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December 4, 2013

European Football Media Confuses Me or "EuroGrantland"?

By Ted Knutson

I was talking with Mike Goodman today about how different European media is from the U.S. model, and I ended up wanting to write about it just to follow the line of thought to its end. This is a bit rambly, but hopefully there is logic and perspective added as well.

If not uh… I’ll write about football and stats again soon.

Grantland
Mike writes for Grantland, which is a subsection of ESPN’s online presence founded in 2011 by their biggest online star, Bill Simmons (formerly known as The Sports Guy). You can check out his intro piece here. The site exists for free, and is generally regarded in the United States at least, as one of the single best places to find sportswriting on the internet.

bill-simmons-bsI’ve been reading Simmons constantly since… god, 2000? He kind of started out writing 3000-word blogs about whatever sports thing he was thinking at the time and never stopped.  Since ESPN online didn’t have to worry about a paper presence, and presumably he was either salaried or paid per entry and not per word, they didn’t take a budget hit for his length or have to shoehorn parts of it into a paper. The only ones who really suffered were his editors. Fans, however, flocked to him.

Dude is popular. He’s smart, outspoken, usually pretty funny, and while that makes him a target for media commentary spots like Deadspin, it also means he’s pretty easy for readers to love, warts and all.

Anyway, regarding Grantland, it turns out that Americans were really happy to flock to a website that had long-form sports and pop culture pieces every day. Strangely enough, Grantland also quickly became a home for hardcore-but-well-written sports analytics.

Simmons is smart and likes sports. He’s also friends with Houston Rockets GM and SSAC pioneer Daryl Morey, and learned to embrace the numbers revolution in a pretty special way (presumably being a Red Sox fan when Theo Epstein was around also helped).

In Bill Barnwell, plucked from the excellent Football Outsiders site, and Zach Lowe, a former writer about law and finance while also a contributor to a Celtics blog, then part of ESPN’s TrueHoop network (which I also enjoy), then to Sports Illustrated, and finally to GL, Grantland probably hosts the two most insightful written analysts in NFL and NBA a couple of times a week.

It’s also the place that launched Kirk Goldsberry – king of the “WOW, that is so cool” sports visualization – into mass media*.  Oh, and GL regularly features Brian Phillips, who quite is quite possibly the single best sportswriter on the planet, and one of the few writers who simultaneously make me feel joy at how incredible his work is, and crippling sadness that I will never, ever be anywhere close to matching him.

(*Note: Or at least I think it is. Goldsberry somehow doesn’t have a Wikipedia page and I haven’t actually lived in the US since 2007, so I’m not 100% sure on that one.)

Anyway, Grantland is a weird place even in U.S. media because it exists only online, caters to presumably a smaller demographic because of smarter writing, and it’s not ad or product placement heavy. It’s owned by ESPN (which is in turn owned by Disney) and they certainly leverage bits of it in their TV programming, but it’s like a daily, super-quality long-form magazine that exists without obvious revenue streams. And it’s been there since June 2011, so it’s not failing so far as I can tell.

Maybe you have to be crazy rich like ESPN/Disney to build something like this and not leverage it. I don’t know. All I know is as a fan of sports and good writing, I am very happy it exists.

Regarding Euro Media
So who is the Bill Simmons of Europe?

I don’t think there is one.

Gary Linker and Gary Neville, both former footballers in prominent television media roles, have around 2M and 1.6M twitter followers respectively compared to Simmons’ 2.3, so they are nearly as popular in that metric across what is probably a smaller English-language market in Europe.

But Simmons didn’t play sports professionally. He was a writer who turned into a star (and was so before he started appearing regularly on television as well).

With that in mind, compare Simmons’ follower count to popular journalists like Henry Winter (625K), Guillem Balague (500k), Sid Lowe (140K), Honigstein (108K), and Gab Marcotti (174K) and you see the “journalist personalities” on this side of the pond lag a bit, even when many are bi-lingual. On the other hand, those are still large numbers of followers, and by featuring them in your paper or on your website, you get bonus publicity that they bring with them.

One writer I find very interesting is Michael Cox (@zonal_marking). Here’s a guy that started doing his own thing by writing a tactics blog on his own site and exploded. He became mandatory reading among nearly all of my football friends. Cox now has 103K followers and does great work consistently, but his writing appears all over the place – ESPN, The Guardian, FourFourTwo, Betting Expert, etc.

This is weird for someone from the U.S. where audiences are used to finding major writers in the same place consistently. Being spread out seems to be a fairly common thing in Europe. Marcotti writes for the Wall Street Journal, The Times (both NewsCorp properties), ESPNFC, and appears on TV. Cox is all over the place. So is Balague. Rory Smith (normally of The Times) also has ESPN online crossover.

Is every writer on this continent a freelancer?

In the U.S. great writers are personalities that are valued by companies, and they seem much more likely to get locked down under a corporate umbrella and long-term contracts. For me, Europe is odd. I come from a culture where you find personality X in place Y, and you experience media in that fashion.

In Europe you have personality X wherever, with no real association to particular media platforms.

It’s not worse, but it is different, and I find myself wondering why.

What’s the point?
Without a Bill Simmons, who builds a European version of Grantland (presumably under a different name)?

Grantland Prime isn’t going to become a giant soccer site because they have more popular U.S. sports that need space and more critically, ESPN doesn’t own English Premier League rights (either in the US or in Europe). They do have regular pieces covering football though and what they have is good, but they are pretty much maxed out on football content.

On the other hand, I feel strongly that football could use a site that wants to be the European version of what Grantland is. A little like The Blizzard, except in daily form.

(Note: Grantland is named after Grantland Rice, but rumor has it that the name was actually chosen because it’s short, they could get the URL for a pittance, and it’s fairly easy to remember. Not unlike StatsBomb, really.)

The newspapers probably aren’t going to do this, either. They have enough money problems without launching new media properties that could fail.

That only leaves a few candidates.

1)      Sky
They have a worldwide audience and own Premier League rights across various domains including the largest package in England. They have nearly 2M twitter followers and NewsCorp itself owns a ton of newspapers, including The Times of London. On the other hand, they recently paywalled The Sun, and The Times has been paywalled forever, so you aren’t really looking at an ESPN-like free-to-read model here. (On the other hand, ESPN has had ESPN Insider since well before The Times hid behind a paywall. Insider was a service which you needed to pay for to get access to their best stats (including for fantasty leagues) and certain stats writers like John Hollinger (who now works for the front office of the Memphis Grizzlies).)

I read a lot of stuff, but the only person I read on the SkySports website is Adam Bate (@ghostgoal). Right now, Sky’s online presence aren’t really columnist/analyst focused, so it would be a departure for them to do something like this. It’s also rather strange that Gary Neville is probably their biggest analyst star, yet writes a weekly column for the Daily Mail, but I digress.

2)      BT
They are the new kids on the block in England, and they are backed by a ton of money from their communications business. They also recently gazumped Sky straight out of the Champions League market in the UK, meaning they have clearly signaled they will be around a good long while.

Their initial foray into broadcasting has been uneven. Michael Owen shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a microphone during a football match, and Tim Lovejoy was a joke from the moment they announced his name. On the other hand, Clare Balding is fantastic, Jake Humphrey is good, and the journalists they chose for the Sunday evening show are really good.

I went to their website, and they don’t seem to almost any writing there. This is even less of an online media presence than Sky (and the SkySports site gets a ton of hits, but seems to be just for news), but given their business move into broadband, you’d think that would be a major focus at some point.

In short, it would make a ton of sense for BT to create a high quality online media site for sport and then leverage that in their on-air broadcasts across all their platforms, especially for Football.

3)      The Guardian
Okay, I know above that I said that newspapers weren’t going to do this, but if there is one that might, it would be The Guardian. Why? Because they already have a number of the best football writers in their stable, they are known for producing quality, they are already more analytics friendly in other areas of the paper outside of the sports section. Honestly, they really need to start transitioning away from being a “newspaper” and more toward being a “media entity.” 

That said, the newspaper has been bleeding red ink for years and they seem to be struggling to find new revenue streams that work for them. Their owners seem to have deep pockets, but even that won’t last forever. It might, however, be worth it for them to spin off a pilot media program for sport and see how it fares?

Seeing as how BT needs an increased media presence online, and The Guardian already has a lot of the expertise and personalities, maybe they could team up for a joint venture. They have the expertise, they have a respected name, and they have the editors and some of the writers to make this interesting. I just don’t know if it falls under their umbrella as interesting and worthwhile.

With this company I am just throwing spitballs at the wall and seeing what sticks.

4)      NBC

This one isn’t Europe-focused, but there is a need here. NBC now owns all of the rights to the Premier League in the United States. Apparently, their marketing campaign has been quite successful, and viewership numbers across the package have been better than initially expected. NBC is massive in the US, but their sporting influence isn’t anywhere near what ESPN’s is, and again, they are another online media presence who are not leveraging their ownership of the rights with written work as well.

Americans are quite happy to look at sports from an analytical perspective, which means the type of detailed analysis and criticism happening on Grantland would likely have a natural audience. Additionally, it would provide material and talking points for their programming, and the programming also feeds the writing and analysis.

There is also good potential that if the writing is of good enough quality, they can access a worldwide audience fluent in English and desperate for more stuff about football. (I have been shocked how diverse my Twitter followers are.)

Why might it work?
Given how much NBC (or BT or Sky) spent on rights, you’d think they would be more interested in pursuing additional ways to maximize their IP ownership. People can’t watch football or generally television programs while at work. They can definitely read about sport though, and do so in droves.

Beyond maximizing rights ownership, there’s an underlying trend that I obviously find fascinating because I love sport and analytics.

The stats site WhoScored now has over 200K followers and god knows how much daily traffic. Squawka has 260K. I followed WS a year ago when they maybe had 50K, so the growth in the last year is impressive. For reference, the main SkySports account has 1.9M followers, while Guardian Sport has 388K and BTSport has all of 138K.

Being perfectly honest, the writing on those sites isn’t a patch on what gets produced by the best journalists at The Guardian and The Times, but they put stuff out daily, add some attractive infographics, and damn if they aren’t popular.

Meanwhile, none of the major media writing sites backs their output with a stats platform. And yet here are these relative startups with only stats platforms and middling writing (doing it on the seriously cheap) building followings nearly as large as major media just two years in. There’s an audience out there that wants this stuff, and they are pretty fanatical about finding and following it.

Back to the U.S. comparison, ESPN offers stats on their primary website, and all the analysis on Grantland is backed by ESPN Stats and Info, who have a ton of subscriptions to sports data providers across the world. Some people come to sites like ESPN purely for the stats. Others use it as a constant point of reference, much like you would Wikipedia.

The NBA has actually transitioned their own website into a stats and data provider to generate traffic and interest for the sport as a whole, and to allow them to sell their online media subscriptions to the product. Pretty damned clever.

In other news, I don’t think I’ve visited the Premier League website since 2005.

One more thing while we’re here. Many of the people who like sports and stats are analytical (and male). They probably spend money on TV subscriptions to premium sport packages. They also are more likely to be computer programmers, or analysts, or work in finance than a more general populace. I’m not a market analyst, but given data I have seen elsewhere, these people probably make decent money.

Will it happen?
Who knows?

From my perspective, the argument summarizes like this:

  • There’s an audience waiting for interesting long-form sports material just like Grantland has in the U.S. except with a focus on European football. There’s also an obvious market ready to read stats and analytical pieces on the sport, or WhoScored and Squawka would not have exploded like they have in the last two years.
  • There are a ton of good analytical writers out there doing work for free, because they think it is fun. They spend hours collecting data and writing about it for no other purpose than that they enjoy writing and arguing about it on the internet.
  • There are a ton of very good journalists freelancing across a number of sites because no one site has the budget to make them stay in one place, and also because Europe doesn’t seem very good at leveraging media personalities the way they are in the U.S. It doesn’t mean it can’t work here, but for some reason it’s not happening right now bar a chosen few.
  • Basically, there is talent out there that is probably willing to work for a lot cheaper than you might expect.
  • The media rights holders for the major football leagues generally don’t seem to be leveraging the full spectrum of viewer interest the way ESPN (“The Worldwide Leader in Sports”) does in the U.S. Launching an outline platform for good writing and analysis, detailed statistics, and interesting personalities provides an excellent symbiotic relationship for TV sport and lengthens the potential time media rights holders have access to their audiences.

And that’s it.

As a reader, I’d love to see it something like this develop soon.

As a content producer, I’m confused it doesn’t exist already. I’m also confused about a lot of other synergies that the major European media seem to be missing out on, but at this point has a pretty clear overlap with what the ESPN juggernaut has already done.

–@mixedknuts

Article by Ted Knutson