The Wall Street Journal reports that ESPN is launching a significant advertising blitz in support of its "SportsCenter" franchise. For the first time, ESPN will be advertising the program on other platforms besides its own networks.
What has triggered the new campaign? Clearly, the launch of Fox Sports Network and its flagship nighttime news and highlights show has caused some concern in Bristol (headquarters of ESPN). ESPN, in fact, faces a number of new rivals. NBC and CBS both now have cable sports channels, and many of the regional sports networks run their own nighttime news and highlights shows to compete with ESPN SportsCenter.
What's caused all the new competition to emerge? In my view, television networks have focused even more intensely on sports in recent years, because live sports draws young audiences in a world where those young viewers can access other programming content via DVR, Netflix, HBO, the web, etc.
At this point, many of the competitors offer shows that do not look and feel dramatically different than SportsCenter. The real threat will come if someone figures out how to differentiate successfully. Beyond that, the threat to ESPN comes as much from substitution as it does from imitation. What do I mean by that? A preoccupation with new rivals should not preclude ESPN from thinking about the fact that many young people can learn about scores and watch highlights from their tablets and smartphones, and therefore, may be less likely to watch SportsCenter than in years past. ESPN has done a great job of offering other ways of accessing content, but of course, there are a plethora of options out there for news, scores, and highlights. Just in the way that SportsCenter made the sports segment on local evening news fairly irrelevant, now digital platforms may be putting a dent in SportsCenter.