ESPN is betting its recovery on an age-old idea: 'storytelling'

Key Points
  • ESPN is creating more intersections between digital and broadcast to try to keep cable audiences from leaving the network.
  • It will be moving "SportsCenter" into more digital forms and investing more in cross-platform investigative projects.
Rob King, ESPN
Mpu Dinani | Getty Images

Wright Thompson stood out among the personalities and athletes who graced the stage during ESPN's annual upfront presentation to advertisers.

Thompson, who is a senior writer for and ESPN The Magazine, didn't talk about sports coverage or marquee events. Instead, the journalist sat in a New Orleans-inspired bar theater set sipping fake alcohol as light jazz played in the background. He highlighted ESPN's investigative journalism efforts, including "O.J. Made in America," the multipart "30 for 30" documentary on the infamous murder trial. It won the first Oscar for the network this year.

"It confirms our commitment to great storytelling irrespective of platform," said Rob King, senior vice president of SportsCenter and news, told CNBC. "We have a magazine, but the magazine is not just a print product. It's an ESPN experience that allows us to do a presentation of a story that is unique."

"We want to think of storytelling as more of a way to create a story event, rather than just throwing content up there and hoping somebody sees it," King added.

ESPN should separate from Disney: Malone
ESPN should separate from Disney: Malone

Admittedly Thompson's performance was cheesy, as though ESPN was trying to make the life of writers seem as glossy as their broadcast counterparts. But it drove home ESPN's emphasis on bridging their digital, print and broadcast presence.

Disney recognizes that ESPN is hurting as the internet disrupts the traditional cable and satellite subscription model. Fewer cable subscribers and the rising cost of sports content have cut into operating income and profits. Anchor Kenny Mayne, who flew into the presentation dressed as an angel, compared cable's precarious position to the thin wires that held him up in the air. He was later lowered down onto the stage by the New Jersey Devils mascot.

There is also more competition in sports media. Twitter and Amazon are broadcasting WNBA, MLB and NFL games, while Facebook is reportedly in talks to get an MLB deal. King dismissed the digital competition, saying it has always existed, just on different platforms. Before King was put in charge of SportsCenter and news in 2014, he led the print and digital divisions for six years.

ESPN has joined streaming live TV subscriptions like Hulu and YouTube, but it still doesn't counteract the flow of viewers leaving paid services. The company notably laid off about 100 people in late April, many of them its TV personalities, as part of shifting its strategy toward digital.

ESPN also announced shake-ups to its programming, including cutting down on its flagship show, "SportsCenter," on broadcast. Starting in January 2018, viewers won't get to a new episode of "SportsCenter" on ESPN until 6 p.m., with ESPN2 hosting the morning broadcast.

More notably, "SportsCenter" will become more of a brand across all platforms, including halftime shows and video clips. King said since the ESPN app relaunch in mid-February, SportsCenter gets about 3 million video views a day, a total of 380 million views to date.

"In that minute, two minutes, where someone is going to pull out the app, we can be as relevant as they need us to be," he said. "That's what's driving this."

The company is also spending more on investigative efforts, including opening a new studio called StudioZ for "Outside the Lines" and "E:60," King said. Feature stories will become more important. "Beisbol Experience" — an upcoming project that will look at Latin American baseball players' impact in the MLB — will have a presence in the magazine and on "SportsCenter" and the Spanish-language ESPN Deportes, among other places.

"We have had a responsibility to tell these kinds of stories," King said. "They're not happening everywhere anymore."

Clarification: "O.J. Made in America" is a five-part series on, but runs in three parts on Hulu.

Note: CNBC parent company NBCUniversal is an investor in Hulu.

Watch: What's next for ESPN?

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