The Arena’s Guide to and Review of the New ESPN.com

You’ve noticed, I’m sure, that ESPN.com has changed.

I have, too, and I’d like to show you how, explain to you why, and equip you with what you need to get the most out of the new site.

First off, some users this morning noticed that there was an automatically playing pop-up ad when you typed in the URL, replacing the beloved Orbitz games most recognize from The Worldwide Leader’s site. As I write this, I can’t get that to display, but I know the workaround; Trey Wingo showed it to me (in a video that will auto-play for you).

The catch is that you have to sign up for an ESPN account, then visit the personalization corner. Once there, you can set “Video Auto-Start” to disabled. This seems to prevent that first pop-up from playing, but it does not, as of early Monday morning, prevent videos from automatically playing on ESPN’s homepage or on the various individual sport pages.

On that homepage, which may look familiar, ESPN has smartly removed the auto-playing video that ruined many a cubicle denizen’s stealthy surfing; certainly, it seems that way. But click on the “Top Videos” tab that sits next to the default “Top Stories,” and you’re asking for Stuart Scott to blare at you about the Fiesta Bowl. The same goes for any of the dedicated sports pages, though you might avoid Stu.

The simplest way to escape all that is with Firefox and the infinitely useful AdBlock Plus add-on, which will not only make videos click-to-play, but will replace all of the various automobile makers’ ads with click-to-display icons. Using both produces a generally more streamlined view of the Internet in general, but it’s more useful for ESPN.com than it was on Sunday, because, overnight, the ads multiplied.

ESPN is, of course, maximizing its ad space. There used to be three ad units on the front page; now, there are eight. For comparison’s sake, I see three actual ads on ESPN.com at the moment with room for more, three actual ads on Yahoo! Sports with little extra room, two on SI.com with space for four or five more, and at least four spots on Fox Sports’s site, most used for cross-promotion.

This makes sense. Advertising dollars are scarce and will get scarcer in the coming months, forcing even the venerable Gray Lady to sell front-page ad space, and ESPN is only playing catch-up.

But for a multimedia corporation that has been inventive in its advertising before and has been given other words for its acronym, it’s probably only a matter of time before ESPN fills that real estate with flourescent and irritating ads of every sort.

In the meantime, users will have ample time to burrow deeper into the site and figure out how to get past those first few ads. That’s smart, of course, but it’s also exactly what ESPN wants.

Remember what you had to do to “disable” those auto-playing videos? Yeah, you had to become an ESPN.com Registered User. And while that may get you spammed by ESPN, if you’ve stumbled out of 2002 and do not opt out of email notification, it will also get you an account that you can use to play the WWL’s fantasy games.

ESPN knows, wisely, that it’s got all the time and space in the world to promote its fantasy leagues, what with two basic cable channels on which to run scrolling tickers of projected statistics, and it’s now tying in making its site more accessible with making visitors eligible for those games.

And, I’ll admit, some of the personalization is cool and useful: go to the aforementioned corner and select your favorite sports, teams, players, and columnists, and those selections will show up in your personalized drop-down menu from the “myESPN” icon in the upper-right corner for swifter, hover-and-click navigation. Furthermore, for those who can’t recognize their teams’ abbreviations or are too lazy to search for their games in the WWL’s schedule, ESPN will helpfully give those tilts a yellow-highlighter shade.

Still, one of the things I’m so frustrated about when it comes to sports, fans focusing myopically on their own teams, or a few select stories, is aided by the tool just described. Though ESPN does have one large 16 X 9 panel for picture-and-story, as well as a scroll bar with 12 smaller ones just below, as well as the customary panel of headlines to the right, I’m afraid most fans will be drawn like moths to that gorgeous video player, and not get much further.

That’s not entirely a bad thing, because that’s one of the better video frames on the sporting Internet, in my opinion, but it brings up the age-old dichotomy: will we watch the moving pictures and sound, or will we read the static text? (Here’s hoping, readers, that you reading this is a good sign.)

So here’s my suggestion: sign up for that ESPN profile, spend a good half-hour customizing it to fit your tastes, and use it religiously to find the rather good content ESPN’s stable of reporters and columnists produces. Then go from the articles on your team to the related articles, and take advantage of the enormous wealth of sports information and perspective ESPN provides; you’re short-changing yourself if you only read Bill Simmons or Rick Reilly, or if you skip the superb TrueHoop, or if you pass up the impressive database of players and teams.

ESPN’s also made it easier to search through that database, adding an auto-complete function to its search reminiscient of Firefox’s “AwesomeBar” that gets you to results quickly and efficiently.

Sure, the videos are pretty, and the site’s a lot easier on the eyes than it used to be, but there’s a lot of really good writing at ESPN.com, from Peter Gammons to Wright Thompson, and it’s often obscured by the flash up front; now, with some of the customization available, a little due diligence up front may make it difficult to miss great content somewhere on the site.

You’re running out of excuses, honestly, to not be reading the Ombudsman’s work, especially now that you can find it, and you’ll be able to find the other people you ought to read (say, Keith Law) as soon as you retrain yourself to use a more lucid, less frustrating site.

There are more little things I like, from the contextual menus no longer obscuring the scoreboards to the very clean sections that make finding what you want sensible, than little things that I don’t, like the relegation of the NHL to spots behind college sports or below the WNBA in some places and the we-want-to-be-a-social-media-platform effort that is “The Life,” which forced Trey Wingo to say “”Now being a sports fan is more than just reading and watching sports: it’s having a definitive lifestyle” in the above video, and promises to be a way to sell a bunch of contextual ads.

It’s true that in remedying some problems, like contextual menus that obscured the scoreboards or cramped boxes for columnists, ESPN seems to have produced more, like contextual menus that obscure individual elements on the scoreboards and slightly oversized placements for Simmons/Reilly on the front page.

But, overall, I think it’s an fairly good redesign: major problems were solved, the site is much more attractive, ESPN has a slew of new ad units, and the customization will likely make site navigation easier for casual and power users, and the various problems the new ads and the new features create can be mostly neutralized with a little of your own ingenuity.

There are a few specific things to remember:

  • Pros: Cleaner, simpler site; robust new search; good customization features.
  • Cons: Auto-playing videos still a nuisance; more ads will produce clutter; “The Life”
  • Tips: Use AdBlock with Firefox; make the most of customization; use the new search to dig deeper.

And if you think it has never been worse, go look at the retrospective. As someone who remembers the 1999 and 2000 iterations of the site, I’d have to respectfully disagree. (And you might enjoy the thoughts of other sane voices.)

Can we whine about some of these changes? Yes, we can. But some of these things are also changes to believe in. Feel free to do both in the comments.

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3 Comments

Filed under ESPN, Reviews

3 responses to “The Arena’s Guide to and Review of the New ESPN.com

  1. Anonymous

    Wow. You just made me understand the redesign. It’s true. Most every change they made is infinitely helpful, especially what they did with the front page. It looks great and I’ve never had a problem finding anything on their site. I still don’t.

  2. houlihansaparkinglot

    Yeah, I actually was just on a few minutes prior to reading this, so I’ll probably go back on to see what your saying. It is a cleaner look, as the one prior was very cluttered.

    Also, is it me, or does Barry Switzer look like Hank Hill’s dad? Maybe it’s just me.

  3. Pingback: ESPN.com redesign — my take « Mei Guo Ren

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