ESPN’s new city-centric properties are doing a little piggybacking on its network of radio affiliates, developed last decade. The sports media giant launched ESPNChicago.com last spring, premiered ESPNBoston.com and ESPNDallas.com in September, and expects to debut sites targeting New York City and Los Angeles in 2010.
In Chicago and Dallas, ESPN’s radio affiliates are leading local ad sales efforts while collaborating with ESPN’s overall digital sales team and national accounts division. The New York and Los Angeles sites are expected to be run the same way. An ESPN spokesperson explained that the radio teams have done cross-media sales before, though they will be expected to up their games to meet the sports media brand’s expectations for the city sites.
Boston is being handled differently. Since the media company doesn’t have a radio property in the market and therefore lacks the sales infrastructure, it has contracted with Kraft Sports Group to sell local advertising. ESPN will sell the national inventory for that city site.
While ESPN’s national TV, radio, and digital organizations provide most of the sites’ news, the local radio stations contribute podcasts and other content. The sites themselves are published by the company’s recently created department, ESPNLocal.com.
“It really emanated from radio as something to drive traffic and new content for the [WMVP-AM Chicago] site,” said Jim Pastor, SVP of ESPNLocal.com. “As we were exploring that opportunity, we realized we could do more than just support the radio station site. We could also build relevant and unique content that would serve our core user in a pretty compelling way. And so it evolved from there.”
According to comScore data, the Chicago site had 761,000 unique visitors in July — roughly double what it tallied in May, its first full month. In addition, comScore shows that the average unique visitors to ESPNChicago.com in May, June, and July (555,000) had already surpassed the averages for the sports sites of the Chicago Tribune (424,000) and Chicago Sun-Times (256,000). No statistics are yet available for the Boston and Dallas destinations.
Meanwhile, local businesses are mostly being targeted with display ads and affiliate radio spots, and national brands are getting pitched cross-platform packages that can include the city-specific sites, local radio, ESPN.com, TV, and national radio.
So far, StubHub has purchased display ads at each of the three sites. At ESPNChicago.com, national advertisers like MillerCoors and Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar have also come aboard, while local names, such as Binny’s Beverage Depot, have made appearances as well. Converse, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Covidien are among the brands to ink deals to advertise on the Boston site. The Dallas site is featuring a video spot by StubHub, along with several display ads from a local real estate developer.
“It is providing a bigger opportunity for our local advertisers…to take full advantage of things that up to this point had eluded them,” Pastor said. “[They can] be associated with the ESPN brand, whether it is the company overall, ‘SportsCenter,’ through an on-air personality, or a feature that’s created specifically for them on the site.”
ESPN’s city-specific initiative will have to contend with a slowing local online advertising medium. Media research firm Borrell Associates recently projected that local online ad revenues will grow 12 percent this year over last, and just 5 percent in 2010. The report said that spending on local display ads will decline, as digital offerings such as search, directories, and promotions increase. And a new report from Interactive Advertising Bureau and PricewaterhouseCoopers finds all interactive ad expenditures fell around 5 percent during the first half of the year.
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