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Volume 20 No. 42
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Market shift rocks digital rollup strategy

Chris Russo, the veteran media executive and founder of the former Big Lead Sports, less than two years ago was leading one of the five largest digital sports properties in terms of monthly unique visitors. Early last year, he engineered a sale of the company to Gannett Inc., formerly a minority shareholder, for an estimated $30 million.

“The game has shifted away from just pure scale.”
CR Media Ventures
In his view, there’s no way a firm such as Big Lead Sports, a disparate rollup of more than 500 owned and affiliated sites that was previously known as Fantasy Sports Ventures, would be created and become viable in today’s digital sports media landscape.

“The game has shifted away from just pure scale,” said Russo, now an industry consultant with his own firm, CR Media Ventures. “It would be tough to build a new brand in this new environment. Scale is still a definite prerequisite, no doubt, but it is no longer the one thing that drives the ad buy. The ante in the market has been upped.”

Pete Vlastelica, the new senior vice president of Fox Sports Digital, tells a similar story from several years ago, when he was running the Yardbarker blog network and monthly comScore traffic rankings of unique visitors were a focal point.
“Back then, as a new entity, we were looking for any way to get the attention of media buyers and gain credibility, and we were engaged on a rollup strategy of aggregating enough traffic where we’d be worth a brand advertiser’s time,” Vlastelica said.

It was all about raw traffic, all the time. But as digital advertising revenue continues to surge — total annual U.S. spending is projected to rise more than 50 percent compared with the past two years, to more than $48 billion, according to eMarketer — a new, more mature marketplace has emerged. Big traffic often gets a site in the door with a prospective advertiser, but the value of proprietary content and the engagement it creates increasingly is what closes deals.

That dynamic has driven several market-reshaping moves over the past seven months, including the high-profile digital alliance between NBC Sports and Yahoo Sports, CBS’s new affiliation with fast-growing college sports and recruiting hub, and the new Sporting News Media joint venture between U.K.-based Perform and American City Business Journals (parent company of SportsBusiness Journal).

Each deal, combined with Turner Sports’ record-setting, $175 million purchase last summer of Bleacher Report, is far more than a simple rollup or traffic aggregation.

The new sweet spot in digital sports media includes not just a top-10 ranking in the monthly comScore rankings, but also a strong role in digital video and exclusive content that resonates in social media.

“Having that premium-level content is just a must now,” Russo said. “Things have changed pretty quickly, and there’s a realization now that if you’re a buyer just looking for scale, there are often much more efficient ways to do it elsewhere than through sports.”

The New Scorecards

Despite the seismic shifts in the market, the ritual that greets comScore’s release of its monthly rankings report remains the same: The numbers come out, and then come the cheers, complaints or recriminations, depending on the camp.

It’s fashionable among much of the executive ranks to dismiss comScore as an unrefined tool vulnerable to manipulation. But those numbers still represent the closest thing there is to a universal scoreboard, and something that easily taps into the egos and competitive drive common in the industry.

Change, however, has been a major factor in comScore. The company earlier this spring took its new Media Metrix Multi-Platform out of beta. The new measurement data blends traditional online traffic with audiences for video and those arriving on mobile platforms. The goal is to provide a truer snapshot of the current, more layered media consumption environment.

Digital sports media outlets, compared to many other content categories, for years have been particularly vocal advocates for a blended metric. ESPN and MLB Advanced Media, by many accounts the two most successful outfits in the category, each spent several years publicly railing against many panel-based online measurement methodologies. That’s because some of the most heavily trafficked periods, such as weekends, and the large audiences arriving on mobile platforms often went heavily undercounted or not counted at all.

It’s all about how many, how often, and how long. That’s the mantra. Those are the basic questions we’re trying to answer, regardless of platform.”
The initial months of the multiplatform metrics have shown some sizable changes in the sports category. Nearly every major player has seen at least a mid-double-digit percentage lift in its overall reach because of the inclusion of mobile traffic. More video-centric entities, such as the new Sporting News Media, have seen their highest rankings ever, a critical development given the higher advertising rates typically afforded to video compared with digital display inventory.

“We’ve had really strong support from sports sites, and the [multiplatform] product has continued to gain momentum since its official launch,” said Andrew Lipsman, comScore vice president of industry analysis.

But newly blended audience metrics are by no means limited to comScore, or even digital platforms. Arbitron, long known for its radio ratings, is participating along with comScore in Project Blueprint, a pilot effort aimed at measuring content consumption at ESPN across TV, radio, online and mobile, both in terms of reach and engagement. Initial results are expected later this summer.

“It’s all about how many, how often, and how long. That’s the mantra,” said David Coletti, ESPN vice president of digital media research and analytics. “Those are the basic questions we’re trying to answer, regardless of platform, but digital is certainly a big part of that.”

Other emerging digital measurement strategies are focused on tracking social media-based activity, particularly as efforts, such as the Twitter Amplify in-stream video advertising platform involving several major media brands, take root.

“The market is much more sophisticated now,” said Jeff Price, president of Sporting News Media. “There are big questions out there in terms of how you accurately compare TV [gross ratings points] to digital metrics, particularly as more and more ad dollars now go into digital video. You layer in social on top of that, and those are the places we’re watching very closely.”

Some sports properties, meanwhile, are shedding unrelated entities that previously made up part of their overall totals of unique users, as ad buyers have grown far savvier about identifying odd or improper fits.

Adding them all up

A look at some of the key building blocks that help make up the individual listings in monthly comScore traffic reports of U.S. sports destinations.

Yahoo Sports-NBC Sports
Golf Channel
Comcast SportsNet regional sites

ESPN City Sites (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Dallas)
X Games on MSN
Yardbarker Sports Media
Fox Sports Local
Fox Soccer

Bleacher Report-Turner Sports Network

Perform Sports/Sporting News Media
HuffPost Sports
Perform Group


USA Today Sports Media Group
USA Today Sports Digital Properties
USA Today Sports
For The Win
The Big Lead
USA Today Sports Local Media Group
USA Today High School Sports
USA Today UFC Media Group
BNQT Media Group

CBS Sports College Network

SB Nation
The Verge
SB Nation College
MMA Fighting

Sports Illustrated sites
National Football Post

Source: comScore Media Metrix

ESPN, for example, early last year parted with the traffic assignment of, a participatory sport destination with a sizable audience but far different mission than ESPN’s spectator sports focus. After the change, ESPN temporarily fell to third in the sports category in comScore online reach rankings, but its traffic has since grown to levels beyond what it posted with, thanks in part to an overall surge in digital consumption patterns and organic gains within itself.

ESPN thinks it has a cleaner value proposition for advertisers. “had a totally different user scenario, and we made the decision, we think rightly, to offer a more pure representation of our audience,” Coletti said.

The Buyer’s Needs

Amid all the rapid change in digital media, buyers and brands have started to become more vocal about what they want from content publishers, not just in sports. In short, what they’re looking for is a digital programming model similar to TV with big hits and sizable audiences congregating around major events.

But beyond that, they’re after much better measurement tools to accurately gauge audiences throughout every medium. A collection of senior executives from major digital media buyers such as Digitas, Universal McCann, GroupM and Starcom last month took an unusual step and wrote an open letter to “digital video publishers everywhere,” imploring them to step up their game in this new environment. Among the calls to action were for publishers to take an active role in improving audience measurements as opposed to leaving the job to third parties such as comScore.

“What are the bridge metrics that paint a portrait of a single piece of content or programming within the broader, nonlinear web of viewing and engagement?” the letter read in part. “We need you.”

The Interactive Advertising Bureau, which helps set industry standards around digital marketing, quickly responded, “We have to get not just reach and frequency right, but demographics, social sharing, and more.”

Even before the agencies sent their letter, many digital sports publishers had begun to more deliberately focus their online and mobile programming around big events such as the Olympics, Super Bowl and March Madness. The core thinking on both the buy and sell side of the table is that an online audience of several million concentrated on one event is far preferable to a reach number two or three times as large but spread over an entire month and myriad pieces of content.

“We’re trying to lead with our premier events,” said Rick Cordella, NBC Sports Digital senior vice president and general manager. “The idea is to offer a greater experience to advertisers with the events we have. For example, there’s only one place to be part of ‘Sunday Night Football’ and that’s with us.”

Then there is a simple care-and-feeding issue. Digital advertising is often difficult to sell and purchase relative to broadcast advertising, frequently because both publishers and agencies have online and mobile personnel siloed away from their broadcast counterparts. As a result, there is a keen focus in many camps on breaking down those walls, a conversation far away from conventional metrics.

“Sure it’s nice to be No. 1, but it still boils down to whether you are executing on behalf of the sponsors. Do you take good care of brands? Are you surrounding them with quality?” said David Katz, founder and chief executive of, which operates in partnership with Yahoo Sports. “Sites still need to legitimize themselves, but there are lots of ways to do that beyond metrics.”

Despite the turbulence in the content and marketing landscape, publishers, agencies and brands are looking forward to a day when determining digital supremacy and spending against that come with far less friction. If that happens, many executives expect a surge in brand advertising, as opposed to the strategies focused more on direct response that have dominated many segments of digital media.

“The dollars still haven’t caught up to the audience,” Coletti said. “And that reinforces why getting better common baselines is so important.”