On July 11, 2014, LeBron James announced that he was leaving the Miami Heat to return to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. Within a few minutes of the announcement, an ESPN notification typed on a desktop computer in Bristol, Connecticut, was sent to more than 6.5 million people in the United States who had signed up for at least one of the company’s news alerts. The message about James’s decision, emblazoned with an ESPN logo, appeared on the lockscreens of more smartphones in the U.S. than the weekly circulation of The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and USA Today, combined.
“For the next two or three hours after that story broke, there were more people on our website [and app] than were watching SportsCenter,” said Patrick Stiegman, the vice president and editorial director of ESPN Digital & Print Media. The exact figure, ESPN later told me, was 3.7 million people across its digital properties. This was more than a freak data point. It was a signal of mobile’s emergence, proof of the power of the smartphone, and a lesson in the new ways that consumers expect to follow sports—that is, not merely to find news, but also to have the news find them, as well.
ESPN is arguably the most valuable media brand in the world, largely due to its dominant position in the TV sports business. This spring I visited ESPN executives, both at its New York City offices and at its headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut, to learn about how the company is thinking about its audience as it flutters off to Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and a distributed media environment where several major companies are searching for a way to build an audience and make money, as television yields to smaller screens and personalized news. ESPN could follow the example of other legacy media companies and selfishly hoard their best content—video, audio, and text—while praying that younger audiences learn to watch and pay for ESPN just like their parents did. Instead, ESPN seems impressively open to learning how the digital generation clicks on and watches ESPN—even if it means changing their own internal definition about what counts as sports news.