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Volume 21 No. 2
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A year in, USA Today group hitting its marks

In a little more than a year, USA Today Sports Media Group says it’s achieving the reach, relevance and ad dollars envisioned at startup in late 2011.

Through acquisition of sites like The Big Lead, and with accelerated traffic from last summer’s Olympic Games, USA Today Sports reached a new high in online traffic and has maintained momentum. In February 2012, USA Today and associated sites moved into the top five of comScore rankings for sports sites for the first time, hitting No. 4 with 24.2 million unique visitors. The group hasn’t dropped out of the top five since. Before the aggregation, it ranked outside the top 10, with a little over half of that traffic.

“Overall digital traffic is up 120 percent year over year,” said USA Today Sports Media Group President Tom Beusse. “Clearly a fair amount of that was through acquisition, but we’ve also relaunched and grown traffic on by 100 percent. More importantly, we’ve shown that the USA Today Sports brand can be leveraged as marketing assets, which was our goal from the outset.” He went on to add, with a laugh, “As for revenues, they have increased by a significant number and if that weren’t true, I wouldn’t be here.’’

Advertising and marketing alliances with large properties, including the PGA Tour, NASCAR, Churchill Downs and a pending three-year deal with the UFC, have helped build out content and drive advertising revenue. League and property relations, and custom promotions and events, now drive more than a third of the revenue for the Sports Media Group.

A prime example is the relationship with NASCAR, now extended to a three-year deal from its one-year test run, under which Mobil 1 will be presenting sponsor of preview coverage of each NASCAR race every Friday in USA Today Sports. In another case, Anheuser-Busch is sponsoring a multiplatform “Road to the Kentucky Derby’’ series, created under the Churchill Downs partnership.

“We never had league relationships on the business side here, so they have been real door openers for us and made our brand relevant from a sports business standpoint,” said Merrill Squires, senior vice president and head of sports marketing and partnerships at USA Today Sports Media Group.

Another charge for the group was to create new properties from existing assets. Toward that end, the celebrated, if aging, USA Today Super Bowl Ad Meter was tweaked to make it digital and consumer-facing, with a vote of 1,000 online panelists. That change attracted Chrysler as an advertiser. USA Today is now looking at expanding the Ad Meter to other big events, and at some possible on-site experiential extensions.

Gatorade’s sponsorship of USA Today’s High School Sports Super 25 is another recent example.

In its second year, Beusse says the focus will be on continuing to meld Gannett’s local and national media properties. In addition, they are looking at further integration of video into digital content, where there has already been content marketing assignments underwritten by Under Armour and DirecTV. Finally, he pointed to a continued push against the growing legions of displaced fans, where “we have the local credibility and national reach to service that group that can’t get enough content.”