Baseball has long been a game that both kids and adults can enjoy. ESPN will soon test whether that maxim still holds.
When the Disney-owned sports giant broadcasts one of the games in the annual Little League World Series on Wednesday, August 21, it will offer one traditional telecast on its flagship cable network and another geared for the younger crowd on ESPN2. The ESPN2 “kidscast” will feature two 16-year-olds offering commentary in the broadcast booth and two 15-year-old sideline reporters, who will likely be reporting on the state of the cotton candy and ice cream at the refreshments stand as much as they will on any action in the dugout, says Mark Gross, ESPN’s senior vice president of production and remote events.
“We want it to be geared to kids,” says Gross, in an interview. “We are going to work the sideline reporters for some different things. What’s going on on the hill behind center field? Give us an update on kids sliding down on cardboard boxes. How fast are they going? Give us an update on what’s happening at the concession stand. What are kids and adults eating?” Mo’ne Davis, the first girl to win a game and pitch a shut out in Little League World Series history, will serve as a special analyst during part of the broadcast.
ESPN is taking another swing at a goal it has no choice but to meet. As a rising generation of sports fans surfs through video clips and stats on smartphones and mobile screens, the nation’s biggest broadcaster of live sports and sports programming needs to find ways to keep them tuning in to its games and other shows.
The company has experimented with new methods for months. There’s a version of ESPN’s long-running “Sports Center” running on Snapchat. The network has been looking more seriously at so-called “combat sports,” striking a deal with UFC last year that puts 15 “Fight Nights” on ESPN’s broadband-video service, ESPN Plus. In June, ESPN tried streaming a version of Game 2 of the NBA Finals tailored for young men that had Katie Nolan and guests chatting on screen all while the game proceeded, with some of the action punctuated by emojis and stat-laden graphics.
It’s no secret that ESPN, like other TV mainstays, is pushing back against the ongoing erosion of linear TV viewership and traditional subscriptions to cable and satellite providers. Those things have provided a steady annual flow of millions of dollars in advertising and affiliate fees to Disney. Now there’s new urgency to find other ways of luring sports fans to the ESPN fold.
The sports network has found some success in airing different telecasts of a single event. In April, ESPN provided two different versions of the NFL Draft. One telecast on ABC was aimed at fans looking for a broad entertainment event, and featured Robin Roberts, Luke Bryan and Bobby Bones. A second version, tailored for more intense sports fans, dove into stats and strategy on ESPN.
Each new foray, says Gross, helps producers learn more about what younger fans might like – or might like to avoid.
Walt Disney has a long history with the Little League World Series. Indeed, ABC Sports started broadcasting the event, held for teams of kids ages 10 to 12, in 1963. As time has progressed, and ABC and ESPN became part of Disney, more telecasts of more rounds of the tournament, broadcast each year from South Williamsport, Pennsylvania, have been sent out to TV viewers. The tournament has been around since 1947. Once centered only on U.S. teams, it now attracts players from around the world.
Executives have been discussing the Little League plans for weeks, says Gross. Producers reached out earlier in the year to Bruce Beck, the longtime sportscaster for New York’s WNBC, knowing he ran a camp for aspiring sportscasters at New Rochelle’s Iona College. Beck found some young candidates he felt could do the job.
The ESPN2 telecast will carry the same feed of the game as ESPN, says Gross, but producers do not want the two networks’ telecast to be the same in any way. ESPN2 viewers can expect “double boxes” and “triple boxes” on screen that allow viewers to see the game as well as the view from the teenage reporters on the sidelines, who will have their own mobile cameras.
“We wanted to try to provide an opportunity that, if you’re a kid at home that’s sitting there watching ESPN2, this is just going to be more up your alley. And the main reason it might be up your alley is because there are people who are on that you can relate to,” says Gross. “You might be 13 or 15 or 12 or 10, and obviously it’s no knock on our regular full-time announcers, but why not try to relate to a younger audience by providing some younger people and innovate that way?”
The kids will also try to interview more kids, working to solicit reaction from some attendees who are not competing in the game being telecast, but are part of the overall event.
“If you are going to do it, go the whole way,” says Gross. “Don’t go half way,” he adds. “Let’s go the whole way.”