Disney’s ESPN Steps Up Its Game to Meet Fox Network’s Challenge

Walt Disney Co.’s ESPN, which bills itself as “the worldwide leader in sports,” is meeting Fox Sports 1’s challenge with additional shows, broader online offerings and a new studio.

The Fox network debuted Aug. 17, as 21st Century Fox Inc. takes aim at Disney’s most profitable business. ESPN, which was watched in more than twice as many homes last weekend, invited reporters to its Bristol, Connecticut, headquarters on Aug. 21 to show off its changes.

ESPN accounts for about 70 percent of the $5.7 billion in operating income Disney reported from its cable networks in fiscal 2012, according to Martin Pyykkonen, a Wedge Partners analyst. Margins at the sports network have peaked at mid-40 percent, as it will be hard for ESPN to keep raising ad rates and fees from cable and satellite TV providers, he said.

“If Fox Sports 1 kicks into high gear then there could be further margin impact and ad spend shifting somewhat away from ESPN,” Pyykkonen, who is based in Greenwood Village, Colorado, and doesn’t rate shares of Burbank, California-based Disney, said in an e-mail. “But that’s a big if at this moment.”

Fox Sports 1 averaged 627,000 homes tuning in during prime time on the Aug. 17-18 weekend, according to data from Nielsen. ESPN averaged 1.7 million homes.

To keep Fox Sports 1 at bay, the Disney sports network is making changes including rehiring former ESPN host Keith Olbermann, whose new show for the ESPN2 network starts airing Aug. 26. “Olbermann’” will be on at the same time as the ESPN channel’s “SportsCenter” news show on weeknights.

“Our goal is to have the most significant competition for ESPN come from ESPN,” John Skipper, the network’s president, said at an Aug. 21 press conference.

‘Football Nerds’

ESPN is also expanding its “College GameDay” football preview program to three hours from two on Saturdays, and has introduced “NFL Insiders,” a weekday afternoon program that Seth Markman, who supervises NFL coverage, said will focus on news about players and teams for “football nerds.”

The network is hiring reporters to cover each of the National Football League’s 32 teams for online and TV, according to Rob King, who heads ESPN’s digital media efforts. In October, it will begin converting users of its ESPN ScoreCenter mobile application to a new app called SportsCenter that will offer customizable statistics, videos, news and social networking. ScoreCenter has been downloaded 45 million times, King said.

Early next year, ESPN will open the new studio for the “SportsCenter” program. At 10,000 square feet (929 square meters), the studio is more than twice the size of the current one. It will feature multiple anchor desks as well as screens that hosts can use to stop video highlights or enlarge statistics.

SEC Network

“With full screens and graphics, for us to be able to motion at something specifically for a point that we’re trying to make, it’s just more conversational with the viewers,” said Lindsay Czarniak, a “SportsCenter” anchor.

ESPN will add a channel in 2014 called the SEC Network that will feature Southeastern Conference college sports. The 14 schools, including the University of Alabama and Texas A&M University, account for 38 percent of game-day viewers, while no other conference gets more than 11 percent, said Lee Fitting, who produces “College GameDay.”

“Our ratings research tells us there’s never too much SEC,” he said.

Steve Levy, a “SportsCenter” anchor since 1993, said the competition from Fox has energized him and his colleagues.

“If you’ve seen me the last three nights, I’m absolutely more pumped up,” he said. “A lot of us got into my end of the business because we can’t play sports, or play not well, but that doesn’t mean we’re any less competitive.”

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