ESPN Launches Personalized SportsCenter Feed Web App, Proves It Just Gets Digital

By Michael Carney , written on September 19, 2012

From The News Desk

Among traditional media companies, ESPN’s name carries more weight and credibility in the digital world than most. “They’re just really, really fucking good,” one sports game developer told me recently. “They’re probably the only old media company I’m scared of.” In fact, the company’s digital team takes itself so seriously that it scolded me when, in relaying this story, I dared to describe the company as old media.

It’s for this reason that when the company told me it was preparing to release a new digital consumption experience, I was genuinely intrigued. That new product is called SportsCenter Feed, a personalized content discovery app available today in beta optimized for both the desktop and mobile Web.

The decision to release the app stems from ESPN’s recognition that it releases thousands of unique pieces of content per day, including news, analysis, videos, podcasts, and game scores, the bulk of which are difficult to discover and consume. The challenge, according to SVP of product development Ryan Spoon is, “delivering [this] content to sports fans in a way that is immediate, popular and personally relevant.”

The app displays personalized content chronologically in a RSS viewer- or Twitter-like layout. Immediately beside this headline feed is a large viewing pane in which all forms of content can be immediately consumed and shared across social platforms.

Personalization within SC Feed is based on each viewer’s interests, including favorite city, team, and sport. Users input this information manually and it syncs across the entire ESPN digital universe, including its main website and existing ScoreCenter mobile app. In the near future, ESPN plans to allow users to further customize their feeds in terms of favorite player and author as well.

It’s interesting that ESPN decided to go the manual personalization route rather than the more implicit interest graph based approach becoming more common today. One explanation may be that sports fans are more engaged and willing to share their interest data explicitly than say online shoppers or readers of traditional news. Also, preferences within sports tend to be black and white. “I like the NBA but not the NHL. I like the Lakers and hate the Celtics.” This being the case, more intelligent personalization may not be necessary to achieve the desired result. Another more simple explanation could be that this is a beta release and the company likely has additional tricks up its sleeves.

Today’s release is one of the first internal projects to make full use of the recently launched ESPN API. The concept for SC Feed was born out of the company’s first ever internal hackathon nearly two years ago (since then, it has had a second). At the time, a cross-department team of digital and production staffers took 48 hours to hack together a concept and prototype, which was then pitched to company-wide executives. While several other hackathon-born ideas have been incorporated across the ESPN ecosystem, SC Feed is the first to emerge largely unchanged from the concept stage.

I asked Spoon and site development manager David Weiner whether there was any risk of SC Feed cannibalizing existing views and thus monetization of the company’s cable TV programming or main site Weiner brushed any concerns of this type aside saying, “The only goal is to increase consumption. We feel that any experience that reduces friction and makes the consumption more fun will accomplish this goal.” This is not to mention the fact that, despite its beta label, SC Feed is already being monetized through sponsorships.

This may not fully answer the question of SC Feed’s impact on other ESPN properties, but the truth is, the company likely doesn’t care at this stage. The new Web app is about driving engagement and about better discovering what content users consume and how. Down the line as this becomes more clear, expect the company to make more purposeful decisions about monetization.

SportsCenter feed seems like the natural evolution for the ESPN experience. The company could have easily tried to do “too much,” but the beta version seems to have found a nice balance between simplicity and convenience. Given ESPN’s digital reputation, this is little surprise and is likely a preview of more interesting things to come.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]