Friday, October 30, 2009

The power of distribution: why content is not king

This post is part of my series about what’s next for sports blogging. You can read my introduction here and my post about ESPN and Deadspin here.

 As a reminder, these are my personal opinions and not necessarily those of my employer Yardbarker.

An opinion I often hear among sports bloggers is that “content is king” or that “the best content floats to the top.” I don’t think this is quite right. It’s true that all things being equal, good content is usually more successful than bad content. But all things are not usually equal, and I think the importance of those “things” are often underestimated. I think the most important of those is distribution from powerful portals (like Yahoo, MSN, or AOL).

Consider a simplified 2x2 matrix: content is either good or bad and distribution is either good or bad. Bad content with bad distribution is going nowhere. Good content with good distribution is in the best position to succeed. But there’s a lot of sports content that lives in the other two quadrants. There are distribution resources being wasted on bad content, and there are plenty of small bloggers making good content with bad distribution. This last category of unseen content may be even better quality than some of the content with good distribution, but this content will not float to the top on its own.

It’s true that many sports bloggers take pride in linking to quality content they enjoy, and a small sports blog will get a significant boost (relative to its low traffic) from a shoutout from a Hot Clicks or Deadspin. But has that content truly floated to the top as compared to highly distributed content? Are advertisers pursuing this blog and are portals looking to syndicate it? Or is it just a new cult favorite among an incestuous blogger audience? To ask a similar question: how many successful sports bloggers are there today who have truly “floated” to the top because of quality content alone? Quality content is necessary but not sufficient for success. The most successful bloggers were early movers and got distribution deals or an early break from someone like Jamie Mottram at FanHouse, the SNL of the blogosphere (I include myself in that category).

The problem of quality versus distribution is not unique to the sports blogosphere. I guarantee you that there are plenty of females who are just as attractive and personable as Rihanna who sing a whole lot better than she does. But those people have not floated to the top like Rihanna has with her mass distribution (which she’s attained through a combination of lucky breaks, years of perseverance, and heavy investment).

So why should anyone (especially those who have “made it” already) care about this? First, I think it's important to understand the power of distribution so that we don't focus so exclusively on content quality, thinking that will automatically lead to success (I'll talk about that more in a future post). Second, I think if we can actually get good distribution for the best content, it will elevate all of us. Like it or not, sports blogs are often lumped together in the minds of those who know little about our space. And right now a lot of those people have the impression that sports blogs are bad. Collectively we can try to change that, and it will help all of us in the long run. Imagine if a brand advertiser planning its marketing budget is pitched a “sports blog” package and immediately thinks of high quality content. Imagine if a TV show producer or an athlete like Raul Ibanez hears “sports blog” and thinks of high quality content. We should want to be known as powerful influencers and reliable producers of high quality content – not just pantsless ranters who do nothing worthwhile.

Note that I’m making no categorical judgments as to what “high quality content” is. It might be content that follows traditional rules of journalism or doesn’t, that is serious or funny, long-form or short-form, photoshopped or not. There is high quality sports blog content in all of those forms.

If you haven't read my post about Deadspin's ESPN horndoggery series you might think I'd argue that what Deadspin did was bad for sports blogging. I actually think the horndoggery series was good quality content. But even if you think it was bad quality content, you can't blame Deadspin for publishing it. What you can do is refrain from reading it and promoting it, and try to influence distributors that it's bad content. I'm not suggesting that sports bloggers should all band together and "collude" on what kind of content is good or bad. I'm just pointing out that we need to recognize that content quality is not the only important factor at work in our business.

I'm not sure what small, independent bloggers can do to influence this distribution situation. Linking to good quality content from your fellow bloggers is a start, but it seems like there's a limit to the return you can get from the closed circle of bloggers who do that.

The most interesting development to me is the partnerships between large portals and blog networks. Those blog networks can make sure the content they’re offering is high quality. Editors and bloggers are in turn charged with ensuring that on the ground level. Sports Blog Nation (SBN) seems to be getting good distribution for its quality blog content in this way. In my next post, I’ll talk about my employer Yardbarker’s new partnership with and MSN, which I think will be another step forward for sports blogging. As always, I welcome your thoughts by email or in the comments.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Sports blogs, ESPN, and why I like Deadspin’s 'horndoggery' series

I’m writing a series of blog posts about what’s next for sports blogging (read my introduction). As a reminder, these are my own personal opinions, not necessarily those of my employer Yardbarker. I’m going to tackle the ESPN topic now because it relates to the current controversy over Deadspin’s "horndoggery" posts.

A couple of years ago there were a lot of conversations about “blogs versus mainstream media.” This paradigm is no longer relevant, and perhaps never was. First of all, the terminology is pretty muddy. Taken literally, “blog” is just a platform or medium, like “newspaper column” or “radio show” or “Twitter feed.” However, the term “blogger” was also sometimes used to refer to a certain type of content-producing person, stereotypically someone without access who is not formally trained in journalism. Neither of these meanings is really useful anymore when you can have longtime newspapermen writing online weblog entries and “blogger types” getting paid to write for “mainstream” outlets like Yahoo Sports, and blogs like Deadspin getting more readership than many newspapers. For the most part, traditional media outlets (even ESPN) have started to embrace blogging in both the platform meaning and sometimes the person meaning. There’s no longer a clear “us versus them” or if there is, I don’t know who’s who.

That said, ESPN does still pose a unique challenge to anyone in non-ESPN sports media just because of its breadth and size. ESPN is pretty dominant in many areas of TV, radio, and web. As the leader, ESPN is in a strong position to compete in any space it decides to enter. We’re seeing their entry into local web programming and a Twitter-like platform now and they could potentially enter any number of other areas. So if you’re a non-ESPN content producer, you’ll always have to worry that ESPN will swoop in to your niche and compete with you.

Competition is always a challenge in any industry, of course. But ESPN’s dominance across various media makes it all that much harder for you to build your own brand. A successful online content producer like Perez Hilton has grown his brand and influence through radio and TV appearances on prominent entertainment programs that are happy to get his content. A sports Perez would need to appear on ESPN television and radio programs – but ESPN probably doesn’t want to lend shine to someone working in a space ESPN might potentially want to enter. That’s not to say that it’s impossible to create something of value outside of ESPN, it’s just perhaps more challenging than in some other verticals.

One of the most successful sports blogs that has been able to create value without ESPN’s direct help is Deadspin (I say “direct” help because Deadspin gets a lot of material out of covering and criticizing ESPN). There was a lot of history between the two properties that led up to the current controversy, but the short story is that on Wednesday, Deadspin editor A.J. Daulerio posted a series of “rumors” about the sexual affairs of some ESPN employees. ESPN issued a statement calling Deadspin “despicable.”

I like what Deadspin did. That’s not to say that I necessarily like the content, or that I would choose to publish it on my own blog. But it was a ballsy move that paid off with traffic and may continue to help Deadspin’s notoriety. I was surprised that sports bloggers seemed overwhelmingly outraged about the move. There were three general reasons:

1) Some bloggers said that Daulerio “crossed the line.” He may have crossed your line, but if there is a single definitive line, it’s the legal one; and my unofficial legal opinion is that Deadspin did no wrong (FanHouse’s Clay Travis seems to agree). I respect if you’re the type of blogger who would never publish that kind of content for moral reasons, or to avoid getting a certain reputation. But if Deadspin is comfortable with publishing it, they should go for it.

2) Some bloggers argued that Deadspin has affected the reputation of all blogs. This is probably true. Those who are not familiar with online sports content lump all blogs together, and since Deadspin is one of the most prominent sports blogs, its actions will affect the reputation of all blogs. But that doesn’t mean it’s Deadspin’s responsibility to uphold any particular reputation – Deadspin doesn’t owe anything to any other blog. Deadspin has created this position of influence for itself partly because it is a compelling site that posts content like this. If bloggers don’t like the nature of what Deadspin is doing and how it reflects on blogs, then it’s their job to build a site that wields as much influence as Deadspin, and it’s their job to educate people about why their content is valuable and different from Deadspin’s. Note, I’m not saying that bloggers shouldn’t work together to elevate sports blogging in the minds of the uninformed. Quite the opposite, I think we need to work together (as I will be writing in future posts). But I don’t think agreeing on the placement of “the line” for content is necessary or beneficial. Deadspin is carving a certain niche, and you can carve yours.

3) Finally, I’ve heard some people complain that Deadspin has gotten away from its roots. To be honest, I’m not a longtime Deadspin reader, so I’m not sure what those roots are. But no content producer should be criticized for adapting and changing its model for success. If you’re wistful for the old content, then seek it out somewhere else or create it yourself. 

To reiterate, I don’t necessarily like the content Deadspin posted. But I respect their decision to publish it, and from the outside, it seems to me like it was a smart business move. It may indeed set some other blogs back, but that’s what competitors do sometimes. Instead of complaining about it, those blogs should get busy trying to step their game up in whatever manner they see fit.

To conclude, I’ll try to tie all of this together. We’re in a new media landscape where lines are blurred, but ESPN remains a big challenge to content producers trying to build their brand. Deadspin has achieved quite a bit of success, in part by creating unique content critical of ESPN that ESPN would never want to create itself. The sex scandal content published on Wednesday seems like it will benefit Deadspin. If other blogs feel they’ve been hurt, then it’s their responsibility to do something about that. Alternatively, they might want to consider taking a page from Deadspin’s book (more on that later).

I welcome your comments or emails.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What’s next for sports blogging: a call to action

This is a call to action for sports bloggers and others who work in this space. I recently attended Blogs with Balls 2.0 at Blog World Expo. The good folks from Hugging Harold Reynolds did an excellent job organizing the event, which was sponsored by heavy hitters including Fox Sports and my own employer Yardbarker. You can read reactions by many of those who attended on the BwB blog.

We had a lot of fun socializing and sharing our perspectives on various topics. But I felt like we were missing an opportunity to truly move sports blogging forward. I wanted more to be accomplished given the impressive collection of people from many aspects of sports media who were in attendance.

I’ve decided to write a series of posts about what’s next for the sports blogosphere, expanding on some issues raised at BwB and providing ideas for action steps. Below is an outline of topics I plan to discuss, which I’ll update with links as I finish the posts.

1) LINK. Success can be more dependent on distribution than content quality. We cannot assume the best quality content will passively “float to the top.”

2) LINK. Those in control of mass distribution have incentives that don’t necessarily line up with those of sports blogging. We need to take charge of convincing them of the value of sports blogging and perhaps sometimes play to mass appeal needs.

3) LINK. The old “blogs vs. MSM” paradigm is no longer very relevant. However, ESPN may present a special challenge for blogging in the sports category.

4) LINK. In order for sports blogging to be successful, we need to prove its value to content distributors, advertisers, and league/team/player entities. In order to prove that value, we need to be proactive, business-oriented, and organized as a community.

I’m writing this because while those of us at BwB were all competitors (competing for eyeballs, advertising dollars, and talent) we’re also very collaborative and many of us are good friends. We’re all fighting for slices of the pie, but there’s an opportunity for us to work together to grow the whole pie bigger. In fact, it’s not just an opportunity; I actually think it’s a necessity. Unless we work together, I’m not sure that we’ll be able to achieve mass distribution, prove our level of influence to advertisers, or gain legitimacy with teams/leagues and mainstream media outlets. These things may not be important to someone who blogs for fun, but they are important for those trying to make a living in the space.

Note that I’m sharing my own personal opinions, which may not necessarily represent those of Yardbarker (though many of these topics have come up in discussions with our CEO Pete Vlastelica, who plans to comment). My perspective is both enhanced and limited by my personal experience in the sports blogosphere over the last 3+ years. I started out blogging independently as a hobby while I was in law school and have since been in many roles, including a paid FanHouse blogger, Ballhype advisor, FanHouse executive producer, interim Yahoo Sports Blog editor, and Yardbarker’s Director of Programming (my current role). I’m not pretending to have a complete perspective nor any definitive answers. My goal is to get those involved with the sports blogosphere thinking, talking, and doing. I welcome any insights or disagreements in the comments or by email. Thank you for reading!

Wendy Williams interviews T.O. and I need bigger boobs

Terrell Owens was on the Wendy Williams Show on Tuesday (how you doin?) and despite Wendy's softball questions ("How do you like the Bills?") she seemed to get him a little flustered at one point, as seen in this clip:

I had the pleasure of meeting T.O. at our Yardbarker Super Bowl party last year but I don't think I had quite the same effect on him. Could be that Wendy has about 20 years of interviewing experience on me. But more likely it's just her enormous rack.

(Actually, boobs or not, I did manage to get T.O. flustered at one point in the night. Check the first 10 seconds of this other video.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Khloe Kardashian's prenup: RIP Lamar Odom's bank account

As you've probably heard, Khloe Kardashian lawyered up to ask for "generous" payout clauses in her prenup with Lamar Odom. Was it too much? Throat Chop University (real institution) has an opinion.

Warning: this video contains naughty language, simulated throat chop violence, and an angry black man.

UPDATE: Egypt is reporting that Khloe signed a prenup in which she'll get nothing if they divorce?...

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Chris Johnson should NOT have been penalized, per NFL's VP of Officiating

Chris Johnson is making news for complaining that he was penalized for his religion. He made a "religious display" (kneeling with his hands lifted towards the sky) after an endzone interception (video here). Some are arguing the penalty was anti-religious.

Regardless of your feelings about religion, the penalty was unfair, per the NFL's own rules.

When the penalty happened on Sunday, I thought about this video, where Mike Pereira, the NFL's VP of Officiating, stated that a player should be penalized for a celebration if his knees touch the ground, UNLESS he is doing it to "praise the lord."

Let's save the unsavory religious overtones of Pereira's rule interpretation for another day... if we accept this rule as Pereira explains it, then why was it not applied properly in Chris Johnson's case? (Because the officials have it in for the Raiders!)

Monday, October 5, 2009

Patrick Willis: Xbox is the way to his heart

Cosmo magazine recently did a piece featuring "dating tips" from NFL players. Some of them tried to be cute or funny, some gave a safe, female-friendly answer (NFL players totally dig women for their conversational abilities, really!). But thank you Patrick Willis for just keeping it real:

Cosmo: What's something a woman might say that would turn you off?
Patrick: If she said she doesn't like men who play video games, that would be a problem. I'm a video game fanatic!"

Thank you Maggie for the tip on the article.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Antisocial networking: why I enjoy annoying random people on Twitter

In this edition of Alana G Haters, we honor Twitter users @Zanders and @Elizabeth who have recently blocked me.

My sense of humor can be a little mean-spirited sometimes. I once went on a date with a guy who told me earnestly, "I would never have a laugh at someone else's expense." In response I laughed in his face. Hey, I respect if that's how you want to live your life, but don't expect me to. I don't think I'm ever mean for the sake of being mean -- I'm mean for the sake of humor. If I see a downtrodden homeless person wearing crazy clothes, I won't joke about that. But if some asshole hipster walks by in a needlessly silly outfit... well, that calls for a joke. Not everyone will find my jokes funny, but if you don't like my humor, you don't have to be friends with me.

OH SNAP but there's the rub, because on social networking sites like Twitter, I can still hang out in your social circle even if you don't want me there. And if you're a happy-go-lucky person who naively thinks everyone else is super-friendly, I might try to annoy you with my silly antics. Just for poops and giggles.

The only real way to protect yourself from outsiders on Twitter is to make your tweets private so that only approved people can follow you. But that's no fun -- you're a friendly, popular person and you love the fact that you can get 692 people following you. Most people leave their Twitter feeds open, and frankly those people are asking to be bothered.

So the other day I decided to stir some things up with unsuspecting Twitter users @Zanders and @Elizabeth. I don't know either of them, but I had just started following Zanders and he retweeted this message from Elizabeth:

"Never let great be the enemy of good." A good decision made quickly is far better than a great decision made slowly.

First of all, this is terrible advice. Sure, a quick decision is useful in many cases: should I pee now or later, which flavor donut should I steal from the office next door, what's my best escape route from this burning building, etc. But a well-reasoned great decision is "far better" in many other cases: who should I marry, which car should I buy, should I retweet this piece of garbage advice, etc. The original context-free tweet by Elizabeth was annoying enough, but then I saw that multiple people in addition to Zanders had blindly retweeted it.

So I decided to retweet it and express my disagreement. And then my good Twitter pal @Oopspow retweeted. And then we started a little Twitter meme whereby every important question on Twitter was directed to Zanders and Elizabeth for a "quick decision." Which Eddie Murphy stand-up routine is better, "Delirious" or "Raw"? Better ask Zanders and Elizabeth for a quick decision! What should the Senate do about asbestos? Better get Zanders and Elizabeth on the case asap! A few more of my Twitter pals started getting in on the action. The result was that Zanders' and Elizabeth's @-reply feeds were flooded with dozens of our silly jokes.

That's hilarious to me. As Oopspow remarked, there were probably better things we could spend our time on, but at that moment we couldn't think of any.

Now if Zanders and Elizabeth had interacted with us and laughed at the whole thing, we would have all had a little chuckle and then lost interest. But instead they ignored us. So we kept doing it. And then they both BLOCKED us. Haters get on your job! A silly, passive-aggressive action like blocking me only motivates me to annoy you more.

You see, if they had done their homework, they would have realized that blocking really accomplishes very little on Twitter. Sure, I can no longer conveniently follow Zanders and Elizabeth from my blocked account. But I'm still following them in my TweetDeck from one of my benign alter-ego accounts. Even if they block my other account, I can still view their Tweets on their profile page, or subscribe to them by RSS. More importantly, I can still jam them with silly @-replies all day long! And now that I realize they've blocked me, I'm even more motivated to do so. Why? Maybe to prove a point (my Twitter c*ck is bigger than yours). But mostly just because it's even funnier than before. When it stops being funny, I'll stop doing it.

Writing this whole post does make me wonder if I'm being mean to Zanders and Elizabeth, who don't seem to be enjoying the attention. But maybe they don't care at all about my silliness. Perhaps some of you can send them @-replies asking for their thoughts on the subject. Don't forget to CC me: @alana_g.

P.S. I got a most unexpected message while writing this post:

Those of you who have followed the Alana G Haters series will get a kick out of that one -- @nikidandrea appears to be our old friend the "reporter" from the Phoenix New Times. If you don't know who she is, you can read my February 2009 dismantling of Niki D'Andrea. Zanders and Elizabeth, you may be in luck -- something shiny and new has caught my eye in Twittertown!