When Katie Nolan hosts an ESPN telecast of Game 2 of the NBA Finals this Sunday, some viewers may think she’s there to rattle off play by play. Others may think she’s ready to laugh with pals.
And executives at the sports-media giant are OK with that.
Nolan, analyst Jay Williams, Snapchat “SportsCenter” host Gary Striewski and Mike Korzemba, a YouTube influencer who specializes in basketball-related content, will hold forth on a special Game 2 broadcast available only on the ESPN App. They will be superimposed at the bottom of the screen while the game plays above them. – and free to let loose. Viewers will see various emoji-like symbols pop up during game play – like a ‘fire’ graphic if a shooter has a hot hand – or data nuggets about steals, assists, rebounds and more. ESPN executives see the whole thing as an experiment in the ongoing quest by TV networks to give viewers between 12 and 17 a feed of game action that best suits them.
“Maybe there will be pizza,” says Nolan (above, pictured) of the relaxed setting. “We see an opportunity to reach younger people who are changing the way they consume content.” A traditional broadcast of the game will be available on ABC.
ESPN is taking a swing at what is likely to be a growing challenge for sports purveyors of all sizes: A rising generation of viewers is growing accustomed to watching their games in a very different way. “This is really the Twitch-ification of television,” says Tim Hanlon, CEO of Vertere Group, a media and advertising consultancy, referring to the Amazon-owned Twitch streaming platform that broadcasts videogame play and esports. “A whole generation of younger males are looking at data, graphics and interaction with others as their primary focus and the game is almost sort of the background to that activity.”
Creating an environment that mirrors some of the elements of esports may be critical in the not-too-distant future for established sports purveyors like ESPN. The North American market for esports is seen expanding by 35% in 2019, according to research from Deloitte Global.
ESPN has been testing alternate viewing experiences online for several months, but this will mark the first time the Disney-owned outlet is making a product they think will appeal directly to young people, says Ed Placey, an ESPN senior coordinating producer who has been supervising the experiments. He likens the NBA Finals stream to “a fan-friendly comic-book experience,” with fans able to see symbols pop up on screen “when notable events happen – a dunk, a big three-pointer, a block.”
In an era not too far gone, every sports fan would watch the same broadcast of a game. But in times when people are able to stream their video favorites at times and on devices of their own choosing, a sense is growing that different swaths of consumers crave different experiences. Indeed, Amazon hired football’s first all-female team – Hannah Storm and Andrea Kremer – to offer a different game take for customers who opted to watch its feed of Fox’s broadcast of “Thursday Night Football.” ESPN recently offered two different broadcasts of the annual NFL Draft. One transmitted on its flagship network was for sports die-hards, and another sent via ABC spent more time on the stories of the athletes chosen by various teams and their families. At its Bristol, Conn., headquarters, a team devoted to ESPN’s technology has experimented with an on-demand system that allows viewers to choose from among different camera feeds of a single game.
“We can serve multiple kinds of audiences without alienating anyone,” says Placey.
Catching younger sports fans in new ways is key to ESPN’s future. It’s no secret that ESPN has, like many other longstanding cable networks, faced an erosion of subscribers to its traditional linear outlets. ESPN has already cast for new ways to lure younger fans, including recent investments in rights deals with combat sports league such as the MMA.
The NBA test is likely to shake up the way ESPN anchors and producers handle their duties. Nolan, for example, will be on screen during much of Sunday’s game, rather than popping in occasionally or talking from behind the scenes.
She expects to have more freedom. “Maybe we will be talking off the cuff. Maybe I will get something wrong. Maybe no one corrects you,” she says. “But that’s what happens when you are sitting on a couch with friends.”
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