Inside ESPN’s Snapchat SportsCenter Strategy

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ESPN’s Snapchat SportsCenter is one of the newest offerings in the digital arsenal of the WWL. (Image via Snapchat)

Snapchat has never struck me as a platform myself or the brands I manage “need” to be on. That’s saying a lot for a guy who is practically addicted to social in all its forms.

Think I’m kidding? I was an avid user of Peach for about a week and a half, so that should tell you everything you need to know.

Sure, I have a Snap account to experiment and see what the platform is about but I’ve only posted a handful of times and rarely found myself even opening the app for any reason. That is, until recently.

In November of 2017, ESPN made an announcement that many found curious at best. They unveiled plans to launch a version of SportsCenter exclusively for Snapchat. For the first time, I was genuinely intrigued by the platform. What could be done with video that had primarily been used for short-form voyeurism and unconventional storytelling for brands? What could an established but struggling entity like SportsCenter do to reinvent itself on a platform completely different than the one it was conceived for and thrived on for decades?

It was these queries that led me to open the Snapchat app every morning and afternoon for the first week. The brilliant, thoughtful and humorous content, as well as the unique presentation, has kept me coming back every day since.

But how did the entire show come about, what goes into putting it together and how has pushing the envelope helped breathe life into ESPN’s flagship program? I caught up with the producers and some of the hosts who helped make it happen to find out.

The concept for the show started more than a year ago,” Emmy award-winning SportsCenter on Snapchat producer Timothy Dwyer shared. “We produced a weekly College GameDay show on Snap last year that served as kind of a spiritual predecessor to this one, and also worked as a proof-of-concept that something on Snapchat could be a viable option from a content and business perspective. Once that hurdle was cleared, I think developing SportsCenter for the next generation audience was kind of just a logical step.”

Producing College GameDay on Snapchat is one thing but it is a completely different beast to translate a heritage brand to a new platform. It was a responsibility Dwyer and his team haven’t taken lightly.

It’s an enormous responsibility,” Dwyer said. “SportsCenter is the pre-eminent brand in sports media and has been for 30 plus years. It means so many things to so many people –  myself included – that we have to make sure we were doing it justice, while also giving it some new sauce for the way people consume media today. The challenge and the opportunity of Snapchat is that a lot of the core audience doesn’t have a pre-existing relationship with SportsCenter outside of knowing the brand name and maybe following a social handle or two. A 15-year-old is just as likely to have never watched an episode of SportsCenter on TV in his or her life, so that gave us a little bit of a blank canvas to say, ‘Okay, this is what the ideal sports show on Snapchat would look like, regardless of the brand we’re inheriting.’ Obviously, it so happens that a lot of what SportsCenter does well translates pretty directly to the format, so the bones of the show are still the same as the franchise.”

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With the concept solidified and the “bones of the show” in place, it was time to find the talent to man the show. The faces and voice defined what the program would become the same way Chris Berman, Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann and more recently Scott Van Pelt did on the television side.

“Once we had the green light for the show, we set out to find hosts you’d want to hang out with in real life,” said Steven Braband. ESPN’s Director of Digital Video. “That was super important to us. Everyone you see on the show has that quality – they’re simply fun people. We had to make sure we didn’t come off tone deaf to the platform, so no suit and ties, no desk, no long lead-ins. You can look at our show right away and realize that. Katie, Cy, Fitz, Elle, etc. all set that tone from the start and we think that is a big reason why people keep coming back.”

A large weight of carrying on the SC legacy falls in part on the shoulders of that aforementioned on-camera talent. While there is a great deal of respect for the SportsCenter anchors they grew up watching, for Cy Amundson and Jason Fitz, there was more enthusiasm than pressure to help redefine what SportsCenter is.

“I do what I do today BECAUSE of Sportscenter. Stuart Scott, Dan Patrick, Rich Eisen….Those guys impacted my entire life as a sports fanatic kid,” Fitz said of why he was excited for the challenge.

Coming up in the shadows of such legendary names and having to put his own spin on what they help build doesn’t intimidate Fitz.

“Excitement? Yes. Pressure? No. I’m one small piece of an amazing team that I trust will make every episode great no matter what I do,” Fitz shared. “The opportunity to be a SportsCenter voice to the next generation comes with incredible excitement and energy, but no one person on every episode is greater than the whole team that makes each day unique.”

A look at the “set” of ESPN’s Snapchat SportsCenter (Photo via ESPN)

Amundson was of a similar mindset when it came to the task of reinventing SportsCenter for a new platform and generation.

“If anything I felt excitement towards the possibility,” Amundson reminisced. “When they were putting this thing together they told us that they wanted them to be personality driven and let the hosts help shape them, so if anything I felt like it was a cool opportunity to put my stamp on the prestige even if it’s in a tiny corner compared to some of the giants of the franchise.  The main pressure I feel is trying to perform alongside incredible other talents like Katie, Fitz, Elle, and Treavor.”

While, like many of the SportsCenters of the past, the show is personality-driven, it is truly a team effort. With a younger-skewing platform, the content has to come off more genuine than ever with the entire show needing to feel more like a discussion than a dictation. To accomplish that the entire staff is empowered to bring ideas that are wide-ranging and fan-focused.

“My favorite aspect of building the show on this platform is that we have the freedom to talk like fans and just simply have fun,” Braband said. “Sit in on a morning meeting and you’ll realize that in two minutes. It’s not a meeting, it’s a conversation between a bunch of nerdy sports fans. I also love that we get deeeeep into what fans are talking about on the internet. LeBron may have dropped 40 the night before, but also, and maybe more importantly to us, a Cavs fan ate 115 Chicken Nuggets doing the Nugget Challenge during the game. The Nugget story (that’s fun to say) may be a bigger part of our show. At night (producing our show for 5am) we have the ability to let the video drive the show and sometimes don’t need to overthink the rundown. If James Harden has the crossover of the century against the Clippers – let’s just run that on a loop, multiple times in the show. It’s an unconventional thought for producers, but we have the flexibility to do that.”

It’s unconventional for the host as well. While on television you have 30-60 minutes or sometimes more to get the stories, highlights and news of the day to the audience, social media, and Snapchat, in particular, gives you seconds rather than minutes to convey a message and catch attention. It creates a truly one of a kind writing and hosting situation.

“This can’t be compared to any other project to me, because it’s such a unique set of challenges and priorities,” Fritz shared. “Hosting a radio show is about learning to speak in 12-minute blocks on a topic.  TV is often about setting up the people around you for roundtable discussions. Sportscenter on Snap is truly its own art. It requires the ability to write something you hope resonates but also primarily sets up great video.  You’re, essentially, co-hosting with a highlight to a medium that wants to know everything about a great game in 30 seconds or less.”

In order to deliver that message quickly, concisely and, most importantly, in an entertaining fashion it takes quality production, a sizable team and hours of post-production.

“The start of the day looks a lot like any other show,” Dwyer explained. “We begin the day with a full-staff show meeting, everyone pitching topics and treatments, and we set our rundown around 10 am. Whoever our talent is gets in and writes the show with whoever’s producing each segment. Because we’re working with more limited real estate – each show is around 5-7 minutes vs. the hour the TV show has – the writing becomes absolutely critical, making sure we’re not wasting seconds in the show. We shoot around noon, then the rest of the day is spent in post-production before the show goes live at 5 pm. A standard episode has a producer, an edit lead, talent, and four or five editors to package it all together.”

Oh, and it isn’t shot on an iPhone on the fly like most Snapchat videos.

We shoot with a conventional camera on an unconventional rig,” said Dywer. “We basically have a tripod stand that flips the camera 90 degrees so we’re able to have the full 1080p quality available to us with our talent standups because we play with the zoom so often on those. It’s a pretty basic editing trick, but it keeps the eye moving, so it’s important for us on this platform. Having the full HD picture means we’re never dealing with a low-res talent shot.”

A strong concept, edgy content and a sharp look means nothing though if the fans don’t enjoy the content. That hasn’t been a problem for ESPN’s newest crew. The initial response to the show both inside Bristol and outside of it has been extremely positive.

“You can see and feel the impact, not just from the target audience but from the halls of ESPN,” Fitz shared. “Sure, the people we aim episodes towards get it, and that is rewarding. But even the non-target audience has responded in a way that shows me how big this impact can be.”

It’s not just the anchors who are feeling good about the show, those behind the scenes also see the beginning of something potentially special.

“The response has been great,” Braband said. “Internally we have been able to show success metrics that let us keep producing the show we set out to create. We’ve evolved A LOT since show #1, but the core of what we set out to do remains the same. It’s cool to see how we get support all throughout the org charts at ESPN. Connor Schell and his senior staff have been extremely supportive of what we’re doing and at the same time, younger staffers at ESPN have been reaching out (unsolicited) to pitch ideas and submit suggestions for the show. That makes us better. Having a fresh set of eyes or ideas from smart people in Bristol only helps keep the show moving up.”

“Externally, we obviously have numerous metrics that continue to increase that we’re both excited and proud about. We’re trying to reach a new generation of sports fans and the data shows we’re doing that.”

Snapchat isn’t for everyone and every brand but ESPN has found the right mix of content and talent to make the platform not only work for them but also help a new generation discover an old fan favorite. It’s a lesson that we all can take when creating content. Just because something is from a heritage platform doesn’t mean it can’t be looked at in a new light and reinvented for social. The brands who continue to strive to innovate and re-invigorate what made them great originally will find a way to win in a competitive environment.

And who knows, by implementing that mindset you might just capture the imaginations of even the staunchest detractors of a platform. Heck, I never imagined I’d be an active Snapchat user. And I wouldn’t be if it weren’t for the work of the SportsCenter team.