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ESPN president touts Internet sports programming during Kansas State lecture

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, April 3, 2014, at 11:18 a.m.
  • Updated Thursday, April 3, 2014, at 3:39 p.m.

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— John Skipper uses the word "television" as little as possible. The ESPN president prefers the term, "screen."

That should illustrate how different life has become for major sports media providers in the modern age. With the rise of smartphones, mobile devices and streaming video, Skipper’s main priority is no longer simply TV ratings. He wants his programming to reach as many people as possible, by any medium necessary.

"The most difficult challenge we face is just adapting to new technology and the way people watch video," Skipper said Wednesday during a Landon Lecture on Kansas State’s campus. "Mobile is the big change right now in technology … And there has never been more change in technology than there is right now."

That has Skipper looking at new and inventive ways to provide content and games. College sports are a main target.

In the past year, Skipper said ESPN3 streamed close to 5,000 live games to Internet audiences. He found that viewers didn’t mind tuning into games during work hours, and he joked that ESPN3 boosts productivity. He also discovered that advertisers were quick to purchase commercial time on those broadcasts.

With that in mind, he wants to boost the number of games ESPN3 carries online to 20,000 annually.

"Our goal is to provide more and more content," Skipper said, "on more and more platforms."

That means more college games in more sports at more times. K-State baseball on your phone? Kansas women’s soccer on your iPad? Wichita State volleyball on your laptop? It will all be here before you know it.

"Before 2020," Skipper said, "at every major university, all of your sports are going to be available."

Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby also participated in the lecture Wednesday. When he was asked about the relationship between college sports and ESPN, he said it was "highly positive."

But he did have one concern: Moving too many games to awkward times. That inevitably leads to missed class time and unnecessary stress on student-athletes.

Skipper said ESPN does its best to work around those concerns. But sometimes they are the cost of doing business.

For example, ESPN is pushing for more college football games to be played during the week. Skipper sees Friday evening as an underutilized timeslot.

"I think the issue now is going to be about playing on Friday night, especially with the NFL playing on Thursday," Skipper said. "That window is not going to be as attractive in terms of national exposure … I think you will find more teams willing to play on Friday."

ESPN has long televised a marquee college football game on Thursday night and a lesser game on Friday. Teams enjoy playing all alone in front of a national audience on Thursday, and K-State will do exactly that next season on Sept. 18 against Auburn and on Nov. 20 at West Virginia.

Friday has always been less appealing, because that’s when most high school games are played.

"We usually have agreements with conferences on how many midweek games they will play," Skipper said. "There is an amount of cajoling and pleading, but for the most part they are overwhelmingly positive experiences.

"We have some schools that just won’t do them. They have issues at the university and they can’t do them. We have no problem with that. We try to provide the rationale for why it is a good experience. But most of the schools that do it do it again because it is such a good experience."

K-State opened the 2013 football season on a Friday night against North Dakota State, but that game was played before the high school season began. K-State athletic director John Currie said the Wildcats would never consider going head to head with high school games. Bowlsby has also said he is against Friday games.

Skipper downplayed those concerns.

"In our experience playing on Friday in Texas and in California, the fear was always that it would affect high school football. It really hasn’t," Skipper said. "When you have the passion and your kids are playing in high school you will go to the high school game. So I think there will be more on Friday."

That may take some convincing from ESPN, but Skipper is confident it will happen.

For him, broadcasting more games on more days on more platforms is the future.

Reach Kellis Robinett at krobinett@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @kellisrobinett.

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