Iterations: How ESPN Thinks About The Future Of Its Product And Technologies

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Ryan Spoon (left), SVP of Product; and Aaron LaBerge, SVP of Technology, ESPN.

Ryan Spoon (left), SVP of Product; and Aaron LaBerge, SVP of Technology, ESPN.

Editor’s Note: Semil Shah is a contributor to TechCrunch. You can follow him on Twitter at @semil.

After spending time in the comforts of the Valley as a founder, operator, and venture capitalist, my friend Ryan Spoon headed east — to Bristol, Conn., of all places — to follow the intersection of his passion: technology and sports. And he’s not just at another sports company — he’s at ESPN, a sports network that reaches over 100 million homes with annual revenues approaching $8 billion. As one of the most valuable media networks out there, ESPN is also at an interesting point with respect to the shift happening in broadband, their subscriber fees, and the opportunities and challenges presented with mobile technology. Now as the SVP of Product for ESPN, the massive sports media and entertainment company, I invited Ryan and his colleague, Aaron LaBerge, who runs technology, to share some insights of how they left the technology world and ended up at ESPN and what ESPN thinks about the intersection of mobile and social in delivering content, developers and their APIs, the emerging hardware ecosystem for sports and fitness, and much more.

What brought the two of you to ESPN?

Ryan Spoon: Aaron and I are both new to ESPN, in different ways. I joined in August, as you know, as a move from Palo Alto and Polaris Ventures (previously eBay, founder of beRecruited). Aaron was previously at ESPN and Starwave (1997-2007) and left to found and run Fanzter, a consumer Internet startup. Aaron was at Starwave, which worked on the very first version of ESPN.com. I oversee product and Aaron oversees technology (SVP Technology & Product Development).

There are three primary factors that motivated each of us at ESPN and that drive our digital strategies: (1) Scale. We have the privilege of working at an amazing company that carries a meaningful brand and touches tens of millions of fans, each day. That is inspiring. Sometimes it’s daunting. It’s certainly fun. And it is also clarifying: it makes us focus on building experiences and products that touch massive numbers of fans. (2) Passion. The back of all of our business cards carry the ESPN mission: “To serve sports fans. Anytime. Anywhere.” It’s a simple statement that embodies that passion of fans (which we all are), the emotional connection with our properties (products, content, shows, etc), and the focus on live, personal and always-connected experiences. (3) Technology. First and foremost, ESPN is a media company. But we are also a technology company and culture. The blending of those two (media and technology) – particularly at our scale – is the special part.

How does ESPN think of the different “screens” users interface with, all the way from TV to web to tablet to phones?

Ryan: From smartphone to the 60″ television in your family room, ESPN products need to both satisfy the fan’s need in that situation AND take full advantage of the device itself. For example, consider WatchESPN — on your mobile device, we want to get fans into live games as quickly as possible. Speed, simplicity and navigation are most important. On the iPad, fan’s have a different behavior and we have more real estate to play with; consequently, we can introduce more functionality and you’ll see new versions coming shortly. Using Airplay, we can transport either of those experiences onto your television and then turn the handset / tablet into an additional screen (ScoreCenter, Gamecast, etc). This necessitates an understanding of a product’s experiences on different screens and in different moments, and then building to those environments.

Aaron: From a content perspective (audio, images, video) we’re spending a significant amount of time experimenting and improving our media encoding and image compositing systems, so that no matter what the size of the screen, we’re delivering the absolute best version we can. This includes everything from the visual quality to the compression algorithms we use to help us get around network limitations when distributing our content.

ESPN must have very rich data sources. Will you make an API available to developers, and if so, what kinds of apps and services would you encourage them to develop?

Aaron: We currently have a developer program which is being used by over 100 partners. The APIs are pretty comprehensive. Our main focus internally, however, is on centralizing all of the data at the company and making sure it’s available programmatically through our APIs. This includes everything from scores and statistics to the infographics that appear on our shows and live events. This is going to allow us to build the products we want much faster and on many more platforms.

We have talked a lot about applications and devices – what about ESPN.com – what are you focused on there?

Ryan: We are working to simplify ESPN.com around a few core themes. First and foremost, our content is the true product. The quality and diversity of content across ESPN.com is unparalleled and we need to make it the focal point. We also need to make it simpler to find, navigate, share, and so forth. Secondly, we are focused on building more personalized experiences across all of our products. My ESPN.com should – and it will – feel different than your ESPN.com. Lastly, we are unifying our mobile applications and products with ESPN.com. Those experiences should be consistent from a visual, interactive, and content perspective – and they should be seamlessly integrated and connected.

Do you see ESPN having a one-app-fits all approach for mobile (like Facebook), or do you see the future as federating across sports for specific audiences and experiences?

Aaron: From a technical perspective, we’re ready for both. Our new Digital Center (goes online in 2014) is a completely IP-based, format independent facility. We’re constantly reinventing our workflow so that every person who touches a piece of content is adding meta data to help drive our APIs. We create highlights with multiple edits and multiple encoding formats — to support all of our content platforms. Our goal is to make the best use of our extensive rights portfolio. The investments we’re making in our infrastructure, tools, and workflows are going to allow us to build products that just aren’t possible today.

Ryan: We have really focused our application strategy and offering to center around the core pillar experiences: scores & news (ScoreCenter), live games and video (WatchESPN), streaming audio (ESPN Radio), and games (Fantasy sports). These experiences and products are sufficiently different. I believe they should exist as individual applications. However, they cannot be independent applications — they need to speak to one another and, where it makes sense, be integrated. For instance, you can access live Gamecasts via ScoreCenter – and when the game is available, we provide one-click access to open the live stream within WatchESPN. ScoreCenter, WatchESPN, ESPN Radio, and Fantasy each have millions of loyal fans. ScoreCenter for instance is approaching 50 million downloads. These apps should feel like one another, speak to one another, and get users directly into the desired action.

What does ESPN think of the consumer trend to wear health sensors like Jawbone Up and Nike Fuel Band?

Aaron: Over the coming years, sensor-based analytics are going to have an effect on everything from youth and participatory sports all the way up through the pros. We are actively involved in finding ways to measure, interpret and share athlete, ball, and sport performance. Our main goal with all of this experimentation is data. We look at this data to help tell better stories and to enhance our products.

Ryan: It’s more than a trend: it’s an evolution of technology and personal curiosity. Jawbone, Nike, Fitbit, etc. are the devices… but I also use Nike’s Running application several times a week. To me they represent the desire to visualize, understand and share data. Nike is cataloging my physical activity in beautiful, compelling, fun and social ways. Moving beyond personal activity, ESPN sits atop a world of data: plays, players, games, seasons, records, and so on. Those too can be rendered in beautiful and compelling ways.

Is ESPN hiring? What types of people?

Aaron: ESPN is a special place if you love technology and sports. We’re always looking for passionate people to help us build new products and platforms that will be used by millions of fans. When you think of scalability and large-scale applications, we have some of the greatest technical challenges in the world to solve. For sports fans and technology enthusiasts – there really is no place like ESPN. We’re building a New England tech hub and are always looking for great people within product, design, and technology. Contact either Ryan or myself if interested.