How Yahoo Sports Became ESPN's Biggest Competitor

Published on: August 02, 2011 | Written by: Clay Travis

ESPN has no true competition right now in the world of television. Any sporting event that it truly wants to air, it can. CBS, Comcast, and Fox are all hoping to put together business plans that can slice away at ESPN's insurmountable lead in this arena, but that seems unlikely. That's because all of those companies are playing catch-up, attempting to replicate the same steps that ESPN followed years ago. It's really damn hard to beat someone at their own business. That's why the moves of Yahoo Sports over the past ten years have been so intriguing. Rather than compete with ESPN's existing business plan, Yahoo Sports has cut its own path into the sports media landscape. With yesterday's announcement that Yahoo is rebranding Sporting News radio and taking it over as its own radio network, YahooSportsRadio, which will now be the third largest sports radio network in the country, it suddenly hit me: Yahoo Sports is ESPN's biggest rival in the world of sports media.

Taking over the radio station is a brilliant move that comes on the heels of seven other equally brilliant moves that have combined to position Yahoo Sports as the true rival of ESPN for the second decade of the 21st century.

Don't believe me? Let's dive in and I'll tell you how Yahoo did it.

 

First, some details on why I believe Yahoo is the rival of ESPN. Yahoo Sports attracts more unique visitors every month than ESPN.com does. How many is Yahoo bringing in? Try 45 million uniques a month. That's an insane number.

The sports battlefield of the future is not going to be fought on television screens, it's going to be fought based on website eyeballs melding with television devices into a conglomeration of the two. I'm going to write later in the week about why I think ESPN's competitive dominance will die in the coming next two decades, but for now just know that website readership, I believe, is a more important metric than television numbers.  Now let me just sketch out the moves that occurred to make Yahoo Sports the primary rival to ESPN by the start of 2010.

1. Yahoo dominated fantasy sports.

No Internet site better understood the coming dominance of fantasy sports.

I could write -- and would love to -- an entire article on the brilliance of Yahoo Sports hitching its ride to the dominant sports addition of the era, fantasy sports. It was the first time any company really stole a march on ESPN. Anyone who played fantasy sports prior to Yahoo -- and I was one of them -- remembers struggling to tally up the scores week after week. It was mindboggling, boring, and riddled with errors.

I still remember the nirvana like moment in 1999 when I discovered Yahoo Sports fantasy site. There was nothing else that could match it and there still isn't.

I've played for 12 consecutive years with their products and they absolutely own this market. Since that time they've been the best at employing experts, integrating content, assuring ease of use and maintaining their status as the go-to destination for fantasy on the Internet.

This was step one on Yahoo's rise.

2. Hire Dan Wetzel.

In 2003 Yahoo Sports had an interesting decision to make. It could continue to use the content of others or it could get into the content business. 

At the time getting into the content business wasn't an easy decision to make. After all, people were already coming in droves to the Yahoo homepage. Did it really matter whether Yahoo was repackaging the content of others or creating its own?

That's when Yahoo made the strategic decision to hire Dan Wetzel, a homerun hire of the first magnitude. We'll get an interview up with Dan about the early days of Yahoo at some point, but suffice it to say getting credentialed -- despite working for a multi-billion dollar company -- was an amazing challenge. One of my favorite stories of his is when a sportswriter suggested that Sporting News, recently bankrupt and perpetually hemorrhaging money, should buy Yahoo, then a $30 billion dollar company.

Yahoo's decision to produce original content was step two on the company's rise in sports.

3. Work the firehose.

For those who don't know AOL, Yahoo, MSN, and Google are the four current equivalents of NBC, CBS, Fox, and ABC, the legacy networks on television meets the legacy websites on the Internet. All four of these sites produce a tremendous volume of daily readers on its homepage. Going up on the frontpage of those sites is the holy grail for any writer. 

Millions of readers follow.  

But how many people could tell you the most visited websites in the world? Go check out this list.

Yahoo is the third most visited website in the world! 77 billion pageviews!

Good God, doesn't that put sports in context? It's just a pimple on Yahoo's visitor dominance.

Facebook and YouTube are one and two, FYI.

This means that site traffic isn't going to be an issue, but, and this is key, Yahoo still made the investment to bring in quality writers as opposed to going the Huffington Post route, say, and only putting up retreads. AOL, MSN, Yahoo, and Google are the four most consistent firehoses out there. Only Yahoo sports is producing original content for this traffic and that's made all the difference.  

4. Stay lean on the hiring front under the direction of Dave Morgan, formerly of the LA Times. (Also, Mark Pesavento has been a genius hire).

Just about every hire made by Yahoo was quality. They haven't brought in the number of writers of other sites, but they've brought in tremendous quality. Go look at their roster here and tell me where the weak link is.  

Whether it's Adrian Wojnarowski on the NBA or Michael Silver on the NFL, or the aforementioned Wetzel on the nation, this site isn't just hiring for names and numbers. They've got tremendous quality. As such, they've avoided the FanHouse trip-up. I loved FanHouse, but the site probably hired too many writers too quickly. When the profit wasn't there to match the expenses, corporate suits -- again, look at sports in the context of the overall numbers -- start cutting costs with no regard for the quality of the product that survives. 

It's how Sporting News ended up with FanHouse. (And by ended up with I mean bought the traffic from AOL.com). 

Yahoo Sports is profitable, which means that it isn't constantly pored over by corporate types looking to ring out inefficiencies.  

5. Break stories and be independent.

Original content is king. And compelling original content is the emperor that rules the Internet world.  

For example, it's great to break stories about where a player might end up in free agency. But that's a story that might only have a shelf life of twenty minutes. Yahoo sports, particularly in college, has broken stories with lasting impact that might not otherwise have ever seen the light of day.

That's emperor content.

What's more, Yahoo's stories have served to reinforce its brand as the anti-ESPN. Given its production relationships with all the leagues, you can legitimately call into question how independent ESPN reporting truly is. (ESPN will dispute this, arguing there's a Chinese wall between business and content, but reading ESPN: The Book called that argument into question).

Look, I don't blame ESPN, it makes its money off televising the games not articles about the games. But Yahoo has stepped into this void and laid waste to ESPN in the news-breaking arena. Yahoo has nothing to lose, pulls no punches, and writes honestly about the sports it covers.

At times ESPN seems like a geisha for the leagues it covers.

6. Hire Jamie Mottram and give him blogs.

Jamie hired all the right people and gave them leeway to own their individual sports. Again, I'd ask you to look at the roster of writers in charge of individual sports blogs. How many of these writers don't belong?

Again, lots of sites get lazy when it comes to the firehose effect, not Yahoo. Mottram brought in writers who bust their asses on content. At a time when ESPN was shoveling boatloads of cash at the Rick Reilly's of the world, I bet Mottram's combined blogger staff doesn't make what Reilly makes in a year.

Yet they produce 10,000x the content and 100,000x the quality content of Reilly.

Brilliant move for Yahoo.

7. Buy Rivals.

I hear complaints that Rivals hasn't been managed properly, but the company owns its business -- chase down recruits and get the latest information out about where those recruits want to go.

So far, and this deserves further explication as well and OKTC will have it, the only pay business model that has worked in sports is based on recruiting information. Whether Rivals can survive a Twitter age where top recruits are tweeting about their visits remains to be seen, but right now it has worked.

Buying Rivals made Yahoo a major player in college athletics and has helped to make the name Rivals synonymous with recruiting. What's more, it also underlined ESPN's own pathetic recruiting coverage, providing just another reason for fans to prefer Yahoo over ESPN.

8. Invest in your own radio network.

Maybe it's because I work in radio now too, but I'm blown away by the quality content that comes out of live sports talk radio and never leaves the listening audience. There's no other entity in America today that produces better content for a smaller audience.

On OKTC, we're going to have a daily update from my show, the 3 Hour Lunch, because we're breaking news every day of some sort or other on the radio. Whether it's a kick ass interview or a discussion about Super Bears -- the breeding of Grizzly Bears and Polar Bears -- we're going to keep you entertained. It's why we're the highest rated sports talk show in the country. And our entire station is pretty amazing. But there are lots of stations like ours flying under the national radar. 

The solution? Get a national network and give your writers a platform to get their stories out to the public at large. 

One of the reasons why Joe Sixpack thinks ESPN is actually breaking a ton of stories? Because ESPN puts their writers on television as if they have broken stories. That cycle feeds on itself because coaches see those faces and think that's who they need to contact to break stories as well. 

But the future of sports isn't going to be about television networks -- I'll write about this going forward later this week -- and radio, podcasts, and the like is an inexpensive way for Yahoo to maintain its independence while giving its writers a new platform to connect with audiences. 

Already, Yahoo is using the firehose of content to pimp its new radio network here. I've been on just about every one of the existing shows and they're all very good. In particular, I've been on Sean Pendergast, Tim Brando, John Harris and Travis Rodgers' shows multiple times.

Yesterday Yahoo announced that an interview set the record for all-time downloads on the network. The sky is the limit for this radio network from here.

Truly.

By taking these eight steps, Yahoo has become ESPN's paramount rival in the world of sports. What comes next?

I can't wait to find out. And next week at OKTC, we'll have predictions about what the future of sports will look like.