How ESPN Covers America’s Biggest Tournament And Another Reason Ticker Tapes Are Important

ESPN’s larger site remains mostly unchanged from when I first looked at it two months ago. So, I will zoom in on a particular event’s coverage, one that every sports site, from the number nerds to the sports paparazzi, covers annually: March Madness (aka The Dance). It ranks in the most exciting playoffs in any sport every year and inspires thousands of cheap pun names for 3rd month based novelty tournaments yearly (I’m looking at you, Daily Show).

First, let’s start with the fact that ESPN has a distinct advantage covering March Madness. Much like in fantasy football, ESPN is the largest of the betting sites for March Madness brackets every year. The not insignificant majority of people use ESPN for their online bracket needs and the bracket is arguably the most important part of the tournament. Being the site that hosts brackets means that regardless of your online experience, people will have to visit your site just to check to see if their team is doing well.

And ESPN’s place as the primary bracket hoster isn’t unearned. They offer a sleek looking bracket that, like the rest of their site, is uncluttered and straightforward.

ESPN Bracket
ESPN’s beautiful bracket.

Note the amount of white space and the ease at which quite of bit of information (teams you picked for every round, teams that advanced, times and scores of the games) is presented. Moreover, their Bracketcast feature lets you follow along live with the games.

Bracketcast
ESPN’s very intuitive way to follow the games of the tournament.

ESPN shows that they understand something very important about March Madness: most fans don’t care who wins, they just want their team to win. And unlike in almost every other sports situation, most fans don’t really know who their team is. Sure, I know I picked Gonzaga to win it all, but I have no idea who I picked in the first round Virginia vs UNCW match-up. And after the first round it gets even more complicated: I know I picked Duke for the last round, but did I pick them to win the next round? Just watching the games on TV I have no idea. ESPN’s system of an upfront “x” or check lets me know at a glance who I’m cheering for in any match-up. I can’t emphasize enough how important that is in a world where I know I want someone to win, but have no idea which team I put down two weeks ago.

And as much as I’ve been ranting and raving about ESPN, they aren’t my preferred way to watch The Dance. That honor falls to CBSSports.com, who has an even more unfair advantage: they live stream the games. Unlike ESPN, where I am just able to get a text feed and scores, CBS gives me the ability to actually watch the games live (al be it without being able to see my bracket).

But watching games online is easy in the internet era (if illegal). CBS goes above and beyond. It has a news feed to the right of the video stream, and along the bottom is one of the smartest ideas I’ve ever seen. Underlining the page is a running ticker tape of all of the best highlights from the game. About a minute after any big shot or defensive play and you can see a quick gif form of the play. It gives the viewer the power of the replay, one of the biggest inventions in sports watching. You can relive a big dunk or a clutch shot and it gives you the control to go back and look at it. As sports watching moves online, this ticker tape style of replay will become one of the most important innovations in sports viewership, because it lets you do what the TiVo claimed to do for sports: relive the moments you want to relive. Unlike TiVo however, the system is easy to use and doesn’t stop you from watching the live action.

ESPN: An Analysis

ESPN has transitioned to the age of online news better than any major sports journalism outlet from last millennia. The outlet remains the source of choice for the majority of sports fans, even while the site’s writing often leaves much to be desired (especially after the dismemberment of the long form wing, “Grantland”). This success is due most notably to the company’s commitment to the formatting of its site. Not only was effort put into the original formatting (which from 2009-2015 was acceptable, even in the later years), but even more was put into the most recent reformat, leading to one of the slickest web experiences in sports media.

Old Site:

old-espn
Photo source: https://www.fastcompany.com/3044445/tech-forecast/espn-just-redesigned-its-site-for-the-time-since-2007-here-are-4-takeaways

 

New Site:

real-new-espn
Photo source: https://www.fastcompany.com/3044445/tech-forecast/espn-just-redesigned-its-site-for-the-time-since-2007-here-are-4-takeaways

That reformat, which occurred in 2015 changed a plethora of aspects. Perhaps most immediately noticable is the white space. This is a trend, not just on ESPN, but everywhere (CNN, NBC and Hulu, you name it). White side bars are a huge format trend on the internet not just because they accommodate more screen resolutions, but also because they give the site a sense of simplicity. It also allows the to fill the side bars with easy to digest information, like headlines or scores.

And easy to digest is really the modus operandi of ESPN. Their site serves a very simple and important purpose in the sports world: to give quick and easy access to both scores and headlines. No site does it quite like theirs. Look first at the side bar. The reformat did wonders for the front page because it now delivers personalized and pithy headlines to the reader immediately. It somehow fits as much (or more sometimes) relevant information onto the front screen while also getting rid of the crammed, newspaper look of the past.

Even more important is the ticker. It is the magnum opus of this site and the reason I visit it once a day even while finding their writing entirely lacking. Even before the reformat, it was the best one in the business. It follows an important principle that some competitors, like Yahoo, haven’t figured out: the longer, the better. The longer the ticker, the more information can be displayed. The ticker serves a quick check for score, and if I can accomplish that without hitting any buttons, it is far better. After the reformat, ESPN doubled down on this principle, stretching the ticker the full length of the screen. Combined with quality of life changes, like a smoother side scroll and a “top events” section, ESPN now has the best sports ticker in the business, period. The end result of all these changes is that ESPN has one of the best user experiences on the web.