ESPN to launch customizable start page

I read on Mashable that ESPN is fixing to launch a new service. MyESPN, which is currently in beta, brings together all of ESPN’s content on one page (or multiple tabbed pages), plus headlines and news from around the web.

This news sparks some interesting debate. Here’s the comment I left over there:

I do agree that fans want to organize pages their own ways and we’re building that function into the Colts Fan Network (scheduled to launch in about a month). And I can definitely see why ESPN would get into the startpage game. We noticed (last season) that over 100,00 fans set colts as their home page, so we test marketed this exact concept last with a product called Colts Lifepage. We tried to charge for it, but it fell flat.

I’m guessing there are millions of sports fans who already default to ESPN, so ESPN will come out of the gates with some healthy adoption, and they’ll be able to sell advertising or sponsorship on the page pretty easily. What advertiser wouldn’t want to place itself on personal home pages of millions of passionate sports fans?

But what percentage of users of the system will actually spend the time to set it up? And will it be simply a novelty? Speaking personally,  the only time I see my default home page is when I’m on my way somewhere else…and my browser spends much of its day covered up with other windows. But that’s just me.

One big reason we thought Lifepage would take off is fantasy football. We thought that fantasy football players might love to aggregate the stats and news (and one day even TV streams) inside one browser screen. Don’t be surprised if you see it go this way.

I’m struggling with a more basic question, and one that I’ve been covering in my blog lately. What’s the optimal mix between creating original content versus linking to someone else’s content?

ESPN obviously has Colts content. The sports network flat out dwarfs the team site in overall traffic. But I believe, when it comes to emotional engagement, we have a richer environment for both fans and sponsors. So, should I be partnering with ESPN? Should I create a branded widget for Colts content and offer it to them? My instinct say, “yes, of course. They’ve got gobs of visitors, and I want them to come my way.”

On the other hand, why would ESPN want to invite its visitors to leave ESPN and link to Colts or the Colts Fan Network? It’s counterintuitive. And for that matter, do I really want to help ESPN get stronger in the eyes of Colts fans?

We already know that ESPN is among a handful of sports sites that Colts fans visit often. So linking with them would probably help us. After all, it goes against the spirit of the Web to prevent users from going where they want to go. But the temptation is strong to create “walled gardens” and try to keep your traffic inside.

It’s a classic battle. I just finished reading “the Search,” by John Battelle. The book chronicles Google’s rise to power and describes the dot boom days when all the VC backed Internet companies were trying to drive traffic into portals. Search had no business model, and in fact the very concept of search ran counter to the portal model in that it sent traffic away from the portal. The book even quotes the CEO of Yahoo (at that time) bragging to Wall St. that the percentage of traffic from search had been declining.

ESPN is a mass medium, Colts  is not; but we do believe where ESPN has quantity (of visitors), we have quality. And we believe that we will find ways to command a premium price for this quality.

Meanwhile, if anyone has a “best practice” or rule of thumb for deciding when to create and when to syndicate, I’d love to see it.