ESPN adjusts to smartphone sports streaming

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Whitnie Larson
Mikel Minor on a set in the BYU broadcast building. Minor spent six years as a producer at ESPN. (Universe Archives)

“Close Game Alert: 1:53 left between No. 1 Gonzaga and BYU, BYU 71 Gonzaga 71. Tune into ESPN now.”

That phrase flashed across hundreds of thousands of college basketball fans’ phones on February 25 as the Cougars and Bulldogs battled in Spokane. BYU and Gonzaga fans anxiously logged into their phones, or ran to the nearest TV to see the final two minutes.

But while push notifications have become a massive part of the sports viewing experience, less than a decade ago, they were nonexistent. All fans had was live coverage on their televisions.

On April 7, 2011, ESPN launched the WatchESPN app for iPad, iPhone and iPod, allowing mobile access to ESPN channels.

Former ESPN producer and current Sr. Coordinating Producer at BYUtv Mikel Minor talked about how ESPN’s mobile app got to where it is today — six years since WatchESPN’s initial launch.

Minor said there are two ways to watch a sporting event: linear, meaning over the air, or live streaming and digital, meaning online or on a mobile application.

ESPN discovered that consumers — specifically millennials — were going to make the shift from linear to digital.

“The one thing about ESPN is that they are hugely forward thinking,” Minor said. “When I was back there 10 years ago, they were already looking ahead to a huge paradigm shift in the way fans consumed media.”

ESPN, headquartered in Bristol, Connecticut, has about 4,000 employees and produces coverage now available nationwide through every major video distributor across computers, smartphones, tablets and streaming devices.

WatchESPN, now an inset of the ESPN app, is available on smartphones, tablets and other channels, and gives viewers 24/7 access to live sports and shows.

In the heat of the 2016 football season, WatchESPN broke its own record with 15.6 million unique users. WatchESPN averaged 8.2 million unique devices and 1.8 billion minutes viewed per month — increases of 31 percent and 52 percent, respectively, from a year ago.

Minor said a decade ago most companies weren’t even considering the potential of mobile streaming.

“For a long time, people in the industry debated whether we could live in a digital screen experience,” Minor said.

The shift wasn’t immediate, but rather a gradual one. Minor said generational differences led to the change.

“If you observe the younger generation, it is very much a multi-screen experience,” Minor said. “They are watching linear television while they’ve got their laptops out watching YouTube, while texting on their phones.”

If people do not have access to a computer, users can follow the game live with tweets.

Minor decided to take a job at BYUtv as their Senior Coordinating Producer for Sports Events and Programing after being a producer for ESPN. Minor said BYUtv has also been ahead of the curve, but in a different way.

“(BYUtv) live streams everything, but, in addition, we’ve been very aggressive making sure that our content is available on not only mobile apps but also on other devices like Roku and Apple TV,” Minor said. “You name it. We’re there.”

Since BYUtv is a nonprofit entity, it doesn’t have the same monetary obligations that ESPN has. Currently, BYUtv isn’t even considering a subscription plan like ESPN once had.

Minor said he predicts a complete transition away from smartphones and toward smart TVs in the near future.

“(Smart TVs) are going to let us interconnect with each other, like we do on our phones, but they’re going to be mounted on our walls.”

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