This year, ESPN celebrated its 40th anniversary. Launched as a cable TV start-up in 1979, the network is today’s worldwide leader in 24-hour sports coverage and sports entertainment. Innovation and patience have kept ESPN at the top for over four decades.
To broaden the network’s appeal, ESPN producer Dwayne Bray says it’s all about being patient and understanding the audience.
“Everybody is trying to find the next big thing and everybody is trying to capture new audiences.”
Bray is the network’s senior coordinating producer. Over the past decade, he has also worked with the network’s journalists to produce long-form stories about issues in sports. He has experienced the growth of digital streaming and social media, and he has helped ESPN grow with these new outlets.
While ESPN maintains a steady grasp on its older audiences, Bray says much remains: “Our real challenge,” he says, “is figuring out how to connect with the 18-to 24-year-old cord-cutters, who are those without cable television and those who rely on streaming services.”
In 2018, ESPN released ESPN+, the network’s over-the-top video streaming service. Since the release, Bray says there has been an increase in the network’s younger viewers. “We didn’t rush into releasing ESPN+ because we wanted to better understand our younger audience. There are different ways to connect with different ages, and that’s what we are trying to do.”
“We are a long way from seeing the Super Bowl on a streaming service as opposed to network TV,” Bray says, “but we will continue to see more content go to streaming services in the future. Much of this content will be niche content that appeals to youth.”
“Video is the way to go. Text is still important, but video is what young people watch. Netflix and YouTube control young audiences. They love sports, but ESPN is trying to find ways to meet them where they are.” ESPN+ pulls in younger audiences with the appeal of exclusive content. Specialized digital media is a key factor in increasing engagement with younger audiences.
The presence of social media in the world of sports is another means for networks to connect with younger audiences. “With Twitter, everybody is a journalist,” Bray says.“I’m waiting for the day that a bright mind will create something along the lines of ‘Google’ strictly for sports.”
There is no time like the present for creative minds to brainstorm the next big idea for ESPN. Bray says, “I work in the TV industry, and I don’t even think we’ve seen the best way to consume sports.”
As long as sports exist, Bray says ESPN will always have an audience. “People love sports. It brings us all together,” he says, “and that will never change. This presents the opportunity for people to be creative and for sports journalism to flourish.”