Charly Classen has been the general manager of ESPN EMEA since 2014 and earlier this year also added India, South Asia, Australia and New Zealand to that portfolio. On a recent trip to Dubai, Sport Industry Insider caught up with him to discuss ESPN’s growth in the region and future plans.

How do you see the sporting landscape in the Middle East?

The Middle East is an absolutely fascinating region. What makes it interesting is how incredibly diverse it is in terms of what constitutes an average sports fan. Because there isn’t one! In the UAE for example you see that Emiratis love football, but then there is a big Indian and Pakistani presence who love cricket. Then Western expats have very different preferences again, whether American sports or Premier League.

Ultimately what we need to do is serve each individual sports fan by bringing them the content that we produce globally and ensuring it is increasingly relevant to the readers. If you enjoy MMA, cricket and NBA for example, you won’t find that together in many places. But ESPN can do that for you.

How has ESPN’s strategy changed in the region?

We’ve had a good audience here for a long time but if we are honest we didn’t do that much with it locally. In June 2016 we brought Martin Healy over with a view to monetising that strong traffic we had had in the Middle East. The more attention you give a place, the more you get back, and we saw a difference almost immediately.

Since then the commercial team has grown in Dubai and we have been able to serve clients on a much better level. It’s not only been about selling but getting a deeper understanding of what our clients want. Making the best of our global content work for the region – both from a sports fan perspective and a client perspective.

Was ESPNcricinfo the driving force behind creating a commercial team here?

ESPNcricinfo is incredibly important to our business, not just in the Middle East but all around the world. We are a very clear market leader in places like Australia, UK, USA and, yes, in the Middle East the vast majority of traffic is towards cricket. Cricket fans are incredibly passionate – you can see that when stadiums full of people are watching Asian Cup matches in the UAE.  You can feel the love for cricket. Our offering is broad and global, so we can attract both the casual fan and the real cricket aficionado.

However, I have to stress that there is a world beyond cricket here. Over the past six months we have made the global edition of the default site in a number of markets, including the Middle East. It’s a bit less U.S. sports-centric and we’ve seen a really good response in terms of traffic. This region is very much seen as a growth area for the business – both on the commercial and the editorial side.

What role does branded content play in ESPN’s partnerships in the region?

It is clearly a growth area – both in our business here in the Middle East and globally. Branded content can be incredibly powerful and work really well but it is not the right thing for everyone. It involves a lot of work, both from the brand and agency side, and also the client side. Just doing one piece in isolation is generally a lot of work and doesn’t have much return.

One great partnership we’ve had is with Emirates. They used UAE National Day last year as an opportunity to tell stories of a few inspiring local athletes. We created a video series that amplified that message. It worked extremely well because it was great content in its own right – fans want to engage with it and talk about it. Storytelling is crucial in all forms of entertainment and sports. When we do research before and after campaigns we can see key brand metrics are shifting. There is lot of impact.

Does that mean traditional advertising is dying?

Absolutely not. Quality branded content is expensive to produce and doesn’t work for all partners. Traditional advertising across TV and digital can still be very impactful and still delivers a lot of value. People might not want to talk about it every day but we do studies all around the world to analyse its effectiveness. It is incredibly important to offer clients that safe environment in which your brand can live. So advertisers can say ‘I know where my advertising is sitting and that is the right environment’.

Are there any plans to have a regional edition of ESPN in the Middle East?

For us to be truly localised long-term, we need to be in Arabic. At the moment we are English language only and we serve the English speaking sports fan extremely well here. For the last 30 days we’re the largest sports site in the UAE – driven largely by the Asia Cup cricket. But we are not in Arabic. Once you go out of the UAE into Saudi Arabia and the rest of the region, you really have to have an Arabic offering.

We are exploring different avenues of how we could do that, but it has to make sense both editorially and financially. We could do it by ourselves or we may look to do it with partners as we have done in other parts of the world – like with TV5 in the Philippines or with Tencent in China. Do you need a local editorial presence? We believe you should write about sport where it happens and I’d be very surprised if there weren’t more language editions in the future.

Sport in Saudi Arabia is a major growth area, could ESPN move into the Kingdom?

It is a very young population and the country is clearly going through a lot of change. There is a clear appetite from Saudi Arabia to attract more sports and yes, we can imagine working in there. But we also want to make sure we are doing things the right way – having the right local partners is so important. If we’re covering sport in Arabic there would be questions to answer. Do you cover La Liga and the Premier League? Or do you cover the Saudi Pro League?  We want to serve sports fans and do it in a profitable way. If we can combine those two then we would certainly look at that.

How difficult is it stay relevant in a rapidly evolving content marketplace?

Ultimately by serving sports fans in the best possible way, we serve the brands and our clients in the best possible way. We deliver content with authority and personality; we take sports seriously but we don’t take ourselves seriously. You know you are going to get researched quality with ESPN and we’ve proven time and again that we offer a brand safe environment. There’s a lot of value in that.

Are you concerned by the increased competition, particularly digitally?

There has always been competition and there always will be competition. It’s such an exciting time to be in the sports industry and I think a world that is innovating is a much more interesting world. We think we are innovating in a lot of areas too. We announced last week that ESPN + in the US reached a million subscribers in five months since launching.

The digital business is crucial and here in the Middle East particularly. It’s a young population with one of the highest smartphone penetrations in the world. So you need to have a really good mobile web presence – it has to be beautiful and fast whatever platform you use it on – and a good app experience too. We invested a lot of time and energy on the product side, the tech side and the editorial side to create a user experience that we are extremely proud of.

Are we worried about other platforms and people? No. We welcome competition as it makes us all better.

What is next for ESPN in the Middle East?

We are incredibly excited about where we are. Introducing staff on the sales side has helped us become much more integrated into the sports community here which is very important. Next year we will be working with Abu Dhabi Media to produce the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics and distribute that worldwide. We will be covering it from a local and global perspective.

Our focus is on becoming a more integral part of the sporting fabric of the region. There are lots of people with interesting things to say and we look forward to telling their stories.