Sports and American Society

How sports affect American culture

Sunday, September 24, 2006

ESPN.com: Exploring An Effective Sports Website

Over 147 million people use the Internet, a resource that has become a universal device for people all over the world to access information and keep in touch through online social networks. According to the latest trends (as of February 2004) on Pew Internet & American Life Project, 73% of all adults use the Internet, with 43% of Internet users “check[ing] sports scores or info” and 11% doing this on a daily basis. ESPN (Entertaining and Sports Programming Network) is an advanced website that is easily the most recognizable name in sports broadcasting and information. ESPN.com reflects an online version of the television station’s main purpose of supplying scores, news updates, and commentary in every major sport from around the world. People who want to find out sports news will visit ESPN’s website because it has established logos, or credibility within the sports market. They work under the .com domain in the media genre, using their slogan as the site's banner, proclaiming themselves "The Worldwide Leader in Sports." Recently ESPN.com has been recognized by The Webby Awards, who every year compile a list of nominees representing the top websites in a particular category. This year's Webby Award Winner and People’s Voice Winner in sports were both awarded to ESPN.com. While ESPN is an established site with many strengths that make it such a popular sports resource, there are still weaknesses which could be improved to make it even more informative and user-friendly.

The demographic of the intended reader is anyone who enjoys sports, but is mostly focused on men between the ages of approximately twenty-five to fifty. This can be inferred based on the general sports-watching audience as well as the demographic of the ESPN sportswriters themselves, almost all of whom fall into this designation. The Page 2 option on the top bar of each page provides a scroll-down short-cut to some of the most popular sportswriters who write for ESPN.com. Of those fourteen names, only Mary Buckheit is a woman. Although Buckheit has the liberty to write about any topic that she wishes to cover, her mini-biography on her archives page describes her main focus as “college softball” and the “X-Games.” Neither of these two sports fall into the four majors (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL) that most people want to read about. These columnists represent the predominantly white, upper middle class, male point-of-view who represents ESPN's main market.

The content is presented through a variety of different options that the reader can select. The Webby Awards describe content as being “not just text, but music, sound, animation, or video-anything that communicates a sites body of knowledge.” The homepage is used as a template designating links to each of these mediums, which include objective news stories as well as commentaries written by ESPN sportswriters. All of the content that the Web Style Guide describes as being “above the fold,” represents the most important and pertinent sports stories that viewers want to read. This includes scores, headlines, objective news stories, and commentaries by ESPN columnists.

ESPN Motion allows viewers to play interviews and various clips by selecting one of the options on the scroll-down menu. Often a commercial will immediately begin playing when the page loads, which the viewer must play through to its entirety in order to be allowed to view and listen to the desired clip. This can be a nuisance if the noise is unexpected or the visitor is forced to continue clicking it off whenever they log onto the site. If you don't include controls, users will hit your page with no way to control their viewing environment…Many users in this situation will simply close the browser window to make the sound stop, which means that they never get to see the page content.” ESPN Motion is a young feature that many sites are now trying to utilize by offering technology similar to what can be found on YouTube. This creates another level of on-demand service which especially appeals to the younger consumer.

ESPN’s homepage is structured concisely through links and visuals, but could certainly be somewhat overwhelming for a first-time visitor. The Web Style Guide describes that in terms of navigation, “in complex sites with multiple topic areas it is not practical to burden the home page with dozens of links — the page grows too long to load in a timely manner, and its sheer complexity may be off-putting to many users.” One of the difficulties in designing a page to hold such a large amount of information is the organization and ease of navigation. The consistency of the page layouts assist in familiarizing the reader with how to maneuver around the site. The scroll-down, main story, headlines, videos, and opinions are all in thesame location on the different pages, depending on what sport the reader selects. The Webby Awards elaborate that effective navigation “allow[s] you to form a mental model of the information provided, where to find things, and what to expect when you click.” Certain sports like soccer will change the main topic bar to reflect the different areas within that specific page, but the bar remains the same for the four major sports. Additionally, there is a search bar and supplied links to resources including a site map, contact information, and a help guide. These features make the website easier to use, specifically if the reader wants to find older articles or is having troubleshoot problems.

ESPN’s website has evolved favorably over the years, in terms of visual appeal and functionality. The Internet Archive allows one to view these changes to as far back as 1999 (shown below), when the homepage was more condensed and had significantly less graphics. By 2002, the page moved more towards how it looks now except that the links were on the far left. Most viewers going on ESPN will be navigating away from the homepage, which is much easier to do with the present site because everything is at the top in a scroll-down format. The older version forces the user to go down the page and click a couple of links before finding exactly what they want.












The visual design of the site is especially important for entertainment websites. "This audience needs to be grabbed immediately by compelling graphic and text presentations, or they'll simply hop somewhere else in search of stimulation." The design is very attractive and appropriate for each topic. “Good visual design is high quality, appropriate, and relevant for the audience and the message it is supporting.” The pictures are crisp and arranged in a way to make it easy for the viewer to select what they want to read. Because there is so much going on in each page, it can take older browsers longer to load but anyone with current settings should not have a delay. The links are all active and support the functionality of the site.

One of the drawbacks to visiting ESPN.com is the constant barrage of advertisements. The Web Style Guide points out that “unfortunately, content presentation in entertainment and magazine sites is consistently marred by the intrusion of banner ads, whose winking, blinking, and blaring colored boxes interfere with on-screen reading.” ESPN’s website utilizes moving advertisements, one as a banner at the very top of the page, and another near the headlines. Both are placed at the sightlines where visitors are almost certainly going to view them. Additionally, when a story is selected, a moving advertisement is placed just to the right of the text, often distracting the reader.

Some of the content on ESPN.com acts as self-promotion. The top of the homepage shows what program is on the ESPN channel at that moment as well as throughout the day. Another link enables visitors to stream ESPN Radio through their computer, allowing people to listen without a radio. In addition, many of the advertisements are marketing ESPN programs like Game Plan, College Game Day, and Sports Nation. A more indirect form of ESPN promotion is through content that is specifically linked to sporting events that can only be watched on ESPN. For example, there is a page called ESPN Monday Night Surround which focuses solely on Monday Football. This page offers predictions, analysis, fantasy picks, and previews. A large portion is devoted to “Fan Challenge,” where fans can submit their picks and climb the leader board. In addition all of the programming relating to the game is advertised, including Monday Night Advantage, SportsCenter, and Monday Night Countdown. A similar set-up was available during the X-Games, which were primarily broadcasted on ESPN.

The commentary and analysis articles written by ESPN sportswriters often reflect the topics from the news stories. If a person is looking for information on a specific team beyond basic statistics and rosters, ESPN is only a good reference if that team is currently in the news. ESPN columnists approach a story from a macroscopic level, where the articles are focused more on the entire league rather than one specific team. The articles are insightful and often entertaining, but rather limited in the discussion of certain details about minor transactions, players, or team organization information.
Bill Simmons (aka the Sports Guy), unquestionably one of ESPN’s most popular writers, combines sarcasm and random pop culture tangents into his sports columns. An example would be the article "Sports Guy Seal of Approval," which summarized the summer’s most important sports moments. Simmons summarizes the US Open by divulging that he “never really liked Agassi,” while simultaneously describing “Andy Roddick, [as] the homeless man's Agassi whose career peaked off the tennis court when he hosted ‘SNL’ and dated Mandy Moore.” His article begins with the statement: “I don't care about tennis anymore. Haven't in some time, actually.” Sports fans looking for an objective opinion would not feel the need to read any further due to Simmons’ own declaration establishing his distaste and lack of interest. Simmons’ readers, on the other hand, welcome his aversion because they know that the following assessment will be honest, critical, and worth reading in terms of entertainment value.

Another important feature of an effective website is its interactivity, or “input/output, as in searches, chat rooms, e-commerce and gaming or notification agents, peer-to-peer applications and real-time feedback.” While there is a search box on each page, the interactivity of ESPN’s site is mostly reserved forESPN Insiders.” Insiders pay a monthly fee that gives them a subscription to ESPN The Magazine as well as a username and password that allow the subscriber to view any article indicated by the orange “in” box. Insider articles are written by ESPN sportswriters, usually as a commentary or analysis. This feature significantly reduces the amount of material a non-subscriber can read off of the website. Many of the writers also have chats, in which anyone can submit a question and watch live as the writers answer the ones that they select. Upon the conclusion of the chat, only insiders are able to access the contents. So while anyone can submit a question, only insiders are able to read the responses.

In terms of overall experience, ESPN’s website succeeds in informing their viewers about sports through various execution and simple navigation. The site can be used to quickly check the score in a game or to spend a more significant amount of time reading the commentaries and watching various interviews or highlights. It appeases both casual and dedicated sports fans.

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