ESPN is at a crossroads. Its business model, which has long been dependent on cable subscription fees, is becoming tenuous as more people cut the cord. ESPN president John Skipper said last week that the network is in discussions to offer broadcast options on additional streaming services.
But ESPN is more than just its broadcast entities. With multiple websites, a magazine, and more, ESPN is a content juggernaut. And like most publishers, it’s seeing its audience move to mobile platforms.
This month, ESPN named Chad Millman its vice president and editorial director for domestic digital content. In that role, Millman, who was formerly the editor in chief of ESPN the Magazine, will help ESPN develop “a smartphone-first content effort — combining personalization, journalism, video and personality,” as the memo announcing the change described it.
“That sounds a little scary,” Millman joked when I asked him about the mandate.
Millman and I discussed how ESPN is tailoring content to mobile, creating identities for its various properties, honing its Snapchat Discovery strategy, and more. Below is a lightly condensed and edited transcript of our conversation.
Lichterman: The ESPN universe seems so massive. How do you bring everything together? Where does mobile fit in?
Mobile is everything. We always have to be thinking about mobile first. If we’re thinking about anything else, we’re failing the audience. That’s one of our biggest challenges.
You need to keep reimagining how things look. Physically, how is something presented? How long is a headline, what is it going to look like and where is it going to cut off on a mobile device? What’s the pattern of content you want to use to make sure you’re showing enough of your personality?
It’s a challenge because people program on their desktops. There’s no magic formula to simulate what it looks like on a phone. So you’re decreasing your browser before you publish it, you’re checking it on your phone as soon as you publish it to fix something right away.
My parents owned clothing stores when I was growing up. So [I know that we have to] think about what that [store] window looks like.
Lichterman: ESPN produces a ton of video for its TV platforms. Does the stuff that works for TV also work for mobile, or are you producing separate video?
We clip so much stuff from our linear networks. That feeds everything, including personalization, because all of those videos go into someone’s favorites feed when appropriate. A lot of our best analysis, from First Take
to the new Scott Van Pelt
SportsCenter at midnight, gets clipped and thrown into our Page One feed.
We also create stuff specifically for mobile devices. We’re creating for the platform or device that we most expect people to see it on and not thinking that we have to create something that looks like it belongs on television. Can you understand the story with the sound off? How long should it be? When are people dropping out of videos? All of that stuff makes us rethink how we might have produced something even two or three years ago.
Lichterman: When has that type of analysis changed how you approach things?
This past NFL season, we did a 60-second preview
of the week in the NFL. It’s a minute long, designed, produced, and edited with mobile in mind. It is quick cuts, it is tightly written, and it gives you information, but it does it quickly and in a sort of whimsical way. That is something that we wouldn’t have done a year ago.
Lichterman: And those are the types of things that do well on social.
Yeah. We just did a story about the grass at the Super Bowl
: How the NFL decides who’s growing it, how long it takes to grow it, how it’s shipped.
For the video with it, we didn’t have a voiceover or an anchor at a desk. It was images and video with words overlaid, so there was no need to turn up the volume. You could just see it on your phone wherever you were.
Lichterman: ESPN is on Snapchat Discover. What has that experience been like?
It’s been a great experience for us so far. The team that works on it does a phenomenal job, and we think about things differently because of the Snapchat platform. All of that carries over into what we’re doing with the rest of our video.
We get a sense of what’s tracking really well. We get a sense of how to have a little bit more fun. We get a sense of how to engage an audience in a different way.
Lichterman: Do you have a separate team working just on Snapchat?
Millman: Oh, yeah. We’re doing it every single day, so we need to be planning it advance. What do we know is coming up that we have from a content perspective? Which events do we want to cover? And then we have to account for the stuff that surfaces that we weren’t expecting.
Social media has changed the nature of a lot of publishers’ homepage traffic. Not many people go to homepages anymore. I read a story last year that 75 percent of ESPN’s traffic comes from direct visitors
. It seems like for ESPN, the homepage is still an important part of your digital strategy.
It’s incredibly valuable and we spend a lot of time on it. We try to make sure it’s representative of the best of all content at ESPN, whether it be stuff that is clipped from audio, clipped from television, or produced wherever. It’s not just supposed to be a digital representation of what’s happening in sports: It’s the best representation of all of ESPN’s sports coverage because we do so many people are coming here.
We do know that this is a good opportunity to show people the best stuff that was on SportsCenter or the best stuff that was on His and Hers. We want to get the absolute best stories from the magazine and put them front and center online, because we don’t differentiate between the platforms.
Lichterman: With all that content in one place, is it hard to create unique identities for the magazine or the other verticals?
That’s always the challenge. We want to have the best of ESPN represented, and we want the best stuff from each individual platform to go into every single place, but each of these individual verticals needs to exist and to put out a great product for the people that are connected to it.
It’s a constant challenge, a constant effort to make sure we are working in concert. That’s why I say there is very little distinction for us when it comes to the platforms or the content that’s produced. We know that each area is responsible for getting something out, but there’s not a lot of “this is is mine and I need it to work this way because I need to serve this audience.” The audience that needs to be served is the entirety of the ESPN universe, and the best way to do that is to get our best stuff out there in as wide a way as possible.
How do sites like FiveThirtyEight and, soon, The Undefeated
, fit into that? They have more of their own identities.
Millman: FiveThirtyEight, during the New Hampshire primary, was front and center of the feed on ESPN.com. That’s part and parcel with everything we do. When FiveThirtyEight has a sports story that everyone feels needs to be elevated, that story goes to the top of the feed at ESPN.com, and those folks are put in the right places all over television. While those things have a voice and a brand that does not say ESPN at the top of it, they are very much a part of what we’re thinking about when we’re creating content for ESPN.
Has that changed recently? I know Grantland
has closed down, but when it was still around, it felt like a standalone site even though it had a widget on ESPN’s homepage.
I don’t think that’s a change. Up until two weeks ago, I was editor-in-chief of the magazine, and from the day FiveThirtyEight launched, Nate Silver
was an integral part of what we did with our analytics issue. We have run Undefeated stories in the magazine and online in advance of its launch. The same thing with espnW
: When W was working on a Ronda Rousey project, that story went everywhere. It was on the cover of the magazine, it was also on television, and it was a huge part of W’s Impact 25.
Millman: It goes back to what we were talking about at the beginning of the conversation: How to make sure the right stories are getting back to people at the right time and how to create variety, voice, and content that stands out in a feed environment.
Earlier this year, you launched an esports vertical
. Are there other areas you’re looking to expand to?
Millman: I’m probably not going to talk about other areas we’re thinking about, but esports is a great example of how we’re thinking about where we want to go and what we want to do. The audience is massive, and there are great stories that we can report on and cover with as much credibility, depth, and authenticity as we cover the NFL or the NBA. This is something we’ve been covering from a broadcast perspective for a couple of years, dipping our toe in the space. For my own education, we did an esports issue of the Magazine last summer, and the response from readers was so great that we knew it was an area ripe with opportunity for coverage.
Lichterman: Are there other platforms, especially on mobile, where you’re trying to reach users moving forward?
That gets into strategic areas I would rather not discuss. But we’ve always been aggressive about trying to partner with anybody who gives us an opportunity to expand our content. When Apple launched its news reader
, we were front and center. We’ve been aggressive with the social platforms. When Snapchat launched Discover, we were one of their first partners. Those are always conversations we’re looking to have.