Could Twitter + Mobile Phones Kill ESPN?

Seeing the news today about ESPN teaming up with Foursquare to provide a platform for fans at events is evidence that The Mother Ship of sports is doing all it can to keep astride of the latest trends. But as our purposely provacative headline asks, is there a new “broadcast” paradigm emerging that could allow Twitter and fans on mobile phones to become the dominant method of disseminating sports news, opinions and information?

Before you dismiss the idea as crazy, remember that when ESPN debuted in 1979 it was seen as a place where you could watch Australian Rules football and exercise videos. Nobody at the time was guessing that ESPN would eventually replace the major networks or newspapers atop the sports-media scene, but some 30-plus years later that has come to pass.

The way that happened is a long story but one of the key reasons for ESPN’s surge to the top was its ability to satisfy the insatiable American appetite for sports coverage, news and opinions, through strategy (a 24-hour focus on sports) and technology (cable TV). I remember watching SportsCenter one night in the mid-80s when I worked as a sportswriter at a daily newspaper, and hearing my legendary editor Dan Creedon say about the show, “you know, these guys are killing off what we do.”

After watching 30 minutes of highlights and scores on TV moments after the games had finished our typeset page of baseball box scores — which wouldn’t be read until the next morning — seemed hopelessly quaint. Now I am wondering if Twitter and ESPN are at a similar inflection point.

Though ESPN is as out front as possible when it comes to the Web and mediums like Twitter and Facebook, the ability for anyone with an Internet connection to be able to “broadcast” their news, views and opinions at any time at all takes away some of the exclusivity and insider status that ESPN and all other established media brands currently hold.

And while established “voices” in the sporting media will no doubt retain or improve their popularity via the exposure of social media, an area where ESPN has no exclusivity is in direct fan-to-fan or friend-to-friend contact, which has become a huge part of how we enjoy sporting events both live and from the couch. No longer do you have to watch a game and listen to Brent Musberger drone on with Tostitos-laced commentary; you can “gather” a group of BS-trading friends on Twitter, via text message or even in a video chat to share your own observations and comments.

Twitter also allows fans to cherry pick the best content from any major provider who is covering a sport or an event, making Twitter a default aggregator that can take commentary from media types, teams and even the athletes themselves — all at no cost to Twitter. ESPN, meanwhile, needs to keep paying huge fees for exclusive broadcast rights. Which business model would you invest in, going forward?

Though ESPN is probably not going to run out of money anytime soon it’s also worthwhile to think that we probably never imagined that the cable channel that once highlighted caber-tossing would someday run its own awards ceremony or broadcast major league baseball games or take over Monday Night Football. So while it might be unlikely to view Twitter as a potential competitor to ESPN I think it’s worth considering that the “Twitter Channel” is already with us. How it grows and where it goes — especially in the world of sports — is going to be an interesting trek to follow.


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