Sports Media Is Dead, Long Live Sports Media

Growth is painful, but the sports journalism business is making it excruciating.
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A couple of interesting reactions came in from Sports Illustrated this week amid the latest cuts to print journalism in the name of “pivoting to video.”

SportsMedia

First, from Andy Gray, on Wednesday afternoon: “I’ve been in digital media for 12 years. One thing I’ve learned is that nobody wants to read anything over 1,000 words. MTV is more proof.”

Then, from media reporter Richard Deitsch on Thursday afternoon: “Sources: The total visits for Fox Sports’s website were down about 60 percent yesterday when compared to Sunday.”

These two tweets, one opinion and one reported fact, do not seem to mesh, and it’s because one of them is wrong. Even when Gray backtracked, he was still off base when he wrote, “Didn’t mean to offend anyone and could’ve worded better. Just saying that ppl today prefer shorter, viral content compared to longer pieces.”

It’s not that “people today” prefer short and generally mindless content to deep dives. That’s always been the case. Look outside of sports, and People magazine has three times the circulation of Vanity Fair, same as the advantage for Reader’s Digest over The New Yorker. Online, a story about a dog running on the field at a 49ers-Browns game will do much bigger numbers than a story about Venezuelan baseball players fearing for their families’ lives back home.

The lowest common denominator is not a new phenomenon. The idea in media traditionally has been that the fluffier stuff is what pays for the real journalism. The problem online is that nothing pays for anything.

When’s the last time you were reading a story on ESPN.com and clicked an ad on purpose? But if you want to watch highlights of last night’s game, and there’s a 15-second commercial before the clip, you’re trapped and the advertiser gets their message across.

It’s the advertisers, the financial lifeblood of the industry, pushing these changes. It’s entirely possible, depending on the breakdown of content, that Fox Sports would wind up better off with 60% less traffic, so long as more pre-roll ads are playing, especially considering all the savings from laying off writing staff.

People will read long pieces of writing if they’re good pieces. Just ask The Washington Post and The New York Times (granted, both behind paywalls, but cheap ones and avoidable ones for anyone who knows how to use Incognito Mode, NOT THAT THIS IS HOW WE READ THOSE PUBLICATIONS, OF COURSE) how their juicier and more extensive pieces on Trump administration scandals are going. In sports, there are no more vital reads than Jon Heyman’s “Inside Baseball” or Elliotte Friedman’s “30 Thoughts” hockey column. On a different level, Bill Simmons rose to prominence as a writer whose columns got printed out by 20-something bros to read on the toilet.

You don’t need to print anything out to read on the toilet now, because of the advent of smartphones to allow people to have reading material with them at all times. But it’s something else about smartphones that makes this “pivot to video” strategy from so many media companies misguided.

Phones are great for a lot of things. Watching videos is not one of them. Whether it’s streaming a full Major League Baseball game through Twitter or catching two minutes of Colin Cowherd screaming nonsense, the problem is the same: phone screens are tiny, videos drain phone batteries faster than anything, and the phone is rendered otherwise useless for the duration of the video.

With audiences for content constantly shifting from desktop to mobile, this is a major problem without a realistic solution on the horizon. Plus, think again of the toilet consumer, particularly at work. If someone wants a sports fix in the office restroom, is that person going to want a seven-minute read, or risk discovery as a result of Skip Bayless shrieking through a tiny speaker?

Sports media companies – all media companies – cater to advertisers because that’s where the money comes from. It doesn’t mean the advertisers have any idea how to bring in traffic. The problem is that the media companies, 20-plus years into the Internet game, still have not figured out how to make money while giving away their content for free.

Meanwhile, The Athletic just launched this month in Detroit, the outlet’s fourth city after Chicago, Toronto, and Cleveland. The editor-in-chief for the new site is Craig Custance, and the managing editor is Katie Strang, both accomplished reporters formerly of ESPN. A subscription-based site where the business depends on getting people to pay for quality content rather than catering to the whims of advertisers who just want whatever is viral so they get eyeballs? It’s crazy enough, it just might work.

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