What Can ESPN Teach You About Growing Your Product?

Product managers would like their product to become a powerhouse like ESPN
Product managers would like their product to become a powerhouse like ESPN
Image Credit: Penn State

If you like sports, then you like ESPN. ESPN is the dominate force in the world of broadcasting sports. In fact, they are so much a part of sports today that it’s almost hard to remember a time when they didn’t exist. However, there was a time that sports fans had to hunt in order to watch their favorite game. Somehow this all changed and now we instinctively go to ESPN in order to find out what is going on in the world of sports. How did the ESPN product managers create a product development definition that allowed this to happen?

What Makes ESPN Work?

That ESPN is a success is no big secret. However, how the ESPN product managers turned it into such a success is not quite so clear. As product managers, this is the story that all of us would like to hear. As you may have guessed, there is no one thing that they did that made them successful, but rather a number of different things.

One of the most important secrets to ESPN’s success is the simple fact that it turns out that it’s a fun place to work. Every member of the product team truly enjoys being there. Let’s face it, sports are enjoyable. The people that ESPN hired played sports. What this meant was that they would then “play” the position that they were hired to fill. In one way, working at ESPN become a sort of the
ultimate adult playground.

ESPN believes that its strategic advantage comes from the fact that it has been able to create a team-like environment within its workplace. This has led to workers who bring a “never stop innovating” mentality to the table. What ESPN does is to hire skilled people, place them on a team, and then let them do what they do best.

The Secret To ESPN’s Success

One of ESPN’s most successful shows is called “Sports Center”. During this nightly program, a recap of the day’s events in sports is presented. This is not a new idea – it’s been around for a long time. On these types of shows, they often focus on a single sport, show the highlights from that sport and then move on to the next sport.

What ESPN did that was so revolutionary was to treat the show like it was a newspaper. What this meant was that whatever was the lead story in sports would lead the broadcast off just like a headline. This could then be followed by the next story that might be about a completely different sport. When highlights were being presented from a game, they wouldn’t be presented chronologically. Instead, they would be presented in order of their level of excitement. This kind of innovative
thinking is what you want to have on your product manager resume.

It’s important to note that not everything that the ESPN product managers tried to do was a success. Specifically, when they tried to open ESPN retail stores, no customers came. When they tried to create another sports channel, ESPN2, that was hipper than ESPN, that didn’t go over very well either. However, they’ve learned from their mistakes and they’ve bounced back from them quickly.

What All Of This Means For You

When you ask almost anyone about televised sports, one of the first things that will pop into their head will be “ESPN”. As product managers we’d all like for our products to have that kind of brand appeal. In fact, this is exactly what our product manager job description asks us to accomplish. However, we need to remember that things were not always this way. ESPN got to where they are today by the efforts of their product managers to promote the brand.

One of the most powerful things that ESPN has going for it occurs off-camera. They have created a unique team-based work environment. When staff join the company, they start to “play” their position. This has allowed a great deal of on-the-job innovation to occur. Another way that ESPN has risen to the top of the sports broadcasting world is via their popular Sports Center program. By copying the way that newspapers present information, they’ve created a unique and popular way to communicate the sports events of the day.

As product managers there are a number of different things that we can learn from how ESPN has become successful. We always need to remember that a product is not the result of one person’s efforts, but rather what a team has been able to accomplish. Using the innovation that our product team can bring to the table is what will allow us to create a product that can dominate our market and win the game – just like ESPN!

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: How do you think you could present product information to your customer like a newspaper would?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

As product managers we all like to try new ideas out. However, sometimes the job that we’re being asked to do is so brand new that there really is nobody that we can compare ourselves to and no existing product development definition. The product managers at Ocado find themselves in this very situation: they are trying to make the company’s business of online grocery shopping a success. However, nobody has really been able to make this happen so far. It sure looks like it’s time for some creative thinking!