‘We can do this for all of our sports’: With Gameday Central, the Philadelphia Inquirer bets on live streaming video sports coverage

The feature image is an illustration of people sitting in front of a TV watching sports.

The Philadelphia Inquirer is hoping it can turn one of its important beats into a launchpad for a new crop of virtual event franchises. 

Three weeks into the 2021 NFL season, the Philadelphia Inquirer streamed its first installment of Gameday Central, a live video pre-game show designed to get viewers ready for that week’s Philadelphia Eagles game. That Thursday, the news publisher’s Eagles beat reporter, EJ Smith and its columnist, David Murphy, walked through the game’s major matchups, the challenges of quarterback Jalen Hurts and the team’s wide receivers, among other things, for close to 30 minutes in front of Lincoln Financial Field. The Inquirer distributed Gameday Central through both its site and several social platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

The Eagles lost that game, as is their wont this season, but the Inquirer took it as a kind of win, racking up over 2,400 views across platforms and many more on the Inquirer’s own site. While live streaming video came and went as an area of interest for many news publishers, the pandemic has in some ways resurrected it, and the Inquirer sees an opportunity to build Gameday Central into a key element of its sports coverage and audience engagement. 

About a month in, Gameday Central attracts thousands of viewers, more than twice the audience of its regular live video programming, and management is hoping to stretch the concept across all of the teams that Philly sports fans follow.

“Our future vision for this is that we can do this for all of our sports,” said Michael Huang, the Inquirer’s managing editor of sports. “For all of our pro teams, I fully intend on having a robust, gameday central activity.”

The live streams are also part of a broader attempt to build more digital-native content, Huang said. “You have to have more than text-based content,” Huang added. “We have to establish products, both based on all of our content and creating [new] content, that goes across multiple platforms.”

The shows are an extension of the Inquirer’s plans to build its events business. The Inquirer has hosted close to 200 virtual Inquirer Live events since the pandemic started, said Evan Benn, director of special projects and editorial events, and the resources behind that effort allowed Huang, who joined the Inquirer from ESPN this spring, to get Gameday Central up and running quickly. Including writers, a team of five people produces each week’s Gameday Central installment, though they get assistance from staffers across several departments.

Testing out the concept during the NFL season was a logical, if potentially risky, choice. The steady cadence of the NFL season, with its games, mostly concentrated on Sundays, allowed the Inquirer’s team a consistent schedule to get reps producing the streams.

But it also meant adding work to reporters on one of the Inquirer’s most strategically important coverage areas. At any given time during the NFL season, about 10% of the Inquirer’s traffic comes from Eagles stories, and this year, close to one-fifth of the Inquirer’s subscriber conversions have come from Eagles content, Benn said. He did not provide exact figures.

Adding a new, unfamiliar project to the reporters’ plates — during the first episode, Smith joked that he doesn’t get days off during short weeks of the NFL season — could have led to some strain. But Huang stressed that Gameday Live hasn’t hurt the reporters’ output, adding that they were eager to try the project out. “They were hungry,” Huang said. 

After it became clear that the audience appetite was limited, and the monetization options on platforms such as Facebook were not sustainable, many publishers abandoned live video. But using it to focus on an extremely popular topic in a local market stands out, said Paul Provost, the former president of the Worcester Telegram and a regional president at Gannett.

“It’s something I haven’t seen before,” Provost added.

Those high levels of engagement might make it an attractive sponsorship target, potentially off-setting the monetization challenges that might come from relying solely on platforms for distribution. The Inquirer’s Gameday Central coverage of the Eagles season is being sponsored by Comcast Xfinity.

“They’re a community player in something that’s very community-oriented,” Provost said. “That is extremely attractive to local advertisers.”

This story has been updated. An earlier version incorrectly referred to Gameday Central as Gameday Live.


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