On Grantland and Sports Media

There have been hundreds of thousands of words written on ESPN closing Grantland, but most of them have missed the largest issue — the site was losing money. 

With a staff somewhere between 42 and 54 people Grantland produced, according to James Miller’s Vanity Fair piece, somewhere in the neighborhood of $6 million a year in revenue. That’s a tiny amount of revenue for that many employees to produce. Putting that into perspective, that is less revenue than WJOX, a sports talk station in Birmingham, Alabama produces a year. The station I used to work for, 104.5 the Zone here in Nashville, also produces more revenue. Unlike Grantland, both of these sports stations are also very profitable.

When two single sports talk stations in mid-size markets produce more revenue and profit than a site like Grantland, located on the front page of ESPN.com, there are larger issues at play than Bill Simmons and editorial differences and lost jobs for the writers. Put simply, Grantland failed because it lost money and ESPN decided that the benefit Grantland brought to its brand wasn’t worth the cost it extracted. When you look at it from that perspective, all the drama and social media ire — “How could ESPN do this?” — is really just about dollars and sense.

This wasn’t a corporate vendetta or a hatchet job designed to inflict the utmost pain on a former employee, it was a company, ESPN, under pressure to cut costs based on the massive guaranteed payments to sports leagues for rights fees at the same time that cable and satellite revenue is declining, cutting costs. 

Bottom line: If you want creative freedom in today’s sports media world, you better make money for your bosses.

And here’s the simple fact — the vast, vast majority of sports writers today don’t make money for their bosses.  

Since ESPN’s announcement I’ve gotten a bunch of emails and Tweets — the ones that weren’t Ohio State fans calling me gay, anyway — asking me what I thought about Grantland and what the demise of the site meant for sports media in general. I thought about it over the weekend a great deal and the image I couldn’t get out of my head was the idea of modern day sports writers as the scouts in the movie “Moneyball.”

Just like those baseball scouts for the Oakland A’s, most sportswriters are operating with an antiquated notion of what their job is, and they have no concept how to use the tools around them to make them better at their job.

But before I write about this idea more, let’s talk about the sportswriting business model from the time newspapers were invented until around 1998. How did the business work?

You wrote for a newspaper. What paid your salary? Ads in the newspaper, primarily classified ads, which were the most profitable part of the business. From a business perspective the newspaper was just a means to deliver advertisements to customers. No one had any idea what people actually read. Writers and editors decided what they thought people wanted to read and then they wrote the articles. Most feedback was internal, your co-workers or bosses praised a story, the printing presses kept running, you had a hell of a business model to rely upon. Your salary wasn’t determined based on any diagnostic analysis of your talent or your readership, it was based on what editors thought.  

That’s because every single newspaper was its own media island. You competed with people in your city. If you were in a big enough city, there might be a competing newspaper. But that was it. You owned your market. If you didn’t like the writers in your town, good luck finding someone competing with them. 

I’ve written before about my experience starting college in 1997. It was a fascinating time to begin college because everything was changing rapidly. I went to George Washington University without ever having had an email address. We didn’t have the Internet at home. The only newspaper I’d ever read was the Nashville Tennessean and the Wall Street Journal, which arrived a day late in the mail at the local library. I loved reading newspapers, even as a kid. Hell, I still read actual newspapers. I prefer print over digital even though I make a living writing online. 

That first week of college in Washington, D.C. I started reading the Washington Post and was immediately blown away by how good Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon were in its sports section. This was before Pardon the Interruption made both men famous. They were simply fantastic columnists. But unless you lived in the Washington, D.C. are you’d have no idea they existed. The Washington Post was a media island just like virtually every newspaper in the country. In theory, the best columnists were in the biggest cities that could pay the most money, but that wasn’t always the case. (Nashville’s David Climer, who I grew up reading, was always really good, for instance.)

I had no idea how good a newspaper could be until I got to college and started reading the Washington Post.

Newspapers were already starting to panic back then over young people not reading the paper — they weren’t yet terrified of the Internet yet, college kids just weren’t reading — so they would deliver free New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today and Wall Street Journals to our dorm lobbies. I’d read all four every day. My roommates would make fun of me lugging all the papers back up to our dorm room. One of my favorite things about flying cross country is that I’ll still do this. I’m the only guy or girl on the plane handing the stewardess five newspapers at the end of a flight.

So what happens beginning with the rise of the Internet?

Suddenly every writer is competing with every other writer in the country. (Note: this is slowly starting to happen with radio now too. It’s why I’m so bullish on the new Outkick the Show we’re launching soon.) The newspaper media islands turned into connected continents. Everyone could see what everyone else was writing. Instead of having 32 individual NFL writers making $90k a year, a guy like Peter King, the best of the group, could become the national NFL writing superstar and make $3 million a year.

Some people got it — Bill Simmons rode this digital train to a payday unmatched in today’s sportswriting universe — but more often than not most writers were confused and uncertain how to handle a changing world. That’s because writers, as a general rule, aren’t really that good at business. We chose words over math, after all.

Yet, the business had shifted ground beneath them and they were like the old baseball scouts on “Moneyball”, totally unaware how to respond to a competitive market that voted with readership. Their media islands were overrun. (There’s a definite irony here in that many of these same sportswriters watching “Moneyball,” and laughed at the old scouts way of thinking without realizing that they were, in fact, the scouts of their own industry).

I noticed this at FanHouse, the writers we hired from newspapers weren’t aware they had to promote their writing online. It was a totally different universe. The only promotion they’d needed for most of their careers was a byline in a paper. People either bought the paper or they didn’t. And if they did, no one had any idea which articles were the most popular. Even back then the vast majority of a newspapers articles weren’t read. Many writers were uncomfortable with self-promotion, which, honestly, is the lifeblood of Internet writing. 

Moreover, most of those writers brought no audience with them. They’d been writing in newspapers and the newspaper readers weren’t the ones moving online. Most newspaper readers still read newspapers. For instance, my dad still clips articles for me. I don’t know when the last time he would have gotten online would be. He certainly doesn’t have an email address. 

So the dark days came, layoffs, the destruction of the sportswriting business. Islands of sports commerce that had employed tens of thousands began to vanish as Craig’s List and other sites like it kill the most profitable arm of the newspaper, the classified ads.

The Internet, which for a time was to be a savior, turned out to be an executioner. Forecasts for Internet ad revenue plummeted because as opposed to in print where there’s a finite number of ads to sell in a print product, there’s an infinite amount of ad space online.

So what new business models developed to work for sports media on the Internet and replace the newspaper model?

Four, primarily. 

a. Individual team sites with subscribers

These reporters are primarily focused on recruiting, coach searches, and moderating message boards. Readers pay a monthly subscription fee. Their audiences are tiny but passionate. Ten thousand paid subscribers a month, which is more than the vast majority of these sites actually have, will net you around $1.2 million a year.

The audience is small and the staffs are small too, after all, you’re mostly calling teenagers for recruiting updates to satisfy a rabid subset of the recruiting bases. 

Think of it this way, in a hundred thousand seat stadium there are probably no more than 5000 subscribers in the crowd on any given Saturday, that’s 5% of the overall fan base. 

b. Tech companies disguised as sports media companies.

These are the Bleacher Reports and SBNations of the world. They are sports media companies, but really what they’re selling is the technology behind their products. Writers don’t really matter much here. These businesses developed without paying writers. As they grew they’ve added paid writers, but not very many in the grand scheme of things. 

Again, these are tech businesses that happen to cover sports. 

c. Large media sites

ESPN.com, Yahoo, NBCSports.com, FoxSports.com, CBSSports.com. 

These sites are, by and large, not very profitable. 

d. Personality driven sites

Grantland, the Monday Morning Quarterback with Peter King, Adrian Wojnarowski’s site at Yahoo. Barstool and Outkick the Coverage, to a certain extent.

These are sites that build on an established audience for a personality and use that personality to grow additional writers. 

That’s it. 

After nearly twenty years, that’s where we are as an online business model. 

There are four basic templates of online sports sites, and only one of them, the team sites, are based on subscriber revenue. Every other site is based on ad revenue. That’s because sports fans have been conditioned not to pay for any content they receive. (This is why consumers complaining about content is so contradictory. Does any other free to consumers business hear this all the time: “Why isn’t the content that we don’t pay for more to my liking?!)

So here’s where we circle back to Grantland and my thoughts on the market ahead. 

Here are ten thoughts:

1. Writers have to understand the business of writing. 

You are in the business of getting readers. If you are getting less than a million pageviews a month, you probably aren’t making your company money. 

If you aren’t making your company money, you’re expendable. 

You can lament the changes in sports media or evolve. 

As media companies tighten their belts, why should they employ people who don’t make them money? You can’t rely on corporate largesse to keep your job. 

Learn the business.

I’ll tell you a moment that crystallized the business for me, I was out on a radio sales call and a single advertiser cut a check for $50,000 in live ads I was going to be doing for the next six months. That was more than the radio station paid me at the time. And I’m sitting there thinking, “Holy hell, advertisers have a lot of money to spend. And they’re paying for my work and I get pennies of this? Why can’t I start my own site online and sell it to them too?”

I’m not a genius, I just understood the business that I was in and decided I was ready to not be an employee anymore.  

2. Work harder than everyone else.

It sounds easy, but it isn’t. The harder I work, the more success I have. The simple fact is: most sportswriters don’t work that hard. Most people in every industry don’t work that hard. That gives you a chance to succeed. 

Find me someone else who runs his own site, did over 20 hours a week of live radio, and traveled cross-country for TV. 

Good luck. 

Tons of people want to do this job until they realize the work involved to be good. I’ve never seen anyone be good at anything without working hard at it. Talent matters, sure, but drive matters as much or more than talent.  

So work harder than everyone else. 

I’ll give you a recent example. At this year’s SEC Spring Meetings a couple of writers pulled me aside and complained because I was Periscoping what the coaches were saying. This, they said, allowed competing sites to watch those feeds and write what the coaches said, disadvantaging, so they said, the writers who were actually there. 

That’s such a newspaper way of thinking it drives me crazy. But it wasn’t unique to those guys, lots of people still believe that. 

Here’s the deal: if you can’t write more interesting stories actually being there than the people are writing watching my Periscope feed can write, why are you traveling and writing at all? Why not just watch my Periscope feed too? Why should your company be paying to put you up in a hotel and pay for you to travel and pay for you to write what others are writing from their couches?

The fact of the matter is no one is reading those articles on any substantial basis — 99% of sportswriting — or writing on the Internet in general — will get less than 2,000 readers — but these guys were used to having something unique based entirely on their job, not their work ethic. If your article doesn’t contain something unique or entertaining, what’s the point of writing it? People don’t have to wake up the day after a game and read the newspaper to see what happened. They can watch or listen to the press conferences themselves. In order to build an audience, you have to work harder and smarter than other writers. 

3. Analyze your readership numbers.  

What worked, what didn’t? You can’t always write for the audience, but if you spent twenty hours on a story and no one read it, what happened? Were you wrong about the potential market? Did you do a bad job teasing it for social media? Were you afraid to promote it as aggressively as you should have?

Opinion works better than news online. That’s because everyone has the same news these days. 

Did you know that lists of potential coaching hires are infinitely more read than stories about an actual coaching hire? It’s true. Lists destroy actual coaching news. Why? Because your list is your list. It’s you coming up with a potential hire and explaining why it makes sense. People love to read that. The actual coaching news? The moment you break a story nowadays it is immediately co-opted by thousands of aggregators. Everyone knows the coach, the potential coach is more interesting.   

If you break it on Twitter, it’s dead by the time the story goes up online. If you don’t break it on Twitter, you get beaten. Writers pay attention to who breaks stories, readers? They don’t care. Generally they don’t even know who broke it.   

Educating and entertaining people attracts readers, merely having a scoop doesn’t.

The only exception here is if your scoop is an actual article. The perfect example of this was SI’s piece explaining why LeBron was going back to Cleveland. No one could steal this and make it their own.  

4. Be creative and take risks.   

I feel for the Grantland writers because they are in pretty much the exact same place I was just short of five years ago when FanHouse, the best place I ever worked online, shuttered and tossed a hundred great writers into the jobless wilderness.

That’s how Outkick came to exist, because i didn’t want to rely on anyone else to run the business that allowed me to write.

I had two young kids at home, a wife who was about to quit her job, and a thriving, but still new radio show in town. At that moment in time, when FanHouse shut down my sole income was a $45,000 a year job on a radio show with an expiring contract.

Ultimately this was what I decided: Writing online doesn’t cost anything so if you start a site and it fails, so what? You can’t be afraid to fail. What’s the worst thing that happens? I have to find a new job. 

So I bootstrapped this site from nothing, went out and sold the advertising myself to dozens of advertisers, wrote every article, I did everything all by myself for several years. Like anyone starting a small business, I was terrified. I’d wake up late at night and stare at the ceiling thinking, “What have I done?”

After Outkick’s first day I went to bed and thought, “Holy hell, I have to do this again tomorrow and then the next day as far into the future as I can see?”

And I’ve done it. 

It’s my way to create a business. 

But your way may be better. Instead of lamenting the state of online sportswriting, why don’t you create a better business model, one that can employ more writers, one that can educate and enlighten and entertain. 

Go do it. 

5. Break down the wall between writers and advertisers. 

I think every sportswriter should be sponsored by a hotel and a car company. Same with restaurants and daily fantasy companies; we have to kill the idea that editorial and ad sales are separate.

I endorsed Bud Light when they were a presenting sponsor for Outkick. I endorse Draft Kings now. Readers are smart enough to know that. If they want to hold it against me and accuse me of bias, so be it. But someone has to pay for the content that’s being produced. If banner ads are dying — and they are — then something has to replace them.  

I did live ads for all sorts of companies doing daily radio and I’ll be doing them again on our new Outkick show. All online writers — except for recruiting writers — are paid by advertisers. Why not eliminate the false idea that writers can’t touch advertisements?

6. Do more than write.

Doing radio made me a better, more responsive writer. So did doing television. So did running a business. I would encourage writers to ask for data about what people actually read. It will help you write more of what people read. If you write enough of what people read then eventually you will build an audience online. 

When I started writing online over a decade ago I vividly remember driving in my car and thinking, “Boy, can you imagine if one day you had a thousand people consistently reading your columns? That would be incredible.”

We’ve had days where we had a million people on Outkick.

Start off with small goals. Just do it every day. That’s all you can control. I’ve been writing online for nearly 12 years now. Every week, every month, every year. The first several years I wrote and practiced law full time. That was grueling. But you have to work your ass off to make it in anything. If you aren’t willing to do that, you’re probably not going to succeed. Outkick’s four and half years old and I have taken one week off in that time.

The simple fact is this — the writing landscape is tenuous. You need multiple ways to make money to make yourself safe.

Aim for large audiences. If you’re smart, original, and funny, they’ll eventually find you. Your goal should be to educate and entertain as many people as you possibly can.     

7. Make your stories unique. 

Continuing the MoneyBall analogy, how many writers have value over a replacement writer? That is, how many writers on the Internet drive so much traffic that if you replace them there’s a substantial fall off. Bill Simmons, again, is the easy example. His audience follows him wherever he goes. How many other writers have that?

If the byline on your article doesn’t enlarge its readership then you don’t have much of a value. All you’re doing is using the distribution network of a company. That makes you expendable. They can find someone else just like you. 

Develop a voice, even if you’re in an area, like many are, where opinion is circumscribed. Every team has a beat writer that’s better than everyone else, right? Be that person.   

Right now many writers are the equivalent of the old baseball scouts, denigrating online writers who use analytics while they continue to rely on the time worn method of predicting what people like without actually checking. 

At this point I know social media analytics so well that I can tell you nearly the exact percentage of people who will click on almost every link I toss out. You should be able to do the same. 

8. Don’t write for Twitter, write about what people actually read. 

The biggest mistake I see young writers making is writing for the Twitter sports audience. Twitter is a pinprick of an audience and just about every single writer on here is trying to be the same white, liberal sarcastic voice.

The result?

None of these guys have many readers and they spend most of their time bitching online about people that do have audiences. The Internet sportswriting revolution turned out to be a bunch of overeducated, liberal white dudes writing the exact same columns that no one reads.  

My favorite Twitter request is more X’s and O’s in football. Twitter always wants more X’s and O’s. Do you know who watches X’s and O’s? NO ONE. Not even the people claiming they want more X’s and O’s. People want to be entertained. 

Here’s a general rule, if you’re a writer and you spend more time on Twitter than you do actually writing, you aren’t going to be writing for long. Moreover, it will actually teach you bad habits if you try and stay in the good grace of the professional Tweeters.  

I’ll give you a good example of a cliche that has taken root on Twitter that’s actually the exact opposite of what people want. A subset of sports Twitter derides every opinion based on a new story as a “hot take.” You know what a hot take is? It’s a fresh opinion about what America is talking about based on something that has recently happened. That’s where the readers and listeners and viewers are. That’s what people want to read, opinions and articles on current sports stories.  

This is why working in radio or TV is a great experience, because you actually have to entertain the masses. Most sportswriters still don’t understand that they’re in the entertainment business. Entertainers have to give people something they want or else they aren’t entertainers very long.   

Imagine if you started off a sports radio show by saying, “Everyone is talking about Urban Meyer today, but I’m not going to talk about Urban Meyer today, instead I’m going to talk about men’s Pac 12 diving.”

Well, you’d avoid the Urban Meyer hot take, but you’d get fired in a hurry in the radio and on TV. 

You know the best way to ensure you’re expendable and never have an audience? Keep writing cold takes. 

9. Have a thick skin and don’t take yourself too seriously.  

This is my advice for life in general, but especially for the Internet. 

The Internet’s a brutal place so you damn well better not take yourself too seriously. 

I would venture that people say meaner things to me than any other writer online. But you know what? I revel in it. Don’t throw me in the pig slop, it’s where I like to spend my time.  

If I listened to critics, I’d still be a miserable lawyer. 

Instead, I haven’t worn pants at all today. 

Advantage: me. 

10. Individual writers have never had more opportunity.

Nearly ten years ago I wrote “Dixieland Delight” without a press pass or a single coach or player interview. That was because the SEC would have never credentialed me. I was a nobody, a regular fan just like most of you. 

But I had an idea for a book, I’d go around to every SEC football stadium in the same year and write about the experience.

How many millions of people could have done that? Hell, how many hundreds of thousands had fantasized about doing it? But here’s the deal, I did it.

And taking that risk has made all the difference for me. 

You’ll meet tons of people who tell you not to take risks in your life. I’m going to tell you the exact opposite. Take the risk. Do something that no one has done before. Start a site, found a business, make the world bend in your direction instead of standing on the sideline griping about the way things ought to be.

If you want to write, write.  

Because here’s the deal, small businesses actually have an advantage over large businesses right now on the Internet. If you can build a site and get $100k in advertising dollars in a year, you’ll be thrilled. The large companies don’t have time to worry about that. We built a good business at Outkick off a rounding error for ESPN or Fox. Grantland didn’t work because it cost too much and made too little. But what if Grantland had started small and grown. It has worked for a ton of content businesses online. There are plenty of sports sites that could work. Make your mark, own your future instead of relying on someone else. 

Above all else, don’t mythologize what you do: writers sell their words for money. In order to sell your words for the most money possible, you have to find a large market for them. 

It’s always been that way. 

It will always be that way. 

Shakespeare wrote for the masses. So did Charles Dickens. They were the hot take masters of their eras. 

And the positive is, there’s never been a larger market for words in American history than right now.

Go forth and prosper.  

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