Seen & Heard – Weekend Edition

by mike in boston / @mikeinbostonemail

 

Good morning sports media fans. Things are very busy at the gas station where I stock shelves so I have not had as much time to pay attention to all the great work being done by the local media. If I had to guess this will continue over the next few weeks. If you’d be interested in helping me write this column by compiling noteworthy content, reach out. The pay is terrible but you get the priceless return of knowing that every fish in the pond is checking out your reel.

 

Business Models

 

One of the big topics over the last few months is the hastening collapse of traditional media and the rise of various types of new media. As recently as 10 years ago the tried and still very much true models were:

 

  1. Print
  2. TV
  3. Radio

 

Some may argue that print was already dead in 2007 but recall that Sportsnet decided to print a twice monthly magazine in 2011. Clearly they believed there was some money left to be shook from the tree.

 

The big money was always in TV, but a sports writing gig could end up being lucrative if you managed to stick around, since so many of the papers are unionized environments. Plus you were also free to moonlight on TV and radio for supplementary income. Radio, by comparison, was less well paid for the average host, but still a great living given that you’re working 60% of full time hours.

 

Compare that to today. Sports departments are shrinking and retirements are not being replaced. The Sun chain is going bankrupt, Star is losing money as is the Globe. None of these outlets have made a dime in digital, and are choosing to give the content away after trying and failing with paywalls.

 

Radio budgets also keep falling. Look at 1050 now versus one year ago: a solo morning show, syndicated mid morning content, solo afternoon, and nearly no evening hosts. They have shed several salaries in Toronto. FAN590 is doing the same: the current morning show is way cheaper than the last, they have gone solo in the afternoons, and are relying on just one co-host for their signature show when they once had two. Compare that to Brunt and Cox on PTS and Tim & Sid in the afternoons.

 

TV is a medium I don’t follow as much but there is growing concern that the old advertising model is close to collapsing. Hear me out: fragmentation, cord-cutting, Twitter highlights, DVR/PVR, Netflix … few of these things existed 15 years ago. You could count on the same people being in front of their TVs during the same hours every night of the week. That assurance is what generated all the cash you needed to pay everyone big money and compete for rights. In the last decade TV rights deals have mutated to unsustainable levels and networks are firing on-air staff to balance the books. See for example the fallout from Rogers’ HNIC deal.

 

The question to which no one seems to know the answer is whether digital has strong enough legs to support the next chapter in sports media. A prominent digital venture in a different market advertises itself as such:

 

“Not just a “fan” blog, [Sports Website] goes beyond the amateur analysis sometimes found in the blogosphere to deliver news and exclusive interviews not found anywhere else.”

 

This is the state of the game: legacy media are trying to invade someone else’s space and present themselves as a professional replacement for what is already on offer. But in order for that to work two things need to be true:

 

1) people need to be unhappy with what’s already there, and

2) the replacement needs to be significantly better than the status quo.

 

To try to answer these questions I took a glance around at the different business models competing to make money in digital sports media.

 

A) Named Website – e.g. Dean Blundell Dot Com

 

Dean’s new venture is mostly viral videos, plus a link trading arrangement with a Leafs fan site, plus some banner ads, plus an app that – like most, I presume – tracks and sells your data. Note, when he launched the site advertised 24 young writers but that mention has been removed. If I had to guess, at most two people are getting paid to generate all the content for the site. Most of what you get is freely available stuff on the internet that is being aggregated for a small share of the viral profits.

 

Dean also accepts submissions from readers. For example, here’s a link that takes you to this page:

 

 

I am not sure if there is a business model here. Dean is probably trying to use his name to set up a Barstool-like place for people who like babes and beer and videos of people falling down. The reason I am including it here is that Barstool very clearly proved these people also really like sports. If you can get enough of them to make you their homepage then advertisers will flock to you. It doesn’t look like that has happened yet for DB.com but it may yet.

 

It’s hard to find any examples of websites that cater to the frat guy demo that loves fantasy sports in Canada, despite several very profitable ones in the US. TSN tried with its BarDown viral website. Vice is in that ecosystem to an extent.

 

Is there is a future here for sports media? I’m not sure.

 

B) Podcast – e.g. RawMikeRichards Dot Com

 

Mike started touting his new podcast venture the second he mutually split from TSN1050. He has successfully completed 80+ shows since launching. He has also taken the show on the road, and continues to get familiar guests to come in to the studio/bar where he records.

 

Realistically Mike just needs to generate enough in advertising revenue to pay his co-host, a tech person, and a social media + web person to make this worthwhile. The long play for him is to keep his name in the news until he lands his next radio gig. If for some reason this venture is successful, then he can keep doing it.

 

Whether there is a future for sports media here is again hard to say. No one has shown there is money to be made in subscription based podcasting, despite the medium being immensely popular right now. Mike is giving the content away online in exchange for sponsor mentions. We will see if he decides to stay in this space or go back to radio, where the majority of advertisers are.

 

C) Aggregated Blogs

 

There are a ton of these sites. Here’s a recent one. This was the old SB Nation model: take a bunch of popular blogs and bring them under one umbrella with lots of cross-posting, reader-contributed posts, and collective marketing.

 

Like the viral video sites, the model works based on economies of scale. If your ad can be seen by visitors to dozens of blogs all in the same place then you have a better chance of getting clicks. The problem here is that there is nowhere near enough money to pay a bunch of regular writers for local teams. If you were to put one of these sites together for the Toronto market only then you lose the scale and the advertising revenue goes with it.

 

Could something like this work across the whole country? Maybe. One sports section to rule them all is a model that has only ever been tried by the Globe, which had 13-14 writers across the country contributing to one national sports section in their heyday. A digital version would obviously be much more nimble since you wouldn’t have the encumbrances of deadlines and unions and offices. But you still need to sell a lot of advertising to pay for all the content you are producing. It would be hard to commit to say a dozen salaries without knowing that you’re going to get hundreds of thousands of clicks every month.

 

Right now, lots of those clicks are going to blogs many of whom don’t do it for the money. Some are going to the TSN and SN’s websites, who can write the expense off as a loss-leader for their TV channels. Some clicks are still going to newspaper websites, who have not realized that giving their content away for free is hastening their eventual demise.

 

That is the big problem: until mainstream sports websites go away, the market for the click-based business model is too fragmented for anyone to make money. This is why I have argued that Bell, Rogers, Postmedia, Star, and Globe should all get together and create a subscription based sports app. This would be a Netflix for sports media. I would happily pay $15 a month for that, especially if it were based on the La Presse tech that worked so well for the short-lived StarTouch. I’d even tolerate ads, as long as they weren’t too intrusive.

 

All of the above-mentioned outlets are doggedly pursuing a loyalty-based business model where each tries to be the destination to the exclusion of the others. This is silly. 9 million households subscribe to TSN and 8 million subscribe to Sportsnet. This means that 90% of people who choose to pay for cable sports pay for both. Neither one is going to exclude the other in the mind of the audience.

 

The same goes for newspaper websites. If you’re clicking on the Sun for Simmons you’re probably also clicking on the Star for Cox. Does anyone read one but refuse to read the other? Back in the day when most of your info came from a printed paper loyalty made sense because most people were only going to pay for one paper per day. But this has not been the reality of how anyone gets their news for … 20 years?

 

D) Subscription-based

 

This brings us to the venture-capital funded The Athletic. If you want to make money then you need to go where the people spending money are. Their tagline — fall in love with the sports page again — tells you which market they have in mind. It is the people who are already comfortable paying for sports media, namely newspaper readers.

 

The only quirk is that the papers already tried luring those people over with paywalls. Those were very short-lived, possibly due to the price point. Is a paywall likelier to succeed in 2017 than it did in 2007?

 

Maybe. For one thing, lots of big names have left their traditional media homes. If you are loyal to those individuals, then you might follow them to The Athletic. For another, The Athletic is just a sports section. They don’t need to pay salaries to cover news and city hall and entertainment. This reduces the amount the consumer needs to pay to read. That was never an option under the paper paywalls.

 

The flip side of these two coins is this: with so much free content out there, the motivation to pay to read anyone is pretty low. If you can read Jonah Keri for free at SN why would you pay to read him at The Athletic? The related point is that the generation that likes to pay for a sports section is dying, and those that remain are not especially tech savvy. The generation that follows has never paid for sports reading, be it a magazine or a newspaper or a website. How do you convince them to start all of a sudden?

 

None of these problems are insurmountable but they are real challenges that will remain for a long long time. Until traditional sports media websites die, which won’t happen with TSN.ca and SN.ca, The Athletic will be fighting a war on two fronts. They also need to compete with the tons of great free content that comes from blogs. Those are some of the people they have been hiring to write for them, but lots of readers will just move on to the next blog if their favourite one moves behind a paywall. Between the network websites, the paper websites, and blogs, The Athletic are trying to make you pay in a marketplace saturated with free options. Personally, I can’t read everything I want to read — including content that I pay for — each week.

 

What’s the answer? Netflix for sport media. There is no reason the Athletic couldn’t be part of that solution. Right now, like everyone else who is generating revenue, they are competing in the loyalty-based marketplace. If they could somehow collaborate with say, Globesports, that would really be something.

 

“This is an invitation for new and aspiring sports journalists — really for anyone seeking a larger platform for their work. If you have a story idea related to Toronto sports — on hockey, baseball, soccer, football or modern pentathlon — send in a pitch.

Some background in journalism is preferred but not mandatory. We are looking for reported stories, be they news, profiles or features. We’re looking for different ideas and themes, stories that stand out and bring depth and/or unique analysis. Personal journalism and opinion pieces will be considered in exceptional circumstances.

Journalists will receive a modest fee for their work.” — Sean Fitz-Gerald, Managing Editor

 

Last point on their model: I think they are making a mistake by doing what Dean does and inviting bloggers to pitch to write for them. The idea was explained as an attempt to give a platform to new writers (at low cost for the publisher). This has been tried lots of different ways by various blog networks and websites. You use your platform to bring in more content to keep people clicking through longer and enhance the perceived value of the product. It’s a low cost to you and if it works then you reap the reward of more subscribers.

 

For my money, this dilutes the value of the product. I already have a lot of content in my feed. If the story is really worth telling, why aren’t your staff writers telling it? If you think someone is a good writer, you hire him or her and take responsibility for the work. Then I’ll decide whether to keep subscribing. Adding vetted fanposts to my feed isn’t making my life better. Think of the amount of time needed to sift through and reply to all those pitches. If I’m not wrong, their EIC made his name as a blogger and didn’t need anyone to help him find a bigger audience. Those kinds of people will make a mark on the marketplace without the help of the Athletic. If you see bloggers doing good work, why not ask them to write for you?

 

Like everyone else who is a consumer of sports media I am happy they have provided a place for writers who were squeezed out of their previous jobs. Can you imagine if the Jays beat lost both Elliott and Lott in the same year? That said, I think their primary value is in giving readers stories, written and edited by professionals, that aren’t available for free on the Sun or the Star’s websites, or TSN.ca. That is where I would prefer they spend their editorial energies. In other words, be a sports page. (As far as I know, The Globe and Star don’t yet have a “submit your shit” section.)

 

As an example to illustrate my point, why has there not been a follow up story from them on the Flames arena? The last one was a week ago, written by someone who primarily does analytics. A lot has happened since. Why not put your high profile named journalist on that story?

 

 

E) WTF??

 

Someone click on this project that features Norm Rumack and tell me what the business model is. I can’t for the life of me figure it out.

 

 

Back to the points I mentioned at the outset: 1) people need to be unhappy with what’s already there, and 2) the replacement needs to be significantly better than the status quo.

 

Over to you: Can these media outlets compete on bloggers’ hometurf? Are they offering anything better than what you are already getting for free?

 

Journalism & Editors

 

Note: I don’t have an editor. I wish I did. Please forgive my typos. 

 

Here are two things I know about Eric Francis: 1) He doesn’t want Mayor Nenshi to get re-elected, 2) He supports massive tax subsidies by Calgarians for a new arena for the Flames.

 

How do I know this? Because his writing is transparent and lacks balance. That kind of writing is not supposed to make it to print. As one writer told me recently, an editor once sent him back to the keyboard because he “didn’t have the story”. When you read Francis’ latest piece it’s clear he doesn’t have the whole story, just a slice. And trying to write about a topic when you just have a slice of perspective leads to bad journalism.

 

I am not going to bother with a line by line breakdown of the work. I’ll just make two observations:

 

1) There have been new arenas built in Quebec, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Vancouver since the Calgary rink was built in 1983. Rather than cite the facts surrounding how each of these was funded, Francis picks the few that support his argument and leaves the rest out. It’s lazy and disingenuous, but it’s also deceptive. The idea that you can build a rink without significant subsidies is never discussed despite that being an option that several teams have done.

 

2) The not-so-subtle references to getting rid of the current politicians are obnoxious. We all have political views but to let it infect your work to this level is unprofessional. For example:

 

“What the mayor and this city’s new councillors will have to decide after next month’s election is whether it makes better business sense to start entering into some sincere negotiations with a willing partner who also happens to generate gobs of money for the local economy and charities.”

 

Did you catch that reference to “new councillors”. Like, maybe the old ones — the ones who are voting against funding the rink — will get voted out? The “charities” line is the cherry on top of the bad writing sundae. Zero facts; just “gobs of money” … I mean, I’m convinced. It’s not as if every single pro sports team gives money to charity, right?

 

The closing stanza of the article is the most risible. It’s as if he had a bunch of notes down there to possibly include earlier, and then forgot to delete them:

 

“The onus is now on this city’s leaders to push harder for a solution, which is problematic given the egos involved.

So far, the city’s attempts to bridge this gap have been disingenuous at best. The Flames have called them out on that.

Calgarians deserve better.”

 

There absolutely is an argument to be had about whether there is a case for public subsidies for sports. In large “world-class” Canadian cities, that argument has historically had no political support. Billionaires don’t need subsidies despite the fact that they create jobs and revenue for the city. Why not? Because if they weren’t there, someone else would be. That’s one of the perks of living in a “world-class” city: people want to be where you are; you don’t need to bribe them to come.

 

Proof? Take some time today to get up to speed on research that has been widely available for 20 years:

 

“Bloomberg calculated that the $17 billion in tax-exempt debt used to build stadiums since 1986 would cost taxpayers $4 billion.”

“Stadium boosters like to point to all the money I will spend going to, at, and associated with my trip to see the Hawks, but they never focus on the fact that other businesses are going to lose a roughly equal amount of spending that I would have done instead. All that substitute spending would also have produced tax revenue.”

“In every case, the conclusions are the same. A new sports facility has an extremely small (perhaps even negative) effect on overall economic activity and employment. No recent facility appears to have earned anything approaching a reasonable return on investment.”

“Stacks of independent research over many decades have shown that building a stadium or luring a new franchise does little for a city’s economy. They typically don’t generate significant new tax dollars, jobs or growth. In most cases, the money would be more wisely spent on badly needed public infrastructure, such as roads, transit or schools.”

“Most likely, if teams and leagues had to pay for their own stadiums, the stadiums would still be built […] but at a cost that could be repaid from the rights to personal seats, naming and concessions.”

I’m going to fold this criticism into a larger point about the role of editors. When I write a column here I don’t have the benefit of a 2nd set of eyes that looks at hundreds of stories a month and tells me where I need to rework things. Think of the kind of expertise you develop in that job. You can spot the leaps of logic, the missing quotes, the lack of balance, the personal agenda, etc. It’s one of the reasons why blog journalism is on the whole not as good as legacy journalism. We don’t have that professional layer that helps turn writing into a professional product.

 

 

When I tweeted about Francis’ article I got several DMs to the effect of “you assume Postemedia still has editors? ha!”

 

If that is the case and print journalism has dispensed with its sports editors then it may well be time to shut down the operation and give the money back to the shareholders. This is one of the big things that makes your content worth paying for. It has been fact checked, drafted and redrafted, and passed through various other quality control measures before being printed. Once that quality control is gone, what’s left? Bad journalism. You might as well be a blog.

 

Over to you: Do you find that legacy journalism holds itself to high enough standards for what it chooses to publish?

 

Quick Hits

 

 

“Joey, if you’re hurting so am I” — Plenty of writing on the end of the Bautista era and I am the only one to make a Concrete Blonde reference? Here are the articles I read that stood out: Greg Strong of CP, Michael Grange of SN (warning: two auto-play ads + an unrelated video of Ken Reid and Jeff Blair), Simmons of the Sun

 

Rick Westhead and his team at TSN Originals produced a 24 minute doc (one auto-play auto-muted ad) on some Canadian athletes who will be competing at the Invictus Games in Toronto this weekend. Bell is exclusive broadcaster of the event and so this documentary helps to promote the product. Sportsnet’s features department does the same, mostly focusing on the Jays. The odd exception to the rule was over the summer when TSN sent Westhead to feature the Gurriel boys, one of whom is a Jays prospect. Compare that to what has been produced by ESPN’s award winning 30 for 30 series. Both networks have the talent to compete at that level. It would be nice if they made that a priority rather than promoting their own “exclusive” content.

 

Sportsnet is ignoring the Invictus Games in terms of their own reporting, relying on the odd CP story, except for this piece of clearly sponsored content attributed to “SN staff”.

 

Lots of people weighed in on Lupul. Here is James Mirtle of The Athletic. Since almost everyone who writes about the Leafs also collects some part of their cheque from Rogers and Bell, owners of the Leafs, genuine independence on this story is going to be hard. I’d like to read some real digging on cap circumvention in the NHL. There is clearly a story here and it is a matter of finding a player who will talk and then connecting it to the CBA in the right way. Hopefully this story doesn’t get washed away as line combinations start to become clear.

 

Chris Johnston of Sportsnet also has a very solid piece on the Lupul situation. Unlike Mirtle’s story, his features a Sid Seixeiro video embedded half-way down for some added value:

 

 

With recent stories about security worries at the 2018 Olympics the NHL’s decision to prevent its players from attending is back in the spotlight. As per usual, hockey agent Alan Walsh was first to lob a bomb at Bettman, with some sweet hashtags:

 

 

Low Hanging Fruit

 

  • Jackie Redmond is off to greener pastures. Here’s a list of recent DRAFTED finalists. Where did they go?

 

  • If I told you that another person in Toronto sports media also got his/her job via winning a contest, who would be your first guess?

 

  • Howard Berger is reporting that Mike Zeisberger has joined the league’s website. No confirmation from Z or his colleagues yet:

 

https://twitter.com/Berger_BYTES/status/911723187318263809

 

  • Donnovan Bennett had a good story on Bautista called Photographic Memories. One big problem, the formatting is completely screwed up on the browser on an iPad rendering it unreadable. I reckon they formatted it to work with their app and didn’t bother to check.

 

  • I don’t often watch TV panel shows. Good hosts are like good umps at a baseball game: the audience doesn’t even notice them. Daren Millard detracts from the good points being made by Elliotte Friedman and Nick Kypreos here. (Two 15 second auto-play ads for a 3 minute clip.)

 

  • How great is it having Mike Johnson back on hockey full time? His absence has never made any sense.

 

 

  • Some bloggers delighted in labelling those who criticize Stroman’s yelling at opponents as racists. I’ll be curious to see what the response is to the news that he was denied access to a downtown restaurant.

 

  • Bob McCown commented on PTS on his visit to the Dome to throw out the opening pitch. “It was great hanging out in radio booth with Jerry and Joe”. No Wilner mention? Was he away?

 

  • Speaking of Bob, on September 14th (5pm) he and Damien Cox spent 5 minutes talking about the Matt Duchesne Avs situation with neither one knowing the facts about his contractual situation. Cox went on at length about the player being unsigned. Bob then asked if he might be a restricted free agent. A few minutes later the producer chimed in to inform Bob that he has 2 years left. Cox: “I was going to look that up …” There are two producers on that show. Good job, good effort by everyone involved.

 

  • Sheri Forde is getting more airtime on the FAN, this time on the overnight show with Rob Wong.

 

 

  • Congratulations to Arash Madani (broadcasting) and Rick Westhead (writing) for winning Sports Media Canada awards. It’s a funny thing because I was talking to people just this week about how Arash’s talents as a broadcaster are wasted on the 55 or so games he does with the Jays. Hazel is great and they can find some other person to do postgame interviews with Biagini. I’d rather see Madani spend that time chasing down CFL stories, or doing more investigative pieces. Give him more time on radio too. Cox needs a vacation.

 

  • The same point holds for Westhead: he gets an award for writing, which is the part of TSN’s portfolio they seem to care the least about. Go to their website and try to find Rick’s written work. See you in an hour.

 

  • I stumbled across a show called The Sports Market on TSN’s app. It’s a quality show on the business of sports. The host is a little out of his depths as a broadcaster but the content is solid. Would love to see them add someone like Farber as a co-host. As I have said endlessly, TSN radio is in a great position to cover national sports stories and should try to come up with some shows they can syndicate across their 7 radio stations.

 

  • Hot rumour: Landsberg is going to stay solo for a while. Is the show better or worse that way?

 

  • Jonah and I are overdue to do our annual radio report card. I can’t bring myself to do it. I have never cared this little about the sports radio line-ups in my adult life. This is as bad as it has ever been.

 

  • Both The Athletic and Sportsnet killed their RSS feeds in the last month. This means that I no longer have an easy way to glance at everything they are writing when I sit down at my computer. Hard to see how this makes any business sense for an outlet that doesn’t depend on clicks. In both cases though, don’t you want to make it easier for people to see what your writers are doing? TSN has never had individual feeds for their writers, of course.

 

  • Kristen Shilton covers the Leafs for TSN:

 

 


 

thanks for reading and commenting,

until next time …

mike (not really in boston)

photo credit: The Star
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