On Friday, December 14, 2012, I attended New York Dot Comer‘s event featuring John Kosner, head of ESPN.com.
John Kosner leads the development for ESPN.com, ESPN3, WatchESPN and Grantland.com. He manages ESPN magazine and espnW. He was promoted in 2012 and has overseen these properties as the senior Vice President.
John Kosner began the talk by introducing himself and the ESPN organization. “The way news is disseminated is different than before. It tells you how much has changed and how much you can learn now about people’s behavior. These are amazing times,” he said. “It’s a historic time in the business. Both mobile devices and social media networks are happening at the same thing. The lines are changing. Why do you think Facebook bought Instagram for over a billion dollars? It’s because Instagram blurs the line between media and mobile.”
“ESPN is personal. It matters to you, the sports fan. Unlike the arc of a television show, it carries every year. You love to talk about what you’re watching. You root for your team. When Facebook introduced frictionless sharing, ESPN was a great candidate. The only complaint we got was that the bosses know how much time the employees were spending on ESPN.”
Kosner emphasized that not being afraid is key. “Be bold,” he said. “Don’t be afraid. New technology and new products are opportunities to advance ourselves. Quality is the business plan.”
Kosner revealed that ESPN is still a work in progress. “We’re incredibly excited for what’s in store for the next few years,” he said.
An audience member asked Kosner if ESPN was looking for growth, or creating one through partnerships. Kosner said, “We want to grow. Look at our traffic today—our traffic is 60 percent desktop and 40 percent mobile. On the weekends, it’s about 50/50. The movement is towards mobile. For you entrepreneurs out there, think of handset apps. We generally create our own content. To manage growth, you need to create good products and leverage them through social media. We’re trying to reach out to as many fans as we can…sports is inherently social.”
He was asked if there were any big-time competition that ESPN faced. Kosner readily replied that technology companies were at the forefront of the competition field. He was also asked if ESPN would ditch the subscription model on the website to view video and additional content. “No,” Kosner said. “Authentication will get easier and easier over time. Live sports are a reason to have a subscription model. We’re very much tethered to that model.”
When asked about new innovations, Kosner replied, “Right now, we have over 30 apps in the app store. We tend to go six to 10 to scale: ESPN Radio, football, soccer…. We’re trying to create native apps and better them, but you can’t change all of them [due to the wide variety of phones in the mobile sphere]. Everything is moving to apps, but that doesn’t mean it will affect content. I’m not a believer in cannibalization. Everyone wants to know the score, but sports fans will want to know more. The culture of ESPN is sports fans and they will read longer content about their sports teams.”
Kosner revealed that ESPN is built to scale. “We have enough flexibility—we are built to withstand the heaviest of loads, usually during college basketball season, but we can also scale back.” An audience member asked Kosner about the difference between younger users and the older users in the ESPN realm. “We just have to change how we program,” Kosner said. “Younger staffers just want to see the dunk. They don’t want to see the build up to the dunk. We’ve begun to experiment with highlights. One of the biggest traffic drivers to ESPN is through the Xbox 360. I wouldn’t have thought of it, but it is.”
“In the process of assimilating,” Kosner said, “we may buy smaller companies. For a big company, money is ample. But for a small company, it’s rather difficult. It’s also pretty hard to find bright engineers, but sports is a fantastic genre to work in because we don’t have to get people interested in it.”
An audience member asked if ESPN owned the content on the website. “Everything is a commodity,” Kosner said. “Several years ago, we made video clips using video players that we made specifically for our website. Content is really important, but if it’s slow to load, many get really impatient. The users start comparing it to things they use in their everyday life. The search bar is compared to Google, the faster the page load time, the better. The dissemination of our business if totally different from when I first started.”
Kosner was asked if ESPN will branch out their coverage to high schools throughout the United States. “No,” he said. “We actually moved out of grassroots high school sports because it’s so sprawling. High school athletes are using Facebook and YouTube to upload their reels. You might care about your town, but you won’t care how the neighboring town is doing. It doesn’t make sense to try to compile data for these because it will be too much for too few a crowd.”
On Olympics, Kosner said that NBC has a very comprehensive list of what ESPN can and can’t do. “Our coverage is limited and so is our access,” he said.
“We launched ESPN API and hackathon for ESPN engineers. It’s not easy to recruit engineers in Central Connecticut. We have a global opportunity to employ more engineers through entering the tech community. We launched espnW to target the female demographic. We were told that the ESPN website was intimidating—the color scheme, the font style, the amount of categories, and it was basically geared towards the male demographic. Next year, we plan to roll out personalization functions for ESPN,” Kosner said.