ESPN Hopes Short-Form ‘ESPN Stories’ Will Intrigue Digitally-Savvy Sports Fans

ESPN Hopes Short-Form 'ESPN Stories' Will Intrigue Digital Sports Fans
Courtesy of ESPN

ESPN is moving deeper into the increasingly popular game of talking about big topics in smaller chunks of content.

The Walt Disney-owned sports-media giant will today start rolling out “ESPN Stories,” a new series of quick-hit content compilations that its executives believe represent a new way of talking about sports to a generation of fans that love seeing not only great plays and highlights, commentator hot takes, stats and player interviews but humorous moments captured by fans on the scene and other memes that have become part of the currency of conversation on social media. ESPN introduces the new format as younger consumers show a yen for communicating via self-created short-form video pieces that are distributed by services like TikTok, Instagram or Snapchat.

“If we can showcase the amazing work the broader company is doing, I think that’s a significant win here that will result in more consumption, more time spent, more bandwidth,” says Ryan Spoon, senior vice president of digital and social content at ESPN, in an interview. Some of the Stories may rely just as heavily on humor or trivia, he says, as they do more traditional pieces of ESPN’s various products.

ESPN Stories will be made available to the ESPN App via its latest update, and executives believe the new format represents the company’s most significant content-driven release since launching the subscription-video-on-demand service ESPN Plus in 2018. Users will see Stories regularly put together by hosts and commentators such as  Omar Raja, Christine Williamson, Jason Fitz or Ashley Brewer. The move brings vertical video to the App for the first time. Should the format gain popularity, there is a chance it could be adapted for use by other Disney siblings, such as ABC News, National Geographic or Freeform.

Starting Friday, ESPN App users will see a new carousel of selections at the top of the screen that might offer a short dive into the buzz around a coming UFC bout (and offer a chance for the user to sign up for a pay-per-view event); a look at an athlete in the news via snippets of ESPN interviews, stats and shots of game play; or a celebration of an athlete who is retiring or has passed away. The Stories look nothing like a segment of “SportsCenter” or a chunk of game coverage. Instead, they curate a selection of different kinds of information, and often prompt users to find out more by tuning in to an event, accessing a recent ESPN article or even engaging in a transaction of some sort.

The Stories are part of ESPN’s bid to grow its overall audience, many of whom do not watch sports in the same way as older counterparts.  ESPN, like many other media outlets that depend on cable and satellite distribution to reach sports fans, is expected to continue to shed linear viewers over the long haul, with market-research firm Kagan projecting dips in traditional subscriptions to ESPN and ESPN2.  The ESPN App, meanwhile, is “critically important to our strategy, to our usage,” says Spoon.

ESPN says the App notched a usage high in September of last year with 25.4 million unique users.

The company signaled its interest in this area when it confirmed in January its hire of Raja, an expert in the business of figuring out what sports fans want to talk about via short-form video content. Raja founded the House of Highlights account on Instagram and parlayed it into  one of the biggest new fonts of sports commentary in the modern business. Raja is in Orlando, says Spoon, and will be offering commentary and takes on the NBA’s effort to restart its season.

ESPN has moved more quickly into some new digital media frontiers than its contemporaries. It offers a version of “SportsCenter” for Snapchat users, for example, and maintains roosts in many emerging platforms, including Instagram and TikTok. ESPN’s various feeds on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, for example, took a total of 2.2 billion actions on those platforms in the first six months of this year, according to Shareablee, an increase of 70% over the year-earlier period.

Under Spoon, the company has worked in the belief that it must tailor its content to each venue or behavior, rather than trying to push out programming in monolithic fashion. “We have a chance to add different and new types of formats and new types of storytelling that I think will satisfy a different itch for each user,” says Spoon.