Sports media brand ESPN is rebuilding its profile in Southeast Asia with localized editions of football format ESPN FC, starting with TV and online versions in Indonesia.
“If it is important to be in the local language, then we will be in the local language,” explains Michael Morrison, vice president and general manager, ESPN Asia Pacific.
“We will have local coverage of leagues, local contributions from journalists and editorial support,” he adds.
Disney-owned ESPN has been out of the channel business in Southeast Asia since exiting a joint venture with Murdoch-backed Star Sports in 2012.
Since then, ESPN has largely focused on digital properties for football, cricket, rugby and Formula One, as well as program sales, across much of Asia. It retains a channel business in Australia and a small equity stake in JSports, a sports channel from Japanese MSO J:Com.
As part of the new push, Morrison has rehired former ESPN frontman Jason Dasey, who had been working with Astro for the past five years, to coordinate production for localized versions of ESPN FC.
Morrison is confident another market will be announced in the coming months, careful to choose the right partner, on pay or free TV. “From a Southeast Asia standpoint, we are looking at all the key markets,” he tells Media Business Asia.
THE FIRST test
In Indonesia, the first test for the new strategy, ESPN partnered with Indonesian free-to-air broadcaster NET to produce a 30-minute version of ESPN FC, aired every day at lunchtime.
The Bahasa version of ESPN FC will offer coverage of domestic football and localized versions of international stories as well as video clips featuring its Indonesian hosts.
Building an audience for ESPN FC’s early afternoon TV timeslot, more used to soaps and women-oriented lifestyle programs, will be a challenge.
While football has a large free-to-air following in Indonesia, NET has just 2% of Indonesia's total TV audience. Plans to reuse TV content on the ESPN FC website should extend the value of the broadcasts.
Nonetheless, raising awareness of ESPN FC among marketers and football fans will require at least one year of investment in marketing, suggests Rahul Nambiar, digital director at Havas Digital in Indonesia.
ESPN will need to cultivate social interactions to achieve critical mass, Nambiar adds, highlighting the importance of social media for Indonesian fans.
Sponsoring a series of free match screenings, similar to ESPN's Grandstand events in Malaysia, may be one way to build a strong community.
“The on-paper opportunity for sports is very high in Indonesia,” Nambiar says. “There is a huge gap for credible content.”
Monetizing an audience, however, especially online, is another matter. Digital ad spend is growing from a low base but remains largely experimental in Indonesia, with Facebook and Google, including YouTube, taking the lion’s share.
For his part, Morrison is open to tweaking the formula. “We are comfortable with the initial format and structure, but we will always review it based on what we see and hear in the market,” he says.
A BROADER PLAN
Although the NET tie-up was “a pretty straightforward decision, TV is just the first step in a broader plan for Indonesia,” Morrison comments.
ESPN has other sites it can build out too.
ESPN’s largest Asian digital property is Cricinfo, a popular cricket news and stats portal with substantial followings in India, Australia and New Zealand. Morrison plans to launch new features ahead of the Cricket World Cup in 2015, including expanded video reporting.
Meanwhile, Australian rugby union-focused site ESPN scrum is driven by veteran columnist Greg Growden, who joined ESPN from the Sydney Morning Herald in 2012.
ESPN F1 is currently localized in Japan.