Sports Radio Boston – Chad Finn – Mike Reiss Snubs Globe & Defects to ESPN Boston

ESPN jumps into local fray with website

By Chad Finn Globe Staff / August 28, 2009

While discussing the flurry of transactions in the local sports media, a source at a popular Boston website recently mused, “There are not a lot of allegiances anymore. Every man for himself. It’s really become a free-for-all.’’

Yesterday, a well-known but unexpected player entered the fray. And did it ever land an important piece.

Mike Reiss, the Globe and Boston.com’s prolific NFL writer, is departing to join ESPN Boston, the sports network’s second city-specific site as it attempts to strengthen its national brand with a local online presence in the nation’s largest and most passionate sports cities. The site will launch Sept. 14, an ESPN spokesman confirmed.

“Adding Boston to ESPN’s local-sites network is a natural fit for our goal of serving sports fans,’’ said Jim Pastor, senior vice president for ESPN business divisions. “It is one of the nation’s premier sports towns and home to one of the strongest and most passionate fan bases in the world.’’

ESPN RADIO - ESPN Boston Sports RadioThe relentless Reiss, whose “Reiss’s Pieces’’ blog has been a trusted resource for Patriots information since he came to the Globe in July 2005 after making his mark at the Metro West Daily News, is a shrewd initial hire, an indication that ESPN has done its homework on what has succeeded in the Boston marketplace.

“We have lots of online competition now in sports,’’ said Globe editor Martin Baron. “Our numbers show that we’ve been very successful before in meeting competitive challenges. And I can tell you that we’re determined to remain successful.

“We’re very sorry to lose Mike Reiss. But talent runs deep in our sports staff. We’ll draw on the other great sports journalists who work here, and we’ll bring in some new talent, too.’’

Multiple sources with knowledge of the situation indicate that ESPNBoston is pursuing other Globe writers. Sources at WEEI and the Boston Herald indicate that they are unaware of ESPNBoston pursuing any of their staffers, and The Sports Hub 98.5 website is still in the fledgling stage. And there will be yet another player on the local media scene soon, when Comcast Boston premieres a site that intends to compete with Boston.com, WEEI.com, and ESPNBoston, among others, in covering local teams.

ESPNBoston’s Sept. 14 launch date is not coincidental; it is the day of the Patriots’ season opener against the Buffalo Bills on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.’’ Reiss will travel with the Patriots, though it remains uncertain whether writers on other beats will go on the road to cover their teams.

ESPNBoston is the network’s second locally branded site; ESPNChicago debuted in mid-April. It has been a tremendous success, particularly regarding the most important factors to advertisers: visitors and page views. ESPNChicago (espn.go.com/chicago) had more than 700,000 unique visitors in July, up 19 percent compared with June, and 87 percent unique visitors since May. It quickly surpassed the traffic numbers for the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times websites to emerge as the most visited sports site in the city, although there is skepticism as to whether ESPN is including numbers from repurposed stories on the main site.

ESPNBoston intends to closely follow the blueprint of ESPNChicago, emphasizing its deep reservoir of ESPN-produced content while also utilizing aggregation and links to other sites in an effort to become the destination site for local sports.

Like the Chicago site, ESPNBoston will emphasize logical, symbiotic affiliations and integrations with various branches of its own brand. It will feature a brief daily “SportsCenter’’ regional highlight package as well as a partnership with the local ESPN Radio affiliate. Currently, ESPNBoston does not have a website, instead redirecting to ESPN Radio 890-AM’s site.

The appearance of the ESPNChicago website is certainly familiar: it is virtually identical to the ESPN mother ship’s home page, except, of course, that all of the content is localized, including all of the news links down the righthand column.

Among the national ESPN personalities who have contributed at ESPNChicago are columnists Gene Wojciechowski (a former Tribune sportswriter) and Chicago native Scoop Jackson. ESPN has a roster of columnists and contributors with significant Boston ties, including Bill Simmons, who writes the popular “Sports Guy’’ column and also hosts an entertaining podcast, baseball guru Peter Gammons, and NFL analyst Michael Smith.

ESPN confirmed that Simmons, Gammons, and Smith will contribute to ESPNBoston, though much if not all of their work is expected to be repurposed from ESPN’s main site.

Nonetheless, their contributions will be a tremendous asset. As one source at a competing Boston sports website put it, “If they come up with a creative way to spin Simmons’s and Gammons’s traffic as part of their site here, their numbers are going to be insane.’’

ESPN announced July 20 that it planned to follow its successful debut in Chicago by launching city-specific sites in Dallas, Los Angeles, and New York. ESPNDallas.com is expected to launch within the next couple of weeks, to coincide with the Dallas Cowboys’ opener.

ESPNLosAngeles and ESPNNewYork are slated for early next year, and other cities that already have ESPN Radio affiliates are likely destinations. According to sources with knowledge of the situation, ESPN is intent on expanding into virtually every major media market, with the possibility of regional branches down the road.

Eyebrows were certainly raised in Boston when the sports-mad region, home to six professional championship teams this decade, wasn’t listed among ESPN’s second wave of localized sites. After yesterday’s developments, perhaps the initial absence was part of the plan.

“We started hearing [ESPNBoston’s arrival] was a possibility weeks ago,’’ said a source at a competing local sports website. “But it certainly does seem to have been a clandestine operation.’’

Until yesterday, that is, when the local sports media’s seemingly never-ending game of musical chairs saw Reiss switch seats.

“Everyone is scrambling right now to position themselves in the best way possible,’’ a source from a competing website mused. “Only time will tell what the best situations actually are.’’

Chad Finn can be reached at finn@globe.com

Chad Finn Touching All the Bases

Chad Finn Touching All the Bases

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