SBJ/July 16-22, 2012/Media

MLBAM, USA Today to launch site

MLB Advanced Media and the USA Today Sports Media Group plan to launch Sports On Earth, the first website in their content joint venture, in late August as a storytelling-based destination aimed at restoring the high-quality sportswriting disappearing from many newspapers.

Conceived as something of a digital sports bar, Sports On Earth will focus primarily on columns and feature stories aimed at giving a distinctive take on sports news of the day.

Joining already disclosed hires of Joe Posnanski, formerly of Sports Illustrated, and Tommy Tomlinson, formerly of The Charlotte Observer, on a full-time basis are Gwen Knapp, formerly of the San Francisco Chronicle; Shaun Powell, formerly of NBA.com and ESPNNewYork.com; and Mike Tanier, formerly of The New York Times and FootballOutsiders.com, with more hires yet to come.

Several others are also joining Sports On Earth as contributors, including New York Magazine’s Will Leitch and Richard Justice, currently with MLB.com. Steve Madden, previously with Rodale Inc., will be the general manager of Sports On Earth and the overall joint venture, and Larry Burke, also previously with Sports Illustrated, is site editor.

The staff will be based in New York City, where MLBAM is situated, but in its own dedicated space. There’s no projected head count, but staffing is likely to be lean.

Before the full launch of Sports On Earth next month, Posnanski will travel to London to cover the Summer Olympics and generate content for a dry run of the site.

“What we’re trying to do is help restore the tradition of great sportswriting and great storytelling,” said Dinn Mann, MLBAM executive vice president of content. “Great writers have been sort of getting a raw deal for about a decade in terms of having proper venues to really get their content out there. We think this is the right product at the right time for an industry that needs a kick in the pants.”

Comparisons to similarly structured sites such as ESPN’s Grantland.com are likely to be inevitable, but Sports On Earth plans to focus strictly on sports and not veer into pop culture subjects.

“We want readers to anticipate our take on a big sports story of the day, sort of like they do the back page of the tabloids,” Mann said.

Sports On Earth will be an advertiser-supported site, free to users, with MLBAM and USA Today sharing selling duties. The mix of sponsors is to be determined but will probably aim toward fewer, bigger partners. The site is designed to be a dedicated buy rather than being tied to other deals. It will also have mobile and tablet-optimized versions.

While text-based content will be the primary element of Sports On Earth, it also will feature multimedia elements such as podcasts, video and photo essays. It’s being designed internally with help from USA Today and MLBAM.

MLBAM for years has used Sports On Earth as a secondary brand encompassing all its non-MLB digital work. Both MLBAM and USA Today executives quickly latched on to Sports On Earth as a viable name for the new site.

Posnanski said his decision to leave Sports Illustrated, where he spent three years and was happy, was by far the most difficult of his decorated career.

“This is new and very exciting,” Posnanski said of Sports On Earth. “Perhaps the best thing is that we’re not saddled with any legacy issues. We literally had a blank board on what we wanted this to be.”

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