I have to admit last Friday was a bit of a time warp for me. I attended the inaugural Digital Media Summit launched by The Knight Foundation and digital upstart SportsManias. Although I ran major sports properties for much of my former life, most people in the room now know me as the head of a digital media trade association. Not nearly as sexy to this particular audience (or maybe any audience for that matter!) but, as always, it afforded me an opportunity to bring a broader context to the discussions.
Remarkably, in my nearly 20 years in sports media, I never attended a sports conference from start to finish. But this time, I was able to sit back and take notes. I experienced a lot of déjà vu in the themes, and left with a few important takeaways. Most of all, I was reminded why sports is the ultimate playground for digital media: It constantly brings with it the opportunity to take on risks and to innovate without many of the barriers in other categories.
Here are three of the themes at the SportsManias Digital Media Summit that stood out for me:
Sports is the ultimate reality television
Long before we had Big Brother and Survivor, we had sports media. It’s well-documented that sports is the most defensible media on television because it’s immune from time-shifting: Much of the value comes from watching it live and sharing in the thrills and surprises that fuel watercooler conversations the next day. The difference? Today those same moments fuel the real-time watercooler that is social media. Long ago, Nielsen research documented that sports TV programming accounted for nearly 50% of TV tweets while only representing about 1.2% of TV programming. That’s not too surprising: Sports is full of entertaining characters cast in an unpredictable drama for passionate fans with insatiable appetites. Consider that more than 70% of NFL fans are on Twitter and you have live, 24/7 the stuff of which Ellen-selfie-legends are made.
Sports reporters are walking, broadcasting, fully-interactive Apple Stores
There was much agreement on the importance of new and old tools of trade. Gone are the days of reporters scribbling notes with pens and paper dashing back to their hotel to file 750 words. The modern sports journalist has to be fluent not only in his or her topic and the craft of writing, but also multilingual on social and video. At the Summit, Pittsburgh Pirates beat reporter, Rob Biertempfel was pretty much a live case study on the modern journalist: He tweets, posts on Facebook, writes, shoots video, and Periscopes all in the course of performing his usual duties–from filing his notes and analysis to tweeting the line-up card in real-time.
This year’s Red Smith Award winner, Bob Ryan, has more than 40 years of experience but constantly reinvents himself by using the latest tools to stay engaged with his audience. That being said, he emphasized the importance of being able to take good notes and provide context and historical perspective. Again, this ability applies well beyond sports and it brings to mind digital innovations like Vox.com’s card stacks. You’ve got to wonder why someone hasn’t rolled out explainer cards on a sports property.
Tools are only effective if they are used well, of course. Woody Paige kept it simple with an elegant rant on the (declining) art of writing, “Learn to write and you’ll learn to communicate.” However Biertempfel provided hints of The Cluetrain Manifesto when he described his role as a balance between providing information and relating to people–which is an essential piece of today’s content-community connection. (They don’t call it social media for nothing.) In a similar vein, ESPN NFL writer Coley Harvey described his role as one of personalizing to his audience. As he pointed out, one-way streaming video has now been replaced by interaction with tools like Periscope. Pete Vlastelica who runs FOX Sports Digital, made a related point: The moment you see yourself above your audience you’ll end up losing that audience.
Sporting News deputy editor Chris Littmann and ESPN columnist Jemele Hill both commented on how sports has strengthened their games by forcing them to be less complacent and more accountable in real-time. As sportswriter Dan Le Batard put it, “You can shake your fists at blogs but the marketplace has spoken.”
Sports media plays moneyball
Lastly, although the event was focused on the content side, there were hints of the monetization struggles still to be solved. As Le Batard eloquently pointed out, most newspapers “are charging you money to throw yesterday’s news into your bushes. Getting real-time news for free seems like a much better deal.” That said, digital sports is a constant chase for the latest “front porch.” Yesterday’s AOL anchor tenant deals are today’s Snapchat Discover and Facebook Instant Articles. Despite questionable business terms, there’s a need to stake out an optimistic position that monetization will follow. Yet sports has proven many times that a beloved brand can be monetized in many ways. Yes, consumers will even pay for sports content if it’s well packaged: ESPN Insider, MLB.tv, Rivals, 247 Sports, Rotowire and the entire fantasy sports business are proof it is possible to generate revenue beyond advertising.
The rules of the game keep changing for all of us and sports media is no different. The front lines of socially-mediated interactive journalism is exciting to watch, from the classic moves to the risky plays that keep this business of media interesting and innovative.
contact me: @jason_kint