"Keep your eye on the ball." "Swing for the fences." "It's a slam dunk." We use sports analogies every day--in our business lives--without a second thought.

There's a reason: Sports are an easy way to connect with prospects, business partners and investors. They also present an incredible model for content planning and curation.

According to Gallup, 60 percent of Americans identify as sports fans. In fact, Super Bowl 50, with an estimated 111.9 million viewers, was the third most-watched television broadcast of all time.

Just what is so compelling about sports and what can entrepreneurs learn about creating raving fans and successful content creation? Is it the anticipation? The competition? The human-interest stories? The record-breaking performances?

According to Rob King, the senior vice president of ESPN's flagship program SportsCenter, "It's a magic combination of certainty and wonder."

"The certainty is what you know before the game starts: the players, the coach, the team history, and the expert predictions. The wonder is the game or competition itself, unfolding before your eyes," said King.

Over the course of our conversation, King shared the secret to SportsCenter's decade's long success and what's next for the sports giant. More importantly, what can you learn as a business owner about creating "wonder" for your brand?

Perfect your game plan

According to Forbes, an estimated one in five households abandoned cable for streaming services. This uptick in streaming has led to a steady decline in ratings for networks, including ESPN. King explains that the network has stayed on top of the trend by striving to understand their audience.

"Our distribution team has done an amazing job of thinking about how to get content to people. Rather than a two-minute clip on a TV show, we are thinking about new ways to deliver plays to people on a one-to-one basis," said King.

That business model flexibility sets ESPN apart from its competitors and keeps people guessing. It is clear that paying attention and changing your offerings based on audience preferences is something all businesses should be doing on a regular basis in order to dominate their market.

In ESPN's case, the network discovered an interesting trend, according to King. The majority of its consumed content came from 100 major teams in six major sports. Of those 100 teams, 31 were NFL teams. In order to cater to this huge following, ESPN assigned reporters to every team in the NFL.

Understanding what your audience wants and catering to those needs is a lesson many entrepreneurs should emulate.

Know who your fans are

ESPN's efforts to focus on its fan base have paid off. Its ESPN mobile app is the most popular in sports (its fantasy sports app is #2), and WatchESPN in November attracted 11.2 million unique devices that watched 2.5 billion minutes of streaming ESPN content, according to company reports.

Come February, SportsCenter will be asking people to reimagine SportsCenter's flagship 6:00 p.m. edition with Jemele Hill and Michael Smith. Two years in the making, this change is aimed at erasing the perception that ESPN is just one long show and meeting the audience where it is.

Companies trying to experiment with becoming content curators can take a page out of King's playbook by understanding when and where followers want to engage with your brand. Ruthlessly cutting content that isn't getting eyeballs can be difficult task, but it is necessary to get people to tune in to the right information.

Passion breeds loyalty

From senior-level executives to producers to on-air talent to reporters on the ground, King asserts, "People are united by this passion for something that they know, that they love, that they want to share." This goes for both ESPN's employees and the millions of sports fans who watch ESPN programming.

King sees collective enthusiasm as the secret to the success of top brands, but it can do wonders for your brand too. Adding suspense and anticipation is what other brands need to do effectively. Creating an unforgettable experience is what keeps those fans coming back.

"On TV, in ESPN The Magazine, or online at ESPN.com, the goal is for the fan to say, 'they really know me,'" said King.

Make a big play

For SportsCenter, and ESPN as a network, taking risks is par for the course.

"As a news and storytelling operation," King explains, "we have an advantage being in the world of sports. We know when most major events are going to happen - when they're coming."

That ability to predict is what drives SportsCenter to take risks. The show's deep content base and meticulous planning allows ESPN to decide how they want to move the needle.

How will you predict and plan what content your fans and followers want from your company in 2017? Begin by analyzing what content generated the most wonder, awareness and engagement in 2016 and work backwards. Now, you have an excuse to watch sports.

Published on: Dec 22, 2016