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ESPN thriving on local players competing overseas

Bringing international sport to Australians

Australian sports professionals playing in various American sports have been creating a lot of headlines in Australia and overseas in the past few years. The most recent Australian export to do this is Ben Simmons, who is making a name for himself in NBA by playing for the Philadelphia 76ers. The media and sport insiders have even tagged him as the next LeBron James.

Perhaps the person in Australia who’s happiest with the success of Australians in American sports is Haydn Arndt, the general manager of ESPN Australia and New Zealand.

“Pretty much,” Arndt said, agreeing. “We high-five each other in the office.”

Apart from being a sports fanatic himself, Arndt’s excitement is because the participation of Australians in American sports helps the ESPN brand attract audiences in Australia.

Jarryd Hayne, for example, delivered a massive spike in ratings,” he revealed. “What we found was that even after he stopped playing [in the NFL], the ratings held up strongly.

“The other thing worth highlighting is NBA. There are eight Aussies playing in the NBA at the moment. For each of the last three years, there has been an Australian playing in the title-winning team, whether that’s the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs or the Cleveland Cavaliers. Literally, for a sport where there are five people on the court at any one time, to have an Australian winning the NBA title for the last three years in a row is pretty amazing. That absolutely helps.

“That’s been driving a lot of growth that we’ve been having.”

Australian NBA star Ben Simmons

In Australia, the majority of the sports headlines are dominated by local sporting events like AFL and NRL during winter, and tennis and cricket during the summer. In comparison, the Australian National Basketball League gets less traction. When looking at it from this perspective, one can easily assume that Australians are less interested in the NBA compared to those sports. However, Arndt called this a fallacy.

“The reality is NBA is pretty massive here,” he said. “We have a thing called the George St test. When you walk up and down George St [in Sydney], the number of NBA and NFL jerseys and hats you see is pretty phenomenal. We’ve seen massive growth in US sports in Australia over the last two years.

“This is especially the case among the younger demos. In the 18- to 34-year-old demo, we are smashing it at the moment. We are the #2 channel on subscription TV in that demographic.”

In the 2016 calendar year, ESPN’s audience was up 16% YOY. The channel’s viewing from January to April 2017 was up 22% from the same period last year.

The channel’s highest-rating broadcast of all time in Australia was the Super Bowl 51, which aired on 6 February (AEST).

ESPN reported that the broadcast of the NFL Super Bowl delivered its biggest-ever audience in Australia with male viewers 25-54. ESPN was also the #1 subscription TV network on the Monday of the broadcast in all key demos. More than 150,000 people watched the game.

“What we are seeing even more is that literally everything that we broadcast is skewing up,” Arndt said.

This includes ESPN’s coverage of the tennis. The much talked-about Australian tennis player Nick Kyrgios has had a large part to play in this, Arndt said. One of the biggest moments for Kyrgios in recent months was when he took Australia to the semifinals of the Davis Cup. This was just the second time that Australia had made it to that stage of the competition in the last 11 years.

“We made a pretty big bet last year around the ATP Tennis Tournament. With Nick Kyrgios’ performances recently, the ratings that we are getting for tennis are substantially up year-on-year. The top five tennis broadcasts have all happened in the last few months and they have all involved Kyrgios.”

Localisation is the buzz word in the ESPN office in Sydney. One of the ways it does this is using players from the ANZ region playing in American sports to promote games on the channel in Australia and New Zealand. There is a small team based in the US that produces segments for its digital and TV offerings down under. Currently, ESPN ANZ doesn’t produce any programs for the channel locally. However, it is something Arndt is looking at: “Not in the short term. But in the long term, absolutely.

“The last 18 months for us have been about localisation.

The launch of the Australian edition of ESPN.com in March 2016 has also helped in the company’s mission to localise its offering.

Lance Peatey

“We’ve always been pretty strong on the digital side, but what this localisation has allowed us to do is connect our digital properties with our TV properties a lot more,” ESPN Australia and New Zealand’s director of digital products and partnerships Lance Peatey told Mediaweek.

ESPN has the second biggest sports website in Australia.

“In the last six months, we’ve been in the top two positions consistently. Others have come and gone with seasonality, which plays a big part in sport with your audience. This ultimately affects your revenue projections as well. However, the reality is that we have remained really constant throughout the summer and winter months.”

Despite having two arms to the business in Australia – digital and TV – Arndt says, “We are really focused on how we bring them together.”

ESPN on TV doesn’t have any coverage of big local sports like NRL or AFL, but it has fairly well-known properties like ESPNscrum and ESPNfootytips when it comes to digital. It also gets people engaging with its properties in summer with ESPNcricinfo.

Arndt said: “Young sports fans don’t necessarily see it as local and international sports. They just want to watch the best people participating in sport around the world.”

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