Closely following a string of announcements from sports sites ramping up for the beginning of football season, giant ESPN today kicked off a new online strategy with the incorporation of SportsZone and other branded sites into newly launched ESPN.com.
The move aims to make ESPN's well-established SportsZone "even more of a destination" for sports fans online, said Geoff Reiss, senior vice president of programming and production for ESPN Internet Ventures. ESPN, a Disney subsidiary, already enjoys a pace-setting site and the tremendous advantage of its well-known television brand.
The change in course follows rival SportsLine USA's launch of a TV show and Fox Sports Online's site redesign, which includes upgraded functionality. These steps too demonstrate the media muscle that is increasingly necessary to compete in the online sports world.
Sports content is in high demand on the Net, with rabid fans proving to be loyal site visitors. Along with the traditional players such as ESPN, pro sports leagues as the NBA, the NFL, and Major League Baseball and portals such as Yahoo have joined the competitive Net sports game.
Until today, users who typed in "www.espn.com" were led to "ESPN.SportsZone.com." Now, ESPN.com will be the hub site for ESPN's network of sports sites, which includes all the content from the former SportsZone as well as links to the official NFL, NBA, NASCAR, and WNBA sites, among others, Reiss said. ESPN Internet Ventures produces those sites under contracts with the various leagues. The league sites and ESPN.com now cross-promote as well.
Reiss said the move is designed to better use the ESPN brand, rather than continuing to build the SportsZone brand.
"ESPN is still the mother of all brands in the sports information space," he said. "Every time we don't emphasize our 'ESPN-ness,' we're giving more comfort to our competitors."
Patrick Keane, an analyst with Jupiter Communications, said the relaunch "makes sense, and it will be interesting to see how the merchandising aspect of it works out."
Keane was referring to the planned opening of ESPN's online store, scheduled for September 8. The store will offer more than 2,000 products including clothing and accessories with various team and league logos, merchandise with the ESPN logo, and "authenticated memorabilia" such as autographed material, according to Russ Gillam, vice president of electronic commerce for the Buena Vista Internet Group, ESPN Internet Ventures' immediate parent.
Gillam pointed out that the ESPN store was built by the same group that built the Disney online store--arguably one of the best-known brands online or off.
But Keane questioned whether it is wise for ESPN's revamped site to play up its connection with the official league sites.
"Real sports fans don't really gravitate toward league sites," he said.
However, since the leagues are for the most part declining to freely license video footage of game highlights to the sports sites as they do with TV networks, Keane conceded that the league sites that offer video highlights could attract even the harder-to-please hard-core fans.
Today's relaunch also involves an expansion of ESPN's fantasy sports section, which Keane called an "emerging category," and an "extreme sports" section. ESPN has partnered with MountainZone.com, Soccer Times, Tennis Week, U.S. College Hockey Online, and FastBreak magazine, which covers high school basketball recruiting, to broaden its coverage.
ESPN Internet Ventures said during the second quarter of 1998, its services generated 864 million page views.