Bleacher Report vs. Grantland: The Spectrum of Online Sports Media

Published on: October 04, 2012 | Written by: Clay Travis

With one foot firmly in the business side of online sports media and the other foot firmly in the content creation business, sometimes I feel like a house divided against itself. 

On the one hand, every morning I check all our site metrics -- ad impressions, Google analytics for where our readers came from, Twitter shares, Facebook likes, desktop vs. mobile penetration rates -- to see exactly what Outkick looks like from a business perspective. Next I'll check individual stories and see how popular they were. Then I'll break out our numbers weekly and monthly and run some comparables from a year ago.

On the other hand my mind is constantly percolating, making connections, sifting for something to write about that will be original, smart, and funny and make this day pass faster for me and for you.

I get asked all the time what makes stories pop on the Internet and the boiled down answer is this: you need to be original, you need to be smart, and you need to be funny.

The truth is, that's hard to do consistently. Most people can't do it. If you can you can make a living on the creative side of this business, if you can't, you can't.

I wouldn't trade my dual perspective for anything, and I think it gives me a bit of a unique viewpoint for where sports media is heading.

And the lesson so far is simple -- writers beware.

The creative side of my mind wants to argue that great writers are invaluable, the business side of my mind sees that writers are all expendable in a Google search age. If pageviews is your metric to make money through ad dollars then the vast, vast majority of writers do not pay for themselves.

Period.

This morning I read a great article on the Bleacher Report, which I'd suggest everyone with an interest in sports media needs to read. Combining that article with Deadspin's published Bleacher Report editor article suggestions -- all gleaned to help drive Google search traffic -- can be downright sobering for original content creators. 

You should read both of these linked articles and then dive in below for more of my thoughts.

Today's online sports media is a spectrum of properties with divergent business goals and aspirations.

But everyone is chasing the same online ad dollar.

Right now there are two ends of the online sports media spectrum, the business and the creative represent the two poles. At the absolute far end on the business perspective is the Bleacher Report. Its existence is primarily a business one and writers and written product is secondary to the apparatus in place there. The business side of my brain admires what they've done at Bleacher Report because they understand how the Internet machine works better than anyone. They've built the best Internet mousetrap which collects the most mice while paying less for content than just about anyone this side of the Huffington Post. 

The Bleacher Report sold for $200 million without, I bet, having paid a million dollars total to writers in its existence. 

That's a hell of a business, but it's one where individual writers don't matter that much.

On the other end of the online sports media spectrum, closer to the creative side, is Grantland.com, Bill Simmons's partnership with ESPN.com. 

Grantland produces much less content, almost all of which is completely original, pays its writers handsomely and clearly is focused on the quality of its content over the quantity of its content. I haven't seen Grantland's readership numbers -- ESPN hasn't broken them out independently -- but I'm sure their readership numbers are much less than Bleacher Report's purported 14 million readers a month. 

Grantland's readership numbers are still substantial, however, because it's able to piggyback off the amazing site traffic of ESPN.com and because Bill Simmons is a major draw.

Grantland is diametrically opposed to the goals of Bleacher Report, the creative stories drive its marketplace. It's a place for talented writers, where the name at the top of the article matters.

The writer in me admires Grantland, the business man admires Bleacher Report.

Each of these poles on the spectrum represent the entire scope of the online sports media marketplace. (I'm excluding pay sites such as Rivals, 247Sports, and Scout from this spectrum. Pay sites are a different business model that is not reliant on advertiser dollars).

We know that right now Bleacher Report's online sports media model is highly valued, but would the marketplace value Grantland?

That is, would Grantland's business model work as a stand-alone site with no attachment to a major media company? That's a great question.

Especially since I'd bet my life that Grantland has spent more on writers in one year than Bleacher Report has in its entire existence.   

Grantland's start-up costs would have been substantial and its payroll is massive for an online site -- would an independent readership be large enough to recoup the site's investments entirely through advertiser supported content?

I'm not sure, but my suspicion is that without ESPN there's no way that Grantland could monetize its content well enough to have hired as many writers as it has. Without ESPN's support there's no way Grantland could have brought in the national advertisers that it has either. Now, Bill Simmons could clearly have launched his own independent site, but would he have been able to raise enough money to surround himself with other well-paid talented writers?

That's doubtful. 

So the business model for Grantland as a stand-alone entity is unclear, but mainly reliant upon ESPN.com's support. 

Why does that matter?

Because Grantland is driven by writers, Bleacher Report is driven by metrics which make most writers irrelevant.    

So I think it's fair to say that Grantland represents the anti-thesis of Bleacher Report in today's modern sports media environment. And if you're a writer you better be rooting for sites like Grantland to thrive.

You can plug in virtually every other sports site on the Internet between these two ends of the spectrum. Right in the center I'd put the "mainstream" sites: ESPN.com, Yahoo.com, FoxSports.com, SI.com, NBCSports.com, USA Today's online ventures, and CBSSports.com. All of these sites represent the absolute center, the sweet spot where they appeal to every sports fan on some level, while producing a lot of original content. They pay their writers well, and don't make a living off Google search.  

There aren't easy analogies to draw to Grantland's side of the spectrum because most sites aren't investing in writers as heavily as Grantland. But I'd put a site like OKTC closer to Grantland than it is to the middle or the other end of the spectrum. We did a million uniques last month, but we're only producing three or four stories a day. And we only have three employees, which is a tiny number. But we're doing good traffic and the goal of the site is quality over quantity. That's why we're handpicking the best Bullpen content to feature on the site, because we don't want to deluge you with content. Deadspin, while also producing voluminous content of late, would be closer to Grantland as well. 

OKTC is very profitable, but can we employ as many writers as Grantland entirely on an advertiser sponsored business plan?

I'm not sure.    

Put it this way, could a site like Grantland every develop in today's online sports marketplace without a larger site like ESPN choosing to support it? I have my doubts.

Closer to Bleacher Report, I'd put a site like SBNation.com. Granted SBNation produces some great quality -- Spencer Hall is by far the best talent they have and his best stuff is every bit as good as Grantland's best -- but SBNation also doesn't pay the vast majority of its writers much and rehashes tons of original content from other places. One reason why SBNation and Bleacher Report feud so much is because they're online sports cousins. Granted SBNation is "better," but it isn't orders of magnitude better and the business models are similar. 

Just like Bleacher Report SBNation produces hundreds of articles a week that would have no substantial readership without Google.  

If Bleacher Report is worth $200 million to Turner, then I'd think SBNation will eventually be worth more to another major buyer. But just like Bleacher Report SBNation is more of a good business model than it is a great home for well-paid writers. (Put simply, if more people read your article on Google search than read it originally, as a writer, is there any point in even writing it?)   

And I think it's also fair to say that there's no way any major media company would pay anywhere near $200 million a year for Grantland.

What that tells us is something I've been writing about for a while, right now the market values sites like Bleacher Report much more than it does sites like Grantland. Volume and low cost is a much greater business model than limited content and quality.

That makes no sense, right?

Imagine if we valued cars this way, a Ferrari would cost the same as a Chinese import. If we valued meals this way a steak at Morton's would cost the same as a hamburger from McDonald's. It costs more to reach the viewers of Mad Men than to reach the viewers of Wipeout, right? 

Yet right now the online ad marketplace says all sports media page views are created equal.

That makes no sense.

But could this be starting to change?

Credit Grantland for a smart business play, their content is sponsored by SubWay, Klondike, Dove MenCare and other products. The number of advertisers is small, but the connection with the product is substantial. Which raises an interesting question: Are smart advertisers starting to realize that simply buying pageviews doesn't provide them with the same return on investment as being directly connected with a product? 

Look up at the top of Outkick the Coverage, Bud Light is now our presenting sponsor.

And I would venture to guess that just about all of you have noticed that over the past three weeks.  

Credit Budweiser for recognizing how large and national our OKTC audience has become -- we hit 1 million unique visitors in September -- but also credit Budweiser for realizing something more substantial, some online ad buys need to be partnerships not arm's length transactions. 

That is, I want you guys to know who our sponsors are. As Outkick grows I'm hopeful that we can find a smart car company, a smart hotel chain, you name it, we're a national site now and we need more national advertisers to support your voices. So that we can grow and I can hire more voices. Rather than just running banner ads, I want you to feel like these brands connect with your lifestyle, that they're proud to connect with our brand, that they're helping to provide a voice for our content. 

See, some media companies still believe that you have to separate ads from content. 

I believe the exact opposite. 

Why do I believe that?

Because I'm looking at this with one foot on the the business and the other on the creative side at the same time. Put simply, I want to find solutions that work on both sides.   

If you value original content, and you're a writer, you better hope that the online marketplace moves in the direction of Grantland's experiment. Because if it doesn't then every writer becomes expendable, immediately replaceable by the next 17 year old who needs pocket money for a hamburger and wants to make a slideshow. I hope there's room for both business models, for the Bleacher Report and the Grantlands of the world. But if there isn't room for both business models then watch out.

The future of sportswriting is in headlines that pop on Google.

And the writers of those headlines won't matter at all.