ESPN has been a force in the digital space for years, defined by its willingness to branch out and expand into pretty much any area. Stories and columns, naturally. Video, of course. Blogs, by the bushel. City-specific content and online-only content – free and paid – as well. For as large a company as ESPN is, I give them credit for embracing new media opportunities in many forms and targeting many audiences.
That’s why I’m particularly intrigued about the launch of their latest offering, ESPNFrontRow.com. Set to launch March 30, this new site/blog will be run by ESPN’s own PR department. From the Sports Business Journal story on the launch:
The blog will serve two purposes. It will offer a behind-the-scenes look at how ESPN operates and it will address controversies that involve ESPN.
“This is a way for us to speak directly with consumers,” said Mike Soltys, ESPN’s vice president of communications.
The need to speak directly to consumers is close to becoming a necessity for larger companies, as engaged customers increasingly demand transparency and accountability from brands – look Southwest Airlines or My Starbucks Idea. And it’s noteworthy that this site will remain distinct from ESPN’s existing ombudsman site, which already serves the traditional independent watchdog role. Instead, it seems the new site will focus on engagement, even allowing comments.
But this new site is also clearly a response to the rise in popularity and influence of fan-driven sites like Deadspin and The Big Lead. Blogs like these built a following by avidly tracking – and critiquing – ESPN’s programming choices and personalities. Deadspin in particular has never been shy about going after the Worldwide Leader. The sports media has become a subject to cover in itself – think of the recent dustup over reporter Erin Andrews having a contract with Reebok while reporting on Nike shoes (and really, think of ANYTHING Erin Andrews does). By creating a place and voice to tell its side of the story instead of putting out a formulaic statement or simply ignoring an issue, ESPN can enter the conversation on the same level as the outlets covering it.
Of course, a lot depends on the tone of content on ESPNFrontRow.com once it launches. If it comes off as overtly promotional, readers will see right through it. Let’s hope it is a truly authentic site with a willingness to pull back the curtain on some of the aspects of the company that would benefit from explanation.