Back on July 20th, 2011 I launched Outkick the Coverage.
It was the first day of SEC Media Days.
Just like anyone who starts any business I was nervous as hell. I had two boys under the age of three and I’d made a gamble that where I worked didn’t matter anymore. After seven years at CBS, FanHouse and Deadspin, I’d come to believe that you guys would find me no matter what company I wrote for. So, really, I was gambling on you guys, the readers who have followed me over all these years.
That gamble paid off in the first year. Over four million unique visitors have come through the OKTC doors in our first year and over 60% of that traffic is social media, you guys sharing our content through Twitter and Facebook and online message boards. What’s more, we produced over thirty million ad impressions, a massive number for an independent site with no relationship with any major site for linkage.
Those numbers are small compared to the big boys, but they aren’t artificial.
They’re real and to me they’re spectacular.
Better than I could have hoped.
In fact, I had no real idea what to expect at all.
Which means today is the day when I give y’all a big, sloppy Internet embrace.
I’ve learned a ton this first yeawr and I’ve had a hell of a fun time. Most of the thanks goes to you guys for inundating me with tips, sharing OKTC articles with friends, and continuing to stop by to be entertained all year around.
You’ve proven that an independent site can work.
And we’ve all gotten to drink together with Uncle Verne and hopefully OKTC has helped make your days pass a little faster.
So thanks to all of you, yes, even the Kentucky and Alabama fans.
I’m writing this from Mackinac Island, Michigan while my one-year old sleeps in his pack-and-play clutching a mini-Michigan football to his chest. (My wife is waging war to make these kids Michigan fans).
I’m also taking my first real vacation of the year while I’m writing this and I’ll roll out data on the site this week. Our top 25 markets, our most read articles, basically I’m trying to be transparent with y’all.
So I thought it was time to give an OKTC state of the union. (As readers are well aware, I’m always incredibly modest and understated).
Our official one year anniversary won’t be until the end of next week, but next week is SEC Media Days again and I’ll be down there for a busy week. Plus, I leave for Las Vegas on Thursday night of next week so I’ll actually be celebrating the OKTC anniversary in high style, gambling at a bachelor party.
So here are my thoughts, concerns, and opinions about the online sports business world as seen through the eyes of a writer and (very) small businessman who is attempting to straddle the business and the creative side of writing. I know some of these thoughts may be unique to OKTC, but I also suspect that there are much larger truths lurking in these details for individual writers and larger sites. I get lots of requests for advice now — yes, I know that’s crazy — so here’s my best attempt to share five things I’ve learned from a year’s worth of data as an independent sports site:
1. Internet linking from major sites is dead.
Yep, the link back system is fundamentally broken.
Back in the halcyon days of the early Internet era your goal was to get linked to a major site so people could find your site. That’s almost valueless now.
As soon as someone creates original content the most salacious details are distilled into a paragraph and immediately republished everywhere on the Internet and those major sites linking to the original report send hardly any traffic back to the original source.
This is a serious problem. It leads to sites like the Huffington Post being credited for everything despite reporting almost nothing.
If links on major sites like these actually led to massive amounts of clickbacks it would be different, there would be a reward for reporting original content.
But the vast majority of people don’t click on the source of the original report.
In our first year OKTC was sourced and linked quite a bit from many major sites. (Not as often as we should have been, but still…) Do you know how much those links mattered in site traffic? Hardly at all. Increasingly, being linked doesn’t matter because readers don’t click on the source. They just read the quick hitter news and move on.
That’s why social media is so important, you guys actually source the articles you like and share them with your friends on Twitter and Facebook. A retweet from someone with a few thousand followers or a like from someone with a few thousand friends leads to more actual readers than a front page “sourced” article on Huffington Post.
So where did my sourced readers come from?
Twitter and Facebook represented nearly half of our sourced traffic. After those two behemoths came team message boards. They’re often cesspools, but team message boards do a great job of linking original content and sending readers along to check it out at the origin of the news.
The only place that actually sends readers is Jimmy Traina’s Hot Clicks at SI. I suspect that’s because he doesn’t give away his stories, he gives you a sentence and you have to click to see the content. (That’s why the Drudge Report also sends so many readers. It just gives you links, not the stories themselves distilled to a paragraph).
Otherwise, being linked on a major site is virtually worthless in terms of site traffic.
When I was an editor at Deadspin way back in 2008, getting linked led to a traffic deluge.
People still clicked original source content.
That’s alarming because it suggests that increasingly big sites are gaming the system, grabbing the original content and profiting off it without paying for any of the costs associated with gaining that content.
In fact, go look at Deadspin’s most read articles every now and then. Increasingly those most read “articles” are video highlights that millions of people have already seen. Those highlights are then repurposed so thousands of people can watch them online. That’s a quick gimmick that will die because every sports league is eventually going to get as restrictive with its video highlights as Major League Baseball is. Then what? When Will and A.J. ran Deadspin there was a ton of original content. Now? Now most of Deadspin’s most read “articles” are video highlights.
That’s why I’m not that excited about the idea of original video content on the Internet. Most original video content is going to be the same thing you see on television repurposed online. Why? Because it’s much better done than the online content.
If being linked at Deadspin, the largest sports blog out there, is worthless then it’s completely worthless just about everywhere else on the Internet.
I still source link my articles, but it’s pretty rare when I actually send out my links to any other sites. It’s just not worth the time.
I hope you guys are clicking through to the original links, but the numbers suggest that you aren’t.
That’s a major structural flaw in today’s Internet. Collaboration, increasingly, doesn’t work on sites.
2. How do you monetize mobile?
I have no idea.
Right now none of our mobile traffic is advertiser supported. Basically, I’m giving that away for free. Because I know y’all want to be able to read the content on a mobile-friendly device, but I’m also troubled by that. We had over thirty million ad impressions in our first year. We lost millions, probably tens of millions more, of ad impressions to mobile readers. As if that wasn’t bad enough mobile readers are the youngest, smartest, and most highly educated readers most sites have.
Mobile is going to be an incredibly tough to monetize for everyone creating content on the Internet.
Already much larger sites like Facebook are grappling with this issue on a massively larger scale.
I know big sites like the New York Times, ESPN, and the Washington Post are selling mobile ads, but the dollars are miniscule.
I’ve toyed with the idea of selling an exclusive sponsorship on OKTC’s mobile — that is one person gets it all. (So if you want to reach a large, smart, young audience on an exclusive platform, email me). That makes sense for a site like mine, but it wouldn’t work for larger sites that have to make much more money off their mobile ads.
Online ads are already way too cheap, mobile will be even cheaper. So we’ve moved from print media dollars to online ad dimes to mobile ad pennies. All the while the quality of the content has remained pretty consistent.
So where does the digital money come from that allows large media organizations to flourish and keep producing that content?
I don’t know, and neither do a ton of people who are a lot smarter than me.
3. Why are online advertisers so stupid?
(Except, of course, for those who have advertised on OKTC.)
This is a consistent lamentation of mine because we’re at a rush to zero. That is, every year there are more pages of Internet content created that don’t add anything original to the discourse. But most of these pages are created relatively equal. Which means that sites that are doing great work are being squeezed by sites that take that great work and repurpose it as their own. Again, the link back system is fundamentally broken. In terms of page views there is very little reward for creating or uncovering great original content.
So how low can it go?
So why are we using the same metrics to compare the two?
Put simply, the dumbest content on the Internet is fundamentally devaluing the smartest, most original content. The more dumb content there is, the less valuable the original content is.
Shouldn’t it be the opposite?
That’s how it works in television.
The audience for a show like “Mad Men” is comparatively tiny.
But it’s a smart and well-educated audience with disposable income that advertisers are trying to reach. So advertisers pay much more to reach the audience watching “Mad Men” than they do the dolts watching “Wipeout.”
In other words, television often rewards quality. You can’t compare “Mad Men” and “Wipeout.” Right now much of the Internet universe considers “Mad Men” and “Wipeout” to be the same.
That is, most sports ad impressions are created relatively equal.
This is incredibly dumb.
When will it change?
More alarmingly, will it change?
I hope so, because OKTC can deliver a niche audience of smart, educated people that is better than just about any other sports site out there.
Shouldn’t this be valued?
4. What do I pay and when do I pay writers?
This is an incredibly difficult decision for me because I’m a writer at heart. If FanHouse still existed, I’d be paying attention to the numbers on my columns as best I could, but I’d still be an employee. There’s no way I would have started OKTC and I wouldn’t be enmeshed in the online sports business angle to such a degree. But FanHouse shutting down confirmed what I’d long feared, writers can’t rely on anyone but themselves in today’s media age.
We’re all expendable.
Every single one of us. (With the possible exception of Bill Simmons).
So I realized this and went out on my own rather than joining another major media company again.
And there are lots of great writers out there that I’ve talked about bringing on board, but I’m nervous about taking that step.
Because right now OKTC is profitable, but it’s also low stress. We did well over six figures in advertising in our first year, but I didn’t have to make a payroll. So if I had a bad month? No sweat. I wasn’t going to worry about it. But if I had employees with families who were relying on the site to guarantee income for a month?
I wouldn’t have slept at night.
Nor did I have to pay for travel and expenses for anyone but me. After a year I’m completely confident OKTC can be very successful for me, but how much bigger can we get? Do I take a risk on bringing on additional writers when you don’t know what the future holds?
Our advertising revenue sounds good when you consider that our overhead is low, but consider that two full page ads in a single Sports Illustrated brought in more revenue than OKTC did in our first year. That’s insane. And it offers clear evidence why SI was so slow to adopt digital, because it’s like setting a bonfire to print ad dollars. Even now SI is still raking in big money for print ads in magazines. In terms of local ad dollars, my 3HL radio show here in Nashville will do several million in ad sales this year. And that’s just Nashville.
We’ll do infinitely less than that with a much bigger audience in a much wider geographic range.
So the money is out there, it’s just not being spent that well.
The central point remains, however, good writers are expensive to employ.
Especially when, for example, a college sportswriter’s travel expenses in a calendar year can approach $30,000 or more. Toss in a $70,000 salary and you’re talking about each writer costing $100k or more.
That’s scary for a place like me.
And sure I can pay less than that to unproven writers, but that’s riskier, those writers might not be very good which means that spending less on unproven writers could end up costing more. Plus, younger writers require lots of supervision and editing. (And if you’ve seen my grammar, making me an editor is terrifying). The reason the Bullpen hasn’t gotten rolling yet – it will before the season starts — is because I didn’t have the time to edit other people’s work and produce my own.
So what’s the future of OKTC after a full year?
We can easily get much bigger. In fact, if I wanted to quadruple page views that would be easy to do this year. But that’s not the goal. Getting better is. Being smarter, funnier, and more original. I’m citing unique visitors instead of pageviews because that’s a better number. And even better than unique visitors is returning visitors, you guys who find your way back to the site again and again.
Which, thankfully, tons of you guys did.
As we decide how much to grow, I don’t want to become FanHouse, a place that lures away writers with promises that don’t materialize. And I don’t want the stress of trying to make a payroll when right now there is little stress. I absolutely love running OKTC and I can make a decent living doing so while having complete creative control over everything I write. If I want to have fun with a a boob draft in the summer, I can do it, if I want to rank SEC coaches as Civil War generals, I can do it. And if I want to devote an entire mailbag to analyzing the best Southern writers or breaking down the Bachelorette, I can do that as well.
How many people in the United States can say they make a living writing whatever they want whenever they want to write it?
The credit goes to y’all, the readers.
Maybe I’m unique in this, but I value creative freedom more than I do money. And OKTC is the ultimate in creative freedom.
I love every day when I wake up and sit down in front of this empty screen. Because one day it’s teabagging and the next day it’s analyzing the Big 12 bylaws, every day’s an adventure.
But at the same time I feel like OKTC has just scratched the surface of the influence it can have. There are very, very few independent sites in the country that actually try and speak truth to power. Do you think ESPN, Fox, and CBS are doing that?
Of course not, the content they produce is worthless to the business as a whole. The business of those places is to air sports, not write about it.
Which brings me to this.
5. Good writers have to matter, but right now the market says they don’t.
Name a paid writer at the Huffington Post.
It recently sold for over $300 million.
Name a paid writer at Bleacher Report that you absolutely, positively have to read.
It’s about to sell for over $200 million.
I bet Bleacher Report has never even paid a million dollars total to writers in its entire existence.
The point is sports sites can be good businesses, but they haven’t necessarily been good to writers.
Every site that employs expensive writers does so as a rounding error of its overall budget. ESPN.com, Yahoo, SI.com, and Fox Sports are all part of multi-billion dollar businesses. They can afford to throw money at a few writers because other parts of their businesses are so profitable.
But show me an online shop that that pays writers well and also has a great business model, where the content pays for the writers to be well-compensated. (Exclude all sites that charge for content. This knocks out the Politicos and monthly pay sports sites of the world. You could also argue that it knocks out sites like Yahoo too since I’d bet the vast majority of the Yahoo Sports revenue comes from fantasy sports.)
There isn’t a single online sports business that is paying its writers well off the content they produce.
(By the way, I would love to see the books on ESPN.com. There is no way on Earth that site is independently profitable. None. Not with the salaries it’s reportedly paying writers. Rick Reilly at $2.4 million a year? And that’s ESPN! My guess is that many of those ESPN.com writers are making most of their money from the television side now. That is, television is so profitable that the losses on a site like ESPN.com are a rounding error to the overall business. That or fantasy sports and bracket challenges have become profitable enough to pay the writers.)
Right now the only online sportswriters that make good salaries are all doing it at sites that don’t have to be profitable.
How scary is this?
Imagine if suddenly every major sports site in America had to be profitable as a standalone entity. What if ESPN.com just started running the AP instead of producing original content? Would their traffic actually drop that much? How many sportswriters would actually be employed by these sites then?
Writing well and writing often is a damn rare skillset. So is consistently creating original, smart, and funny content. The best writers should be worth their weight in online gold. But right now the market is saying that they aren’t.
In fact, the market isn’t just saying that writers are worthless, it’s paying the most for the sites that have paid writers the least.
Will this situation rectify itself or is the future for other writers to do what I’ve done when their places of business suddenly decide paying for content makes no sense, go out and hang up an online shingle on their own so they can finally write exactly what they want and make as much money from their words as the market will allow?
That’s a scary step for a lot of writers who have gotten used to being employed and have never had to sit across the table from an advertiser and tell them why they should be paying you to get their message out. Talk about a challenge, I’m no Don Draper, trust me.
I don’t know the future, but I can tell y’all that I love writing at OKTC more than I have anywhere else.
But if writers don’t matter in an advertiser sponsored sports Interent — as the market presently is telling us that they don’t — this raises the ultimate question, what do the aggregating sites do when there is no original content left to aggregate anymore?
As you can see, I’m far from an expert in online sports media and I’m asking many more questions than I’m answering, but I do think it’s instructive to think about questions and solutions. Lots of writers are alrady doing this, many of whom woke up one morning to find out our employers didn’t exist anymore. If you’re a writer, it’s probably not enough for you to simply trust the people running the business.
Chances are they know a lot less about your business than you do.
I’ll have the top markets and other data for y’all tomorrow.
But for now, thanks to all of you for making OKTC possible.
Especially you awkward Alabama and Kentucky fans.
God, y’all are just precious.