This Is 'SportsCenter'...on Your iPhone

Twitter-Like Update Adds In-Feed and Interstitial Ads

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ESPN's best-known brand is finally getting its own mobile app.

The sports media giant has renamed its ScoreCenter app after ESPN's famed sports newscast "SportsCenter." The rebranding coincides with a major update that aims to make the iPhone and Android app more of a full-fledged sports media destination than a source for the latest scores.

ESPN's new SportsCenter app
ESPN's new SportsCenter app

The rebrand is "signifying a tie-in to the TV show and really signifying for us a blending of adding more content and branding personality," said Ryan Spoon, senior VP-product development at ESPN Digital Media. With more than 50 million downloads since its June 2009 launch, the mobile app "can be our largest digital property," he said. Currently, the app is No. 2 among sports apps on iTunes to NFL Mobile.

An iPad version is expected to be available in the first quarter of 2014.

The redesigned app does away with the old tabs separating scores, videos and headlines. The app still features that content but commingles them in a way that resembles what Twitter would look like had ESPN acquired the newly public microblogging service. It even syndicates Twitter feeds and has ads that can, at times, be described as "native."

The launch sponsors are MillerCoors, Kay Jewelers and Bud Light.

Upon opening the app, users are presented with the new "SportsCenter" tab that defaults to show game scores. People can swipe horizontally to the "news" section housing articles and video clips and again to a section called "now" that displays an ESPN-curated Twitter feed populated with tweets from ESPN's official Twitter accounts and those of employees like "Outside the Lines" host Bob Ley. People who connect their Twitter account to the app can retweet or favorite tweets like they would in one of Twitter's official apps.

The app also features a tab called "Inbox" that pulls much of the content appearing in the "SportsCenter" tab but limited to a user's favorite teams and organizes them into a single feed.

Given the new design's emphasis on feeds, it shouldn't be surprising that ESPN is opting for feed-based ads. It also shouldn't be surprising since seemingly every new mobile ad format hitting the market these days -- like Yahoo's stream ads and YouTube's new mobile takeover ad -- stakes itself within the stream of whatever regular content people are using the app to consume.

Coors Light in-feed ad prior to redesign
Coors Light in-feed ad prior to redesign

The SportsCenter app's in-feed ads are bespoke like a truly "native" ad. For example, Coors Light could take one of the "Cold Hard Facts" items of sports trivia it sponsors to appear on SportsCenter's TV broadcast and have it show up in the mobile app's "news" section. Mr. Spoon said these feed-based ads are "a new format for us," though they've appeared in the ScoreCenter app's "headlines" section for at least the past week.

ESPN is also introducing interstitial ads that will pop up as people swipe between sections in the app and can run videos or display static images. These ads that are the mobile display equivalent to commercial breaks between "SportsCenter" segments "make sense contextually to the user interface," Mr. Spoon said.

And of course there will be preroll ads airing before game highlight clips and other videos. In addition to the videos occupying the news section -- which can be streamed to someone's TV through Apple TV's Airplay feature -- the app connects to ESPN's TV-streaming Watch ESPN app. A "live" button will appear next to scores of games being currently broadcast on one of ESPN's TV networks will open that game in the Watch ESPN app when clicked.

These new ads will most likely be hoarded by brands who advertise across ESPN's properties; the overwhelming majority -- 98% -- of ESPN's mobile advertising revenue comes from deals signed to span multiple ESPN properties, said Brian Doyle, senior director of mobile and digital sales strategy at ESPN.

So, why didn't ESPN just call it SportsCenter from the start? Well, back when ScoreCenter launched in 2009, it was really just about scores since mobile video wasn't really a thing yet. Now, ESPN can offer a "SportsCenter"-like experience in mobile. "Video is at the forefront of this app," Mr. Spoon said.

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