SBJ/October 31-November 6, 2011/Media

USA Today beefs up sports

Investment in Sports Media Group includes big-name biz hires

Gannett and USA Today are getting serious about sports, with a major refocus and investment that includes the hiring of top names in editorial, marketing and sales to fill an expanding USA Today Sports Media Group.

The new hires, which include such sports business veterans as Dave Morgan, Peter Lazarus, Merrill Squires and John Von Stade, are backing print and online content plays designed to make the digital version of the nation’s biggest circulation newspaper more competitive against top sports sites in an effort to drive traffic.

The overall effort is being led by former Sports Illustrated and Broadband Sports marketer Tom Beusse, brought on in January as president of USA Today Sports Media, with a mission to marshal sports content over Gannett’s 82 daily newspapers, 23 television stations, USA Today and digital assets, including USAToday.com.

Related Gannett sports assets are also intriguing, not only the daily newspapers, but sites like HighSchoolSports.net and action sports site BNQT.com, and the USA Today Weekly sports publication and associated website. In 2008, Gannett also took a minority stake in Fantasy Sports Ventures, which now operates as Big Lead Sports.

Gannett has hired longtime editorial executive Morgan to lead the news effort. Morgan was executive editor at top-five sports site Yahoo! Sports before he left in June; prior to that he was deputy sports editor at the Los Angeles Times. Morgan will serve as editor-in-chief of the USA Today Sports Media Group, and he will start this week while being based in Los Angeles.

The goal is to expand the relevancy and impact of the USA Today brand in sports, while balancing and enhancing sports content within Gannett’s local print products and their accompanying sites.

In an interesting parallel, while Gannett is looking to burnish the USA Today brand and reinvigorate sports within strong
local print titles, ESPN is extending its scope with local Web and radio plays in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles and New York. NBC and new parent Comcast are facing the same challenge in merging their local and national sports assets.

Beusse
“Everyone’s trying to be local, but we are local already, so then it is just about execution, integration and picking our spots with all of our local content under a national umbrella,” Beusse said, pointing to Yahoo’s extensive network of sports blogs as an area USA Today would look to emulate.

With Morgan just starting, new editorial products are still being planned, but they will be gradual and won’t be readily apparent until 2012. “By midyear, we should look wholly different,” Beusse added.

An industry launch during Super Bowl week in Indianapolis is being planned.

Specific editorial plans are perhaps not as important as the support the plans have from senior management at Gannett, one of many old-line print empires trying to find their way in an increasingly digital world.

Beusse would not say exactly how much Gannett, a company with $7 billion in annual revenue, has committed to the effort beyond saying “millions.” The top-level executives he has been able to recruit offer some indication of Gannett’s enthusiasm. Morgan, the new top editorial voice within Gannett sports, will report to Beusse. Beusse said he will also hire 30 or so Web developers and 25 to 30 marketing and sales types.

Aside from money for staffing, Beusse also has the nod for acquisitions. The first of those came last month when Gannett acquired US Presswire’s network of photographers and images, and with it a library of 10 million digital images.

Lazarus
USA Today’s Sports Media Group’s sales will be directed by Lazarus, who joins as senior vice president/head of multimedia sales after working for the last three years leading sales and marketing at Univision. Lazarus was NBC’s top sports and Olympics sales and marketing executive from 1997 to 2006. Also on board is Squires, former sports marketing and Olympic director at SI, now senior vice president of sports marketing, who will direct league relationships.

“USA Today is a strong brand that’s never been extended into sports from a marketing perspective,” Squires said. “We see a void out there and there’s a commitment from the top to build and buy. That’s a pretty exciting place to start.”

Von Stade, longtime Velocity/Team Epic senior vice president, is also on board as vice president/properties, under which he will develop and sell properties around print franchises like the paper’s college football coaches poll or with the niche it has established in covering high school sports on a national basis, with elements like the Super 25 high school rankings across various sports.

“If Big Lead Sports can crack the top 10, you have to believe a brand like USA Today, with deep pockets and 30 years’ heritage, has a great opportunity,” said Jimmy Lynn, former AOL Sports vice president of partnerships and strategic development, now an independent consultant. “If they can win the battles for audience in developing areas like high school sports, lacrosse or MMA, those are the younger demos so many advertisers want.”

USA Today will push to be a top-five site.
September’s comScore monthly rankings have USA Today Sports 10th among sports sites in terms of unique visitors (12.7 million for the month), just below NBCSports.com (14.6 million). Beusse vows to get the site into the top five, but he will have to compete with leagues and TV networks, both of which have unfettered access to compelling sports video. So how will USA Today and its local newspaper sites acquire the requisite video to surpass the likes of NBA.com, FoxSports.com and NFL.com? Beusse said it will be acquired through distribution deals and content generated within Gannett, using John Elway’s weekly show on Gannett-owned KUSA-TV in Denver as an example. “Video is critical absolutely; consumers and advertisers are insisting on it,” Beusse said.

Tom Richardson, a former NFL and AOL digital executive who now heads Convergence Sports & Media, added, “Certainly, video acquisition will be a big question for them, but most mainstream print media is treading water at best, so you have to applaud anyone breaking ground there.”

Beusse said he is leaving most of the editorial development to Morgan, but said it will be vital to add gravitas and personality to USA Today’s sports.

“We need to reinfuse the voice back into the brand,” he said. “That may or may not be through more columns; these days it could be a tweet, but it definitely has to be personality driven.”

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