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ESPN’s communications department is launching a sports media blog that will focus on issues and stories related to the Disney-owned company.
ESPNFrontRow.com will launch March 30 with an experienced journalist, Sheldon Spencer, as its primary writer and editor. A former staff writer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Spencer, 49, most recently was an NFL editor on ESPN.com, working with NFL blogs.
Spencer will report to two executives in the ESPN communications department: Rob Tobias, vice president, and Laurel Daggett, senior director.
The blog will serve two purposes. It will offer a behind-the-scenes look at how ESPN operates and it will address controversies that involve ESPN. Consumers will be able to access the site from a link at the bottom of ESPN.com’s home page; posts on the site also will be distributed via social media outlets like Twitter.
“This is a way for us to speak directly with consumers,” said Mike Soltys, ESPN’s vice president of communications.
The blog will give ESPN’s take on issues such as Erin Andrews’ Reebok endorsement.
The communications department site is not expected to compete with the role of the ESPN ombudsman because it’s being operated by ESPN’s PR department. ESPN’s ombudsman, which will be The Poynter Institute for the next 18 months, is set up as an independent voice.
“This will give us a platform to explain our position on ESPN’s endorsement policy,” Soltys said.
The bulk of the site will feature behind-the-scenes stories, akin to the Valentine’s Day video “Baseball Tonight” analyst Bobby Valentine shot or the promo surrounding the launch of ESPN2 in Australia.
The goal is to have about three posts per day during the week. Spencer will write most of the posts. Some ESPN executives, such as Vince Doria, senior vice president and director of news, or Norby Williamson, executive vice president of production, will byline stories that pertain to them.
Posts on the site will be open to comments, but ESPN is trying to figure out how it will monitor those comments.
Soltys believes there’s plenty of interest in this type of information, pointing to the most-read stories list on sites like SportsBusiness Daily (SBJ sister publication), which are filled with ESPN-related stories. “We’re not looking to replace the media that’s covering us,” Soltys said. “We still will make our executives available to media covering various stories.”
ESPN hired Voce Communications to design the site. The company has designed corporate blogs for companies like Disney Parks and eBay. Soltys said the site’s content will be patterned after those blogs. “The corporate sites that flounder typically are the ones that don’t post frequently enough,” he said.
March Madness On Demand exploded in popularity in 2006 when it shifted from a pay model to an ad-supported one, moving from about 25,000 subscribers the year before to more than 1.3 million unique users. Another historic dynamic may now be emerging as Turner Sports and CBS Sports make mobile access to MMOD free for the first time.
The "GameCenter" dashboard is new for 2011.
As a result, Turner and CBS executives are projecting sizable audience increases for the 2011 version of MMOD, which after five years as a free product stands as a key pillar of the online sports business.
“We believe the iPad will be absolutely huge for this, and on the whole, we’re anticipating really strong audience gains,” said Lenny Daniels, Turner Sports executive vice president and chief operating officer. “Mobile, in general, obviously is a major thing now, and the apps we’ve built we think provide a real level of immersiveness, and also complement the TV experience. What we’re after is creating a whole 23-day experience.”
Turner and CBS declined to project a specific audience figure for MMOD for this year, but with the heavy rollout into mobile with free products and continued consumer embrace of online video, another record is inevitable. Last year’s MMOD attracted 8.3 million unique users and 11.7 million hours of consumed live video and audio, figures that may ultimately look quaint once the full effect of a wireless MMOD is felt.
Network officials also declined to specify MMOD ad sales, but the tourney is nearly sold out both online and on TV.
Other new features for MMOD this year include a new “GameCenter” dashboard that blends live video with stats, social media integration, in-game highlights and other content on a single screen, and a personalized channel finder to locate games on TV.
Turner is taking over operations for MMOD following last year’s landmark NCAA rights deal in partnership with CBS Sports. Both networks are participating in ad sales for the event.
Editor's note: This story is revised from the print edition.
YES Network and the New Jersey Nets are taking a cable rights fee dispute to arbitration, marking the first time a panel of arbitrators will be used to decide the rights fee an RSN will pay an NBA team.
Talks broke down last month, with YES Network and the Nets remaining far apart on both money and years. The two sides have been trying to work out a deal over the past year, with YES President and CEO Tracy Dolgin and Nets Sports and Entertainment CEO Brett Yormark leading the negotiations.
YES and the Nets declined to comment, and while it’s not clear what YES currently pays the team in an annual rights fee, sources say the two sides remain far apart, leading to the unprecedented step of using an arbitrator to determine the fee. The Portland Trail Blazers currently are in arbitration with Comcast SportsNet Portland, but that proceeding is about the RSN’s distribution and does not involve its rights fee, sources said.
After a marathon session during the first week in February, Rone and YES reached a tentative agreement, sources said. YES agreed to pay the Nets a healthy increase — around $20 million per year to start, with moderate annual increases — but only if a long-term extension was on the table. The Nets agreed to give YES a 10-year extension.
NBAE / GETTY IMAGES
Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov nixed a deal that CAA Sports negotiated.
The arbitration process starts in about a month and will last about 30 days. YES and the Nets will make their case in front of a panel of arbitrators, which will decide on what the rights fee should be.
YES and the Nets are in the middle of a 20-year deal that ends with the 2021-22 season. The deal, which originally was signed when YES launched in 2002, allowed each side to reopen it and reset the rights after this season.
This clause, which industry sources said is standard in most long-term contracts, does not allow the Nets to shop their rights to other TV channels; YES Network will continue to carry Nets games through at least the 2021-22 season.
The reset clause helps teams and RSNs compensate for changing circumstances that occur in the first 10 years of a deal, like when the Heat signed LeBron James or, conversely, when the Cavaliers lost him. So far this year, Miami ratings have showed the NBA’s biggest increase, while the Cavs have suffered through the biggest decrease.
The Nets are hoping to use the reset to capitalize on the team’s planned move to Brooklyn. Sources said the Nets were pushing for a big increase on the promise that the move out of New Jersey will increase interest — and TV ratings — in the team.
YES is hoping to use the Nets’ dismal on-court performance and poor TV ratings as a reason to keep from paying too much of an increase. When YES signed the deal, the Nets were coming off a trip to the NBA Finals. The team hasn’t made the playoffs in the last four seasons, and has been among the NBA’s worst performing on-court teams over the past two years.
TV viewership for Nets telecasts has been the league’s lowest. At the season’s halfway point this year, the Nets were averaging a 0.29 rating, the worst in the league. The second worst rating belonged to the Clippers with a 0.82 rating that still was three times higher than the Nets. For the 2009-10 season, the Nets also finished last in ratings.
Over the past 2 1/2 years, Nets ratings on YES have been lower than every MLB, NBA and NHL team, except the Florida Panthers.
For now, the sports media industry is keeping its eyes focused on a historic arbitration process that could set a precedent for future disputes.
ThePostGame.com, the new online sports magazine co-produced by SportsFanLive.com and Yahoo! Sports, has immediately found a mass audience, surpassing 11 million monthly unique visitors in roughly 60 days.
The joint effort, launched in mid-January, marks an attempt to reimagine a consumer-focused sports magazine for the digital age, blending long-form journalism and features with content covering sports extensions into technology, travel, style, entertainment and social media.
While new sites such as this often take months or even years to find a sizable audience, ThePostGame.com generated 8.4 million uniques during its first 30 days of operation and 11.4 million uniques during the month of February.
“This whole experience has completely exceeded even my wildest expectations,” said David Katz, founder and CEO of the Los Angeles-based SportsFanLive.com. “But we’re seeing a real flight to quality, across the entire Internet landscape. We’re putting a big emphasis on high-quality, original long-form content, and fans are truly responding.”
The traffic figures are based on internal server data. Once ThePostGame.com becomes tracked by third-party measurement firms such as comScore, the site’s traffic will become part of Yahoo! Sports’ monthly roll-up figures.
The quick spike in traffic has attracted additional top-tier advertisers. A launch sponsorship from Toyota has since been joined by buys from Under Armour and Procter & Gamble’s Head and Shoulders brand, among others.
“This is a natural extension for us that has allowed us to engage fans differently, and definitely adds more depth to what we do,” said Dave Morgan, Yahoo!’s executive editor for North America and now co-head of Yahoo! Sports.
Yahoo! Sports has made some management moves after the recent departure of Kyle Laughlin to the Walt Disney Internet Group. The sports division is now being co-managed by Dave Morgan, executive editor for North America, and Clifton Ma, senior manager of business operations for Yahoo! Sports and Games.
Laughlin, who was head of Yahoo! Sports and Games, followed his former boss, Jimmy Pitaro, who left Yahoo! last October, over to Disney. Yahoo! Sports has now had six operational heads since 2005.
The executive transition of Yahoo! Sports somewhat mirrors a larger shake-up within the Internet giant’s senior ranks. Pitaro’s exodus last fall coincided with several other high-profile executive departures.
Yahoo!’s entire media and advertising properties have since been reorganized under the Yahoo! Media Group umbrella and are being led by former News Corp. digital executive Ross Levinsohn, hired last October.
Morgan, a five-year veteran of Yahoo! who previously was deputy sports editor for the Los Angeles Times, will focus more on content and product initiatives. Ma, with Yahoo! since 2007, largely in a financial analyst role, will handle more of the core business-side and sales duties.
“Yes, there is transition, and transition is always difficult,” Morgan said. “But there’s no panic or concern. The core operational and editorial teams [within Yahoo! Sports] are still very much intact, and our ambition remains very strong.”
Yahoo! Sports continues to rank No. 1 each month in unique visitors among U.S. sports sites, according to third-party measurement firms such as comScore. Its January total of 49.55 million uniques beat key rival ESPN.com by nearly 10 million, a margin that by itself would have been the country’s 10th most trafficked sports site during that month. And certain content ventures such as ThePostGame.com, operated in partnership with SportsFanLive.com (see related story), continue to perform well.
Still, competitive pressures remain. Many rivals, including ESPN, boast far better marks on user engagement, which are becoming increasingly important to advertisers. Major global sporting events such as the Olympics and World Cup, a particular area of content strength for Yahoo!, will not return in full force until next year’s Summer Games in London. And CBSSports.com last month struck a deal with MLB Advanced Media to gain rights to exclusive video highlights and other content for its fantasy baseball games that previously were held by Yahoo!.