It’s become increasingly clear that the sports industry is among the fastest growing segments for streaming live content on the Web. Several industry studies (by Screen Digest and others) suggest that sports will be the biggest driver of online video consumption in years to come. Online sports video streams/downloads served in the U.S. market are projected to increase from 5.2 billion in 2007 to 10.8 billion by 2012.
Among the many sports-related sites, ESPN.com has led the way, with the site now averaging more than 119 million video streams per month. ESPN Digital Media, the division responsible for the site, also claims to have logged almost 50 percent of the total minutes for the entire sports category in 2008, more than three times the nearest competitor.
With such a highly trafficked platform, you’d think that ESPN would leave well enough alone, but the network continues to tweak the site’s features in an effort to attract new visitors and to keep longtime subscribers lurking longer. This month, a redesigned ESPN.com launched with a cleaner, simpler design and navigation, a richer video experience throughout the site, integration of ESPN Search, enhanced scoreboards and the ability to personalize the site to individual fan preferences. And, according to John Zehr, senior VP of digital video and mobile production for ESPN, they are not done yet.
“We hesitated to call this a redesign because it’s important that we continue to improve upon earlier versions and give fans exactly what they want, when they want it,” he said. “We figure we have a few minutes with each visitor, so we want to keep them occupied as much as possible … Customization and personal navigation were two keys areas that have been improved upon.”
These new customizations are facilitated with a new myESPN tool that allows fans to go directly to their favorite team’s stats and videos. These personalized settings will be able to be transferred to all of ESPN’s platforms, including mobile device and eventually set-top boxes in the home.
Among an extensive library of video content, the site also offers online series, such as “Mayne Street,” the weekly live program “Fantasy Football Now” and the weekly original program “MMA Live.”
The new site, which was in a public beta testing period for the second half of December and in a private test phase for ESPN Insider subscribers prior to that, features a larger video window that now dominates the home page and displays content in the 16:9 aspect ratio.
Zehr said the launch of the redesigned ESPN.com marks the start of the next phase in the site’s continued evolution and comes just after it closed a record-setting 2008. More people spent more time on ESPN.com than ever before in 2008. In fact, across all platforms — online, mobile, broadband, online games and digital audio — ESPN Digital Media set new records in 2008.
More fans spent more time on ESPN.com than ever before in 2008. According to Nielsen NetRatings, total minutes spent per month on the site were up 32 percent to more than 839 million, and unique users per month were up more than 16 percent to 20 million. Similarly, according to comScore Media Metrix, total minutes spent per month on the site were up 25 percent to 1.1 billion, and unique users per month were up more than 8 percent to nearly 21 million.
ESPN.com also continued to grow its reach internationally by acquiring Racing-Live.com, a leading motorsports site, which joins the stable of international sites now part of the ESPN.com network of sites, which includes ESPNSoccernet.com, Cricinfo.com, ESPNdeportes.com and ESPNScrum.com.
The workflow for the site includes content being encoded directly from the Quantel eQ shared-storage editing system installed in Bristol, CT, where a total of 77 Quantel sQ server mainframes provide 6000 hours of uncompressed HD online storage.
Chris Statz, manager of wireless operations, oversees production of content for the sports network’s Internet and mobile TV platforms, where hundreds of highlight clips are produced with a Quantel editing platform. “The clip comes into our television environment via the Quantel editing systems, and we get it out as quickly as possible in multiple formats that are required to support our content providers,” he said. “We’re able to get video out of the Quantel environment in an uncompressed messaging format that’s essentially full-frame HD and SD.
“We’re always trying to push the envelope and give users the best experience possible,” Statz said, adding that video on the site is delivered in 16:9 at 712Kb/s with another 80Kb/s dedicated to stereo audio signals. “If you’re getting 5Mb/s from your ISP service, we want to use as much of that as we practically can.”
Additionally, unlike the various professional sports leagues who have their own sites, ESPN.com remains relevant 365 days a year, Zehr said. “Rights issues are always a challenge, but sports fans know to look for us, even if we are not the exclusive provider of the original telecast. The Olympics was a good example of this. NBC was the sole broadcaster in the U.S., but thousands of fans came to our site every day for results and perspective they can’t get anywhere else.”For those who might think that attracting fans to the Web site takes them away from ESPN’s TV channel, Zehr said quite the contrary. It helps drive “tune-in,” that is, traffic back to ESPN’s TV programming. Recognizing this, the company has embarked upon a “big picture” strategy, the goal of which is to boost all of its delivery platforms including TV, Internet, mobile, radio and broadband subscription services.