Cover Story: Making Content Pay
Of course, building an audience of satisfied subscribers means fulfilling the promise of fascinating content. ESPN Insider has managed to set itself apart from ESPN.com in a highly distinct way, offering a deeper level of information and access for the passionate sports fan. If ESPN.com covers sports news in the classic sense—"fact and occurrence," as Hoenig puts it—Insider is a place for informed speculation about trades, drafts, management changes and other activities bound to shape the sports news of tomorrow.
"A key feature that gives insight into what we're selling is Rumor Central," he says. "We will publish a series of rumors about players and teams … and evaluate that rumor in terms of how possible it is that it will come true." Whereas most sports news is of interest to the fans of a particular team, speculation about a free agent can potentially interest multiple sets of fans—all the franchises with a rumored interest in acquiring the player. "In the context of that space, we have a larger group of people that might be interested in a given story that has not been resolved," Hoenig says. "That is what we leverage."
In addition to online news and content, ESPN Insider holds events in major cities where subscribers have the chance to meet and talk with leading draft experts and others with inside knowledge of a game.
Hoenig admits that being associated with one of the most highly trafficked websites on the planet, not to mention a successful cable channel, does not hurt when it comes to promoting Insider. "Some of the free part we give away is on television," he says, as commentators from Insider offer glimpses of what can be examined more thoroughly on the premium site. Nothing is taken for granted, however, and much effort has gone into expanding the brand; subscriptions to Insider have historically fallen off when, as was the case in the late 2000s, most effort was concentrated on building site traffic for ESPN.