Julie Angell

Innovation in sports startups is key, but cash and clicks come first

The latest and greatest technologies in sports media are coming and going, but the metamorphosis of a small sports blog into a bat-swinging behemoth is a constant and recurring story we’ll keep hearing.

By Julie Angell


Will Leitch’s sports blog was nothing until he found an audience and funding.

That’s the story of many startups today; one or a few writers pitch an idea, find someone to buy them up, and then work tirelessly to create a popular platform.

For Leitch, it was Gawker Media. He pitched owner Nick Denton the idea for a sports-blog- meets-gossip site and Gawker gave it the green light, launching Deadspin in 2005. Today the site has more than 13 million unique users and 80 million page views per month, according to Quantcast, and is a formidable competitor against established brands like ESPN.

The company bought Deadspin, and then the sports news and commentary website was launched in 2005. Deadspin went from 1.8 million unique visitors in July 2011 to currently over ten million visitors on a monthly basis, according to Quantcast. It’s had enough eyes on the site to be a formidable competitor against established brands like ESPN.

To get sports fans coming back again and again, a website’s content and cutting edge ways of distributing news are crucial. But, so is funding.

“A lot of people think now that starting their own media empire is the way to go, but to be successful you have to be bought out by somebody else who has more money than you to fund it,” said Joanne Gerstner, a sports journalist and instructor at the Michigan State School of Journalism.

The definition of a startup is fluid and interpreted based on how much money a meek sports blog gets to jump off and compete against the big dawgs. Bleacher Report and Deadspin would’ve been duds if it weren’t for Turner and Gawker taking ownership of the sports website startups, respectively, Gerstner explained. FiveThirtyEight wouldn’t have been the successful statistical sports blog it is today if it wasn’t launched by Nate Silver through the New York Times.

There’s a trend in sports startup innovation, and it’s not all about creating the greatest football podcast.

To be successful in the sports startup industry, you need access, a reputation, and money, Gerstner said. But, she didn’t clarify what type of reputation.

When Leitch was building Deadspin, he said he saw a big gap between the people who worked in sports and the sports fans themselves, “AKA the people who actually pay for everything,” Leitch said. Trying to bridge that gap, Leitch’s goal for Deadspin was to talk to the fans and separate his startup from the few major companies that controlled sports media. Deadspin’s ways of reporting, “internet journalism” as Poynter puts it, appear to many as unconventional and sometimes sleazy, partly because of its association with gossip site Gawker Media. But, whatever gets clicks ultimately wins in this industry. Leitch stuck to the content he wanted to publish and didn’t obsess over web traffic, follower count, or advertising.

“The reason the site got really popular is I wasn’t bullshitting anybody,” Leitch said. “I wasn’t trying to sneak in an ad for Nike under their noses in the middle of my content.”

While the good blogs are getting bought up and the line between established sports coverage and rookie reporting blurs, it’s tough to tell who should get to cover the big game.

“How do you differentiate between blogger and something more mainstream? Who gets media credentials?,” Gerstner said.

It’s a good question, and David Harns can help answer. Harns became a senior writer and editor for isportsweb.com after being underwhelmed by the site’s coverage of Michigan State athletics. Eventually, @isportswebMSU became credentialed and entered into a partnership with the journalism school at MSU to allow college students to write for experience and school credit.

Despite their starkly different careers, local MSU sports editor David Harns and big-time writer Will Leitch have something in common. They both saw an underserved market, and then responded to it.

“We try to leave the day-to-day stuff to the big guys. We try to offer analysis, opinion and stories outside the norm,” Harns said. “We’ll do game recaps and previews, of course, but we succeed when we step outside that box and give insight and opinion.”

The startup’s beat reporting comes from volunteers who are doing it for access to press conferences, locker rooms and press boxes, for the love of telling stories, or for resume and skill building. Although isportsweb isn’t exactly the cutting edge, go-to sports website for fans, it’s still trying its best to grow with the rest. Joe White, Co-owner and editor, said the site’s writers – made up of 90 percent interns – switch up the content regularly, stay on top of social media, and work towards making the website mobile friendly.

“We try to work alongside those other websites. There is plenty enough room for all of us. A positive relationship with our competitors is a good thing,” Harns said. “Not always possible… but it’s our goal.”

Down from isportsweb.com reporters on press row is Mike Wilson, a reporter for 247Sports.com. Wilson transitioned to SpartanTailgate.com from his previous job because it gave him a better opportunity with a “bigger audience, better technology, better mobile platform” and a more current approach to sports reporting, he said. SpartanTailgate is the branch of 247Sports.com of that covers Michigan State athletics.

“(247Sports) want lots of stories and quick hits – a similar approach in some capacity to MLive (Media Group),” Wilson said. “As far as being unique, I think it’s the approach to Facebook and email newsletters that is different from other outlets. Those are two other ways that the content is put in front of fans that might not visit the site daily or see the content on Twitter.”

The “Michigan State Spartans on 247Sports” Facebook page has roughly 60,000 followers, with a large number receiving an email newsletter every day as well. Consisting of market-leading college team and affinity sites, according to quantcast.com, 247Sports gets over 18 million unique visitors monthly.

SpartanTailgate.com’s roots go back to 1995 when founder and current owner Trevor Barnes was a college student, creating a messaging board for Spartan alumni to keep up with their favorite football team. Barnes’ hobby garnered enough traffic to require three servers that cost more to maintain than his apartment rent.

For the first ten years, Red Cedar Message Board was just trying to maintain server fees while making no money. Then, as interest increased, RCMB transformed into SpartanTailgate.com and partnerned with ESPN, Rivals.com and 247Sports.com until its current partnership with CBS Sports Digital. Before becoming a part of 247Sports.com and ultimately CBS Sports Digital, Barnes turned down six-figure offers for RCMB. He didn’t want his passion project to become impersonal, and attributes the site’s success to not monetizing it too early.

“I never thought about the money aspect of it, until I had to. I think I got really lucky – being in the right place at the right time,” Barnes said. “Opportunities always found me.”

247Sports.com was launched in 2010 by Shannon Terry, current founder and CEO, after Terry sold Rivals.com to Yahoo for close to $100 million. In December, 2015 CBS Sports Digital acquired 247Sports along with Barnes’ website he started back in college.

What’s made SpartanTailgate.com and 247Sports.com more innovative than others is their strategy for covering football and basketball recruiting, which includes using a composite recruiting ranking that compiles other outlets’ – Like Rivals’ and ESPN’s – recruiting rankings, Barnes said. By using ahead-of-the-curve stats, 247Sports.com serves the heavily involved sports fan.

Whatever the innovation is, it can only be defined as innovative if it actually works and makes money, Gerstner said. Nobody is creating an overnight success story in their basements without adequate financial resources, she said. And while more seats in press row are being filled, consumers craving diverse news and opinions are the lucky ones, while websites are forced to figure out how to keep their relevance and revenue.

“You have to create a brand that people want to come back to,” Gerstner said. “You have to make yourself a destination site.”

There’s no mistaking Deadspin for being a successful startup with a following. No matter how sleazy people think Deadspin is, it can be argued that its ways of publishing sports news “without access, favor or discretion,” as its tagline states, are innovative.

“Deadspin – like them or hate them – has been very good at getting clicks,” Gerstner said.

People need to work for the consumer rather than the sports leagues and media corporations, Leitch said. He doesn’t throw any specific outlet under the bus, because he believes shoddy journalism can come from a behemoth like ESPN or from an independent startup.

Leitch left Deadspin in 2008 and then A.J. Daulerio took over as editor. At the helm, he decided to publish Hulk Hogan’s sex tape, which ended up being a costly mistake as of March 18th of this year. It seems like many people will be happy if Deadspin collapses after Hogan’s lawsuit, which explains much about the culture of Deadspin. The media outlet is known for publishing raunchy videos and degrading, depraved content that most sports news outlets won’t.

Six months after Daulerio took over Leitch’s startup-turned-popular-sports-blog, he called Leitch and asked him how he dealt with all of the advertising people, who seemed like all they cared about was money. Leitch responded and said he “literally never met one.”

“We’ve let the money people in the room. We’re so obsessed with traffic, we’re obsessed with follower count, social engagement, and all this bullshit that has nothing to do with sports whatsoever,” said Leitch, who claims he never looked at a web traffic or page view count as the head of Deadspin.

“If you create something good, and you are not wasteful in your production, an audience will find it and it will be successful,” Leitch said.

Sports fans are accustomed to quick stats and news, and media organizations – whether they’re a true startup or an established brand – have to be poised to respond. 70 percent of Twitter’s news users regularly see posts about sports, which is the leading topic on both Twitter and Facebook according to a report by Pew Research Center.

New York Times began eliminating their sports blogs about a year and a half ago, said Gerstner, who was one of their main bloggers. NYT and other established brands started gearing towards “digestible nuggets or deeper dives” in terms of content, she said. FiveThirtyEight, a data-driven news site, does “deep data dives,” as Gerstner puts it, and they’ve attracted enough attention to get an average of 1.8 million unique visitors per month, according to Quantcast.

ESPN producing longer, deeper pieces, like anything found on Grantland, is another way the sports media world is innovating. In a 2011 guide to sports startups, Columbia Journalism Review said Grantland “represents the latest and best-funded” of the new challengers that Deadspin would have to face after gaining popularity. But ESPN suspended Grantland in 2015, pulling the plug its narrative sports writing and raising questions about the state of online news and long form journalism.

Grantland and FiveThirtyEight are technically startups, but they received more of a finance and talent boost than many other websites. Gerstner said she’s not sure if established brands innovating and creating these types of websites are signs of the changing media landscape, or just a form of experimentation.

Either way, sports media is a business driven by cash and clicks. It’s not enough to have good content and cool ideas, sports startups need a following and financial boost.

“There’s always gonna be a new thing,” said Leitch. “I’ve been out of a Deadspin for a long time, and there’s always a new thing.”

Waves of new technology and innovations in the sports media world are coming and going, but the metamorphosis of a small sports blog turning into the next Deadspin 247Sports Bleacher Reports or ESPN is a constant and recurring story we’ll keep hearing. No matter what the latest innovation is, funding and hard work are the constants of sports startups.
“If you really wanna do it, you have to do it and you have to do it until long past the date when everyone is telling you to stop,” said Leitch.

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