ESPN’s new mobile strategy: fewer apps on more screens

A few years back, ESPN was in a bit of an app hell: The sports network had 45 different apps, and sports fans had to figure out whether they needed the SportsCenter app, the WatchESPN app or one of a number of other apps targeting fantasy leagues and specific sports to find what they wanted.

The ESPN Digital team has since worked hard to reduce the app overload, and the sportscaster is set to take another big step towards a simpler experience for its mobile users next year. The SportsCenter app will simply be called the ESPN app when it relaunches early next year in time for the Super Bowl, and the app will feature more personalization to do away with the need for specialized apps around different sports.

The app will be all about cricket in India, more about soccer in other places of the world, and about that one football team that no one else may care about for the die-hard fan in the U.S., ESPN Digital and Print Media VP John Kosner told me at a Disney event in Los Angeles Friday.

ESPN's new mobile app, coming in January of 2015.

ESPN’s new mobile app, coming in January of 2015.

But ESPN isn’t stopping there. The sportscaster is also set to relaunch its website on April 1st 2015, timed with the 20th anniversary of The new site utilizes a completely responsive design, which means it will scale gracefully (theoretically, anyway) across all screen sizes. Its design focuses heavily on cards, in part because that’s what has been working on Kosner told me that short-form content is very popular on the site. Long reads also get a lot of attention, but 800-word stories tend to get lost in the mix.

ESPN's new responsive website, which the sportscaster plans to launch next April.

ESPN’s new responsive website, which the sportscaster plans to launch next April.

The new website will feature a lot of the same personalization that ESPN is also bringing to its mobile apps, and in general, the lines between apps and sites seem to blur, especially on mobile. “Fans don’t know the difference between a mobile website and a mobile app,” Kosner said, adding: “And we don’t need to teach them.”

Instead, he argued, it’s ESPN’s job to get better at serving up the right content in the right context. One example: Many sports fans watch videos on the go, for example when they are waiting in line at Starbucks — but in that situation, sound just doesn’t work. So ESPN is now looking to make more of its short-form video content work without sound, and partner up with advertisers to make sure that their message doesn’t get lost when the earbuds are out.

Other areas that ESPN is looking at are wearable computers, which could work well for notifications, as well as additional partnerships like the one the broadcaster had with Google around the World Cup, where it brought replays of goals and other key moments of all of the matches right to the Google search results page.

ESPN has seen huge engagement in mobile, most notably on its mobile website.

ESPN has seen huge engagement in mobile, most notably on its mobile website.

With dedicated apps becoming less important and personalization as well as fine-tuned content playing more of a central role, one has to wonder: Which app will ESPN give up on next? Kosner said that there is still a role for some dedicated apps next to the upcoming ESPN app. Fantasy sports leagues for example are so specialized that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to mix them in with everything else.

However, he hinted that one app may be on the way out. WatchESPN will get a visual refresh in 2015 as well. But eventually, Kosner said, users should be able to play all of that content from within the ESPN app as well.