By Dan Shanoff
I've talked before about Bill Simmons' new editorial project, and today we finally got a substantial amount of additional detail.
Bill's site remains one of the most interesting and exciting things to happen in mainstream sports media in the last year (certainly since the launch of Quickish -- kidding... sort of).
Here are a couple of the things that stood out most for me from the details (click here for a recap from WSJ's Peter Kafka):
*Building a site around Bill's brand and sensibility is very smart, for everyone, and I'm glad Bill added this to his most recent deal. Bill's interests and talents as a producer (see "30 for 30") are entirely worth developing, and this gives him his own online property to oversee...
...And yet: It is almost entirely de-risked.
- ESPN pays the bills, including what seems like a substantial editorial budget.
- ESPN will handle the revenue generation (oh, and they'll sell the hell out of this).
- ESPN's existing tech infrastructure can give the project quick entry into things like mobile, video, the iPad and more.
- ESPN can give the site access to ESPN.com's front-page traffic firehose.
(The trade-off, of course, is that ESPN owns the entire project, including any/all financial upside. Short of possible revenue-sharing upside, there is no indication Bill has any financial equity in the project's success. This isn't Oprah. But that's not his motivation -- building an awesome new sports site is his motivation. To that extent, it is analogous to Andrew Ross Sorkin's deal(book) with the New York Times.)
- All that said, I love that it is a reflection of his vision. It's such a bigger (and more important) swing than his columns or podcasts.
*They're hiring -- and paying. 8-12 full-time writers? Wow. That's a ton. The project avoids the fate of the "unfunded mandate": Launching a new media property, then choking it to death without the financial resources to pay for talent. Anyone who works in content can appreciate how phenomenal -- and even unique -- this is.
There is plenty of undervalued talent around the sports-media world, and Bill is in an excellent position to scoop some of it up. He's already started, with the talented and still relatively unknown Katie Baker (disclosure: a friend) and the talented and very-much-known Chuck Klosterman. And Bill is in the position to hand-pick his own talent -- he's got an eye for it. (NYMag's Lane Brown just announced he is going over as editor, another brilliant hire.)
Why is this important? Just look at Fox's The Daily -- editorially, it's a mish-mash of mediocrity. Bill's project seems to aspire to be the daily, online equivalent of "30 for 30" -- that's a high bar that demands top talent. Top talent doesn't work for free. Being able to pay that top talent to produce great work is core to the project's success.
*The new site is hosting Bill's columns. This is the equivalent of Oprah putting her own show on the Oprah Channel. It's obvious but also the best possible anchor programming that will -- along with premium placement on ESPN.com -- ensure that the site has wide, steady readership from the start.
(*Oh, and the press release might as well have said "We're shuttering Page 2 imminently." What Bill is putting together feels as close to "classic" (2002-2005) Page 2 that wowed everyone in the first place as we've seen since... well, the launch of Page 2. And I say all that as a proud alum.)
*It's totally intriguing that the site won't be pegged around sports news or the calendar. On the one hand, that's terrific -- great thoughtful content for its own sake is welcome. On the other hand, online consumers have a fairly strong taste for the current (even the NOW!); there is plenty of room for everything, and more high-end sports content is always welcome. It will be interesting to see if the site has to shade more closely into news currency.
*Two more things, in particular, stood out:
(1) Design: The design will have a distinct magazine influence. Traditionally, that hasn't worked, at least for sites that serve a daily (or multiple-times-per-day) audience. This isn't E-Ticket. I have an entirely open mind, but rather than focus on a "magazine"-style visual, it would have been interesting to hear that they are approaching it as being "tablet-friendly" from the start. (They aren't mutually exclusive, but the site feels like it has tremendous potential as a "lean-back" experience, which will increasingly come to be dominated by tablets, not laptops.)
I don't want to overstate design at launch -- it can always be fixed. It's also always dangerous to speculate about design before -- y'know -- you've seen anything. And there's certainly at least one leading online publisher (one who I respect tremendously) that is going all-in on "magazine-style" design.
(2) "Interaction": The detail that Simmons' thinking -- at least for now -- is to have a select number of approved commenters (the release says "300"). It is way too simple to knee-jerk cat-call "why not open to all!" or "Boo! Too closed!" First of all, there's no harm in trying. Second, recognizing that comments can (and should) be an extension of your core editorial means that you should be as careful with your comments as you are with your core editorial.
The fallacy here is to consider Simmons' "300" as typical commenters, as we have previously experienced commenting on websites. They are more like site contributors who happen to be reacting to a piece. What that does is extend the piece's lifeline well beyond its first reading, and if the comments are really good -- and you weed out commenting crap -- you create an infinitely better and more dynamic user experience.
In this way, it is not unlike the way Twitter wants you to think about Twitter right now: It is a consumption platform; that there are a bunch of really entertaining people who produce content for it (and other people who react to that) is necessary, but so far from sufficient. If you never tweet in your life, Twitter is fine with that; there are 10% (or whatever low number) who tweet out 90% (or whatever high number) of the best tweets on the service.
I find Bill's thinking here to be fascinating -- and potentially game-changing. What he is saying is "If you want your own say, there are plenty of other places online to do it. Have at it! You just won't have that here. Instead, you'll have additional commentary from 300 really really (presumably) funny/smart people."
To the .01% of his consumers who want to comment but don't have the privilege? Well, the calculation is that the vast majority of readers will be very satisfied with the experience. (And, again to de-risking, there is no fear that crazy commenters -- registered or not -- will upend the carefully crafted editorial experience.)
Although Bill's brand is very heavy on populism, the site isn't populist at all. It's elite. And that's totally OK.
When word of Simmons' project first came out, my first impulse was that it was going to be almost like an "Awl for sports." The details released today -- high-quality (if lesser-known) writers, thoughtful pieces, not tethered to the news cycle -- suggest that it is what The Awl could be -- if one of the world's largest media companies opened up its resources and said "Do anything you think you should."
The reality is that this IS very similar to Oprah's channel or Sorkin's Dealbook or the Wall Street Journal's All Things D -- a combination of Bill's personal brand, high-end content, set-it-and-forget-it business-side help, a supremely efficient marketing team and, in ESPN.com, a massive distribution firehose.
It presents ideal conditions to launch what Bill is trying. It will be successful -- mostly, because I honestly can't imagine the future of media, sports or otherwise, if it CAN'T be.
UPDATE: I think it's worth making one additional point, off something I saw Jason Whitlock write: "This is a game-changer."
I'm not so sure about that. Oh, I think the whole project will be very successful for Bill and his new team.
But is it replicable? i mean: Can other writers do this? Can other media companies do this?
Here's a shorthand of why this is going to work:
Personal brand (Bill's) + Free-flowing Resources (both cash and business back-end) + Marketing Muscle (traditional marketing and an online audience distribution firehose) + Quality/Talent.
Other sites could pony up the cash -- ironically, for Whitlock's FoxSports.com salary, I could hire a half-dozen talented undervalued writers and produce 5X the readers and revenue he does alone. And other sites could dedicate salespeople to monetize it.
Other companies could deliver a firehose of traffic, simply by heavily promoting the new site on their front page. Other companies could put marketing behind it.
But to the point about "personal brand," how many Bill Simmons are there out there? To put it in Simmons-esque terms, who else is on The Pantheon?
Dan Patrick? Already did it.
Peter Gammons? Could have done it, actually. I appreciate why he didn't. But he could have, that's the point.
Rick Reilly? Nope. (And he lacks Bill's essential vision to want to do it anyway.)
Jason Whitlock? Hey: Maybe. Very possible! (Jason: Instead of saying you're jealous, why not present something to Fox?)
Peter King? Probably.
Darren Rovell? Good shot, actually.
Clay Travis? Drew Magary? Any writer with a cult following is promising.
Mike Florio? Already did it.
The key, of course, is that simultaneously, they've got to want to sublimate their star brand to focus on raising the profiles of the other talents. As with "30 for 30," Simmons is far more executive producer than star on this. It takes a different mindset -- and skillset, frankly. It's not simply "Peter Jackson Presents [Whatever Dude Directed] District 9."
And there are a ton of amazing undervalued talents, just waiting to be combined with promotion and cash to build these new business lines.
But the list of bankable existing brands shortens up really quickly. There aren't many Oprahs. There aren't many Marthas. There aren't many Howard Sterns. That's why they do so well.
(That's why this becomes much more interesting if you expand this outside of sports into entertainment, politics, tech, etc: Isn't that what Keith Olbermann is trying to do? Isn't that what Glenn Beck is doing? Isn't that what Robert Scoble could do?)
In sports media, there aren't many Bills. In an ideal world, he uses this new platform to create new Bills -- in the same way ESPN back in 2002 helped make Bill what he ultimately became. They gave him a platform.
That's why the Comcast-NBCU merger is so interesting. They have the money, the marketing and the muscle to build sub-businesses, just like they build the "Talk" network off ProFootballTalk.
The online sports world is loaded with talent. The "Moneyball" moment is to value them in ways they haven't been valued.
Bill is scooping up these values and leveraging his substantial brand to build them bigger. To the rest of the potential players out there: What are you doing?