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ESPN Goes Realtime, Turns Its Content Firehose Into A Streaming Reader

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Oh, it’s on. Over the last year or so, ESPN has been experimenting with better ways to present and distribute its content on the Web and on mobile. Essentially, they realized (or at least I hope they did) that their user experience on their digital properties wasn’t great and that others were sneaking up on and passing them — their dominance in TV notwithstanding. Yesterday, they launched a new product in beta called SportsCenter Feed, which offers sports fans a new way to consume ESPN’s content.

Here’s the deal, in case you missed it. At the end of last month, ESPN rolled out a complete redesign of ScoreCenter for iPad, and this new product brings a lot of the same functionality to the web (and mobile web). Simply put, it allows you to consume ESPN content in a different way — one that is likely a lot more palatable than having to face ESPN.com (their main portal) every day.

For people used to RSS readers, aggregators, Twitter, and a million other ways to consume news, SportsCenter Feed will seem familiar. The app intends to give you an easy way to filter news around teams, sports, and players you care about. The app takes social cues from Facebook, Twitter, and ESPN data, as it points out on its Developer Blog, to help determine what content is trending and popular, serving it to you in realtime. It also allows you to play with a few personalization features to customize your feed, all which then show up wherever you access the app.

Some Context

The way the company is approaching its content has changed, which started with its beginning to open the doors to its data. The fact that this is one of its first “pillar products” to use its new API platform is an indication that this is a new ESPN.

Of course, talk to the guys running it and they’ll say “hey, we’ve been doing this for years, thank you,” but hearing ESPN say “API and Developer Center” in the same sentence is jarring after being yelled at by Herm Edwards. Would love to see the all-company emails with API in the subject line.

Now, to be clear, the new ESPN is NOT Facebook or Stripe just because it’s starting to wake up to the fact that its mobile and web user experiences need serious improvement, but it’s a step in the right direction. After all, ESPN’s Director of Communications for Digital Media Kevin Ota tells us that SportsCenter Feed was developed during an internal hackathon.

More Context

I was supposed to cover this yesterday, but thanks to being sick (see here), I got a chance to see what others were saying about the new product. Surprisingly, 90 percent of the headlines compared SportsCenter Feed to Twitter. Having used the product a bit, I understand the comparison, but it’s not the one I would use at all.

SportsCenter Feed looks and feels way more like Reeder or Google Reader than Twitter, especially as ESPN plans to turn it into an iOS app later this year. Sure, the content fills your feed in realtime, but this is ESPN’s content and their content only, which is the exact opposite of Twitter. Twitter’s biggest drawback is its lack of context. It’s starting to do more with hashtags and personalization, but its search is rough and you really can’t effectively parse by topic, only by individual feeds or by search. Not really the ideal way to consume.

In terms of aggregation, SportsCenter Feed follows behind BleacherReport’s Team Stream, which the publisher has had in app form since the beginning of this year and incorporated into its homepage in March. Like SportsCenter Feed, Team Stream, offers realtime news on teams and topics from its contributors, however, it also curates popular news from other sports media. And that’s huge.

ESPN has an absolute mountain of content and data and is the biggest name brand in sports, which makes these kinds of moves appealing. Inherently they’re going to have a lot of reach. But it kind of comes down to whether or not you want diversity in your sports news consumption. If you prefer ESPN over all others, this is a dream come true; if not, it’s one more thing to add to your stack of sports filters.

The Twitter comparison makes sense in that the social network is already the top destination when it comes to realtime sports commentary. Fans love to tweet their reactions to games, news, and events as they happen, using it as a second (or third) screen companion for communication. But, again, unless you’re aggregating all the best sports-related Twitter feeds in TweetDeck or something, it’s not exactly an AP wire for sports. But whoever gets there first, with a great design, is obviously going to be a happy camper.

And ESPN and BleacherReport are not alone in their understanding of this. You can get the same functionality from Flipboard. Evri recently launched a sports-specific Flipboard for mobile, Taptu was onto this as well, not to mention the other major media properties that are moving in this direction (i.e. all of them).

So what?

ESPN is smart to be experimenting with different ways to present its content, especially because it produces so damn much of it. This product is currently in beta, so it’s going to change based on feedback, and hopefully will begin adding long-form content (like the stuff from Grantland), but it’s most likely going to stay ESPN-centric.

If you want content from a bunch of different sources, this isn’t your ideal product, but where ESPN could see a lot of value is through its API. It’s not too difficult to imagine sports franchises wanting to tap into variants or topics from within this stream and include in their mobile apps and on their homepages. If ESPN begins licensing its APIs, which it will, you’ll start to see ESPN’s content showing up everywhere … and the more they encourage third-party developers to play in their sandbox (and actually reward them for doing it), its ecosystem is going to get a lot stronger and its products a lot better.

It was only a matter of time before ESPN became a digital-first (although you could argue that’s still a work in progress), but it’s probably going to become a lot more appealing for developers and creators to start working within their garden rather than trying to compete with them on UI alone. Hard to beat their data reserves.

However, people just want one place to consume all their sports news and don’t want to log into 18 different apps, so because it seems like ESPN isn’t too keen on sharing real estate with other media players, that could be where the game is won. Oh, and it will also depend on how aggressively ESPN follows Twitter’s lead and begins inserting ads into its feeds. The fewer, the better.