%, compared to a dip of 1% among total TV coverage. Audience for its NBA coverage has been flat with last season, though Magnus points out viewership soared 15% for that year-earlier cycle.

Key to those results, executives said, are efforts to talk to fans about the games well ahead of any pre-game show. By launching a series of live-streamed programs via Twitter; surprise takeovers on Instagram that can feature sports figures as well as ESPN hosts and analysts; Snapchat shows; and smart chatter about ESPN journalism that starts online as well as on shows like “Get Up,” ESPN hopes to spark earlier conversations with fans and even generate awareness among sports aficionados who may have been focused on other matters.

Executives have had to stop thinking just about programming for ESPN’s flagship “SportsCenter” and pre-game shows and start considering how to get to a fan who has yet to turn on the TV set. “If you are a baseball fan and you are waking up in the morning, what’s the thing you are immediately interested in? What’s the thing you should be interested in but aren’t completely aware of? What’s the interesting angle for the day? How do we hit that angle appropriately in all the different places people consume? And if we’ve introduced a storyline all day, how do we make sure we pay it off in the event itself?” asks Schell. “It has been a shift in strategy for us over the past 12 to 18 months – thinking about the journey of a fan across platforms versus ‘Am I putting the best half hour on from 12 to 12:30?’”

But the process requires finesse, says Ryan Spoon, senior vice president of social and digital at ESPN. Snapchat’s audience doesn’t want the same thing aficionados of Apple News do. “We are not taking the same thing and pressing ‘publish’ everywhere,” he notes.

Executives are finding sizable digital audiences. A Twitter pre-game show hosted by Sarah Spain and Chiney Ogwumike ahead of the NCAA women’s championship, for example, generated more than 75,000 impressions. ESPN’s “Hoop Streams” show for Twitter notched 368,000 views heading into a Sunday game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Minnesota Timberwolves.

“The beauty of sports is that 90% of it is perfectly calendared,” says Spoon. “We know what we believe are the big holidays and events are going to be and can make sure our people, our storytellers  are in all of those locations and places. We don’t necessarily know who is in the Final Four or what trade will happen, but we can prepare.”

Executives say they aren’t concerned about whether they are bringing new people to ESPN programs or getting ESPN die-hards to watch even more. “We are trying to do both,” says Schell.

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