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2/8/12

Analysis: Yahoo and Fox Are Top Online Sports Destinations As ESPN Drops to Third Place (For Now?)

Comscore has released its latest web traffic data on sports sites and Yahoo remains well ahead of every other online property with almost 55 million unique visitors each month. The biggest news was that Fox overtook ESPN for number 2 with a few hundred thousand more uniques each month during the reporting period than ESPN.

Sports Business Journal explains that the reason for ESPN’s dip to number 2 was due to a discontinuance of its relationship with Active.com which was provided 5.8 uniques a month previously.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that just last May ESPN had narrowed the gap between it and Yahoo. Yahoo was at 46 million and ESPN was at just over 40 million. Fox was at a measly 24. Thanks to yardbarker network (which this blog is also a part of) the landscape has changed tremendously as Fox benefits from a lot of (cheap) aggregate content.

I’ll be interested to see how these properties rank in the next reporting period. For now, there are a few ways to look at what these trends suggest.

I still find Yahoo’s numbers  to be refreshing for those who believe in sanity and quality in sports reporting. Yahoo is absolutely my top most visited sports site. I adore Adrian Wojnarowski, Mike Silver, Marc Spears, Jason Cole, Doug Farrar and Charles Robinson (I knew all their names without even looking them up!). Not only are the writers smart and knowledgable they’re engaging and you don’t get the sense that they’re grasping for straws and content.

Beyond the Yardbarker content, Fox is a great resource especially when it comes to its coverage of college football. The site’s columnists aren’t particularly interesting, but the reporting overall is consistent and strong and their site doesn’t overwhelm you. I also find that Fox is less likely to rush and publish blogs with little or no content (or research) the way that CBS sports does. CBS has driven me so crazy with that I refuse to click on CBS sports links unless they are written by former ESPNer Bruce Feldman. I’ve had enough of being fooled.

The drop in ESPN visitors has got to be disheartening to those at ESPN who write the good stuff. There’s a lot of good reporting and analysis on ESPN.com (and more to come with ESPN’s recent hiring of writers like Philadelphia Inquirer’s Kate Fagan and The Baltimore Sun’s Kevin Van Valkenburg) but much of it is hidden in favor of promoting their most prominent columnists who often produce the least memorable content. There’s absolutely no reason for me to ever read the words of Jemele Hill or Michael Wilbon–talented as Wilbon may be and as much as I enjoyed his previous work in the Washington Post.

What’s most disconcerting is that ESPN has hung its brand around the antics of over-the-top “analysts” like Skip Bayless and Stephen A Smith and it’s translated into sporadic strong viewership on the network’s flagship show First Take but an overall decline in respect for the network and, I believe, by proxy its web property. I think that many plugged-in sports watchers are suffering from ESPN fatigue since many headlines over the past year have been driven by whatever Bayless says–Bayless’ ESPN all but single handedly made Tim Tebow the story of an NFL season where rookies Cam Newton and Von Miller dazzled us on and off the field.

Why ESPN Has to Regroup For the Long Term

NBC Sports’ merger with Comcast almost guarantees that ESPN will find itself off of basic cable really soon–possibly within the next 5 or 6 years. ESPN costs basic cable subscribers an average of $5 per customer and with so many high dollar sports league deals that number is likely to go up. The push for a la carte has to be fought with some lowering of costs. As you can see, NBC sports is positioning itself –with its reprogramming of the Versus channel–to take over wherever ESPN leaves off.

ESPN has got to re-strengthen its online presence in preparation for this possible major change. The web is continuing to compete for viewership (see youtube’s major rebranding, the Super Bowl being streamed online this year, Amazon Prime streams, Hulu etc) web publishing is a necessary anchor to a television presence.

If Yahoo leverages its internet power and finds a successful cable TV model that DOESN’T rely on showing games and matches, they could be the undisputed leader in sports coverage and conversation. I noted that NBC sports (which is barely a competitor to any online sports site) has featured Wojnarowski and Farrar which I think is pretty damn smart. They’ve also tapped into their existing talent and put them in a position to succeed (to use a line from Eagles coach Andy Reid). The clips I’ve seen from Costas Live are really the anti-Bayless and Smith. It’s for viewers who like discussion minus hysteria.

Arghh when did I become such a high-falutin tea drinker? I don’t know, but I’m happy to see that some of the sports conversation might be moving back in a direction that appeals to me. The availability of good sports talk is already too limited. That’s why I’m reeling from the fact that Inside the NBA has ruined its luster with the uncomfortable addition of Shaq. What’s a girl to do now?

I’m waiting to see if NBC’s strategic television moves move the needle on its web traffic. I think it will.

In Praise of NFL.com

One thing about the Comscore numbers that should get more attention is the fact that NFL.com which focuses on a singular sport is the #4 online sports destination on the web. It’s a distant 4th behind ESPN but still ahead of Turner, Big Lead Sports and Gannett/USA Today. That shows how popular the sport is, but I also think it’s testament to the glorious job NFL.com does in covering its own sport.

Not only has NFL.com done a tremendous job of testing and training former NFL talent to appear on-air (which translates into lots of views of their clips online) they’ve hired well-heeled columnists and let them do what they do. I was especially pleased with the hire of Jason LaCanfora from the Washington Post last season. I also regularly read Jeff Darlington, Michael Lombardi, and Adam Rank. I am a huge fan of Pat Kirwan as well.

****I’d like to use this time to point out that NFL.com has ZERO female columnists…let’s work on that guys.****

When I’m on NFL.com I never get the sense that I’m being sold a bill of goods by a league looking to promote itself. I think there’s enough objectivism on the site as to be fair though I see that there is certainly some coverage they’re light on–the toradol lawsuits for example. Still, the coverage is full enough that I feel comfortable saying that NFL.com is justified in being a top source for information on the league.

What You Won’t Do 

Last note: Cardinal unwritten rule for sports bloggers and aspiring sports writers is that you really shouldn’t  openly criticize ESPN… but I do try to be honest on this blog and share my honest thoughts for good or bad. And there you have it.

 

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