Last week, ESPN unveiled a new website self-consciously intended to compete with Wikipedia: ESPNDB. The website has not made any kind of splash with sports blogs nor many other news websites. To my knowledge, the only in-depth coverage comes from MediaPost, which reported on April 16:
Curious where Shaquille O’Neal went to college? How many seasons Mickey Mantle played? ESPN wants to break the Google-to-Wikipedia flow chart that so many sports fans turn to for those kinds of answers.
So, it’s set to launch ESPNDB.com (the DB stands for database) — a site it hopes will serve as a sports encyclopedia-archive- statistical compendium. On one level, the goal is simply an ESPN-opedia — although the content would be thoroughly fact-checked and would come from professionals. (Like Wikipedia, however, there will be some user-generated aspects.)
As I said, ESPN doesn’t even try to conceal that Wikipedia is a serious competitor for providing sports fans with information about teams, players, statistics and, quite literally, the footnotes of sports history. Here is what the front page of the website says right now:
ESPNDB will be your definitive source for sports and sports-related information. We are building a product that combines the far-reaching resources of ESPN with the unique output of our industry-best Stats and Information Group to give you an immersive experience that no other site can provide. In months ahead, we’ll also employ some great new technologies to harness the collective knowledge of the world’s sports fans.
This strikes me as a worthy endeavor, one capable of real success. While sites like Citizendium and Google’s Knol have espoused ambitions to compete with Wikipedia in creating a comprehensive online reference website, ESPN is wise to focus on just one area of knowledge, naturally the one topic it understands very, very well.
Wikipedia is just one of many websites who dominate a category, where network effects and other social phenomena have bestowed a de facto monopoly: Google, YouTube, Twitter, Craigslist and Amazon are just a few others. Barnes & Noble has not had an easy time going head-to-head with Amazon online, but rare and out-of-print bookseller Alibris has carved itself a small but viable niche.
Another site with a relative monopoly in its particular category is IMDb, another site ESPNDB must owe something to, even if not candidly acknowledged. The continued success of IMDb (an Amazon subsidiary for more than a decade) should also be cause for encouragement, both for ESPNDB as well as Wikipedia. After all, IMDb still rates as high or higher than Wikipedia on Google searches for most movie titles. To be sure, IMDb launched a decade before Wikipedia and in fact predates the Internet as we know it today, and so has merely held on to its prominence, whereas ESPNDB has ahead of it the task of building its authority. Meanwhile, it shows that there is room for both “wiki” and “database” at the top of Google’s rankings.
And ESPN seems committed for the long term, or at least is taking their time in building out the site. The ESPNDB front page continues:
We begin by giving you a ton of information about the NFL Draft – about 500 pages’ worth! As we evolve, we will be adding many more cool features, so continue to check back with us.
There are indeed some hints of cool features to come, but ESPN’s plans remain unclear. For instance, right now one can “friend” or follow the Facebook profiles of NFL draft prospects. What I’d like to see them do is tap into Facebook Connect, which would basically mean anyone with a Facebook account is already signed up to participate — though there is not much to participate in just yet.
Also interesting is that ESPNDB pulls Twitter feeds onto its pages, which is something I doubt Wikipedia will ever consider even trying. Right now it’s very simplistic, just updates from the NFL Draft, on its second and final day as I type this now. Imagine, though, if each article or entry — like this one about the Detroit Lions — pulled recent tweets specific to that team or its players. That would be something interesting.
But these potential “cool features” don’t address the strengths of Wikipedia which ESPN ostensibly means for this website to answer. So let’s look at the actual pages themselves. Here’s a screen cap of the article about Oregon (Go Ducks!) wide receiver Jaison Williams:
Not much actual content so far, but the layout seems coherent and access to photos is a big strength ESPN has compared to Wikipedia. It has promise. Meanwhile, there is no Wikipedia entry for Williams, although that will probably change quickly once he is selected, which is expected sometime today. So the point goes to ESPNDB, at least in this narrow circumstance.
On the other hand, what’s the chance ESPNDB will ever allow users to write an article explaining the story behind “You’re with me, leather”?