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It’s All Fun and Games (‘Till Somebody Brings Up the Money…)

This year will bring about a shift in the coverage of America’s Pastime.

John Collins

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Roster Change in Media Coverage of MLB

Pitchers, catchers, and players reporting to camp in the “best shape of their lives,” aren’t the only things fresh and new as we head into Major League Baseball this Spring. Of course, rosters change, there may be updates to “pace of play,” and there’s that whole free agency squabble…but that’s not what we’re talking about here. This change is a potentially tectonic shift in the coverage and conversation of the action on the field.  

Mike Behind the Mic (Image via Newsday.com)

Signaling this sea-change is longtime sports-talk host Mike Francesa stepping away from the mic, making it the first time in over 30 years that the gruff personality won’t be a key pillar leading the baseball conversation. Francesa became a fixture on WFAN in 1989, teaming up with Chris “Mad Dog” Russo to create one of the most successful drive-time talk shows of all time. The show became an authoritative voice in one of the largest markets (New York City) with avid sports fans that had a ripple effect and went a long way in shaping the larger national conversation- especially baseball.

Perhaps because of the local Yankees, Mets, and proximity to the Boston Red Sox (or maybe just because he was very, very loud…) Francesa grew to become a larger-than-life sports media personality with a particular “expertise” in all things MLB. Credited with legitimizing talk radio, Francesa won multiple Marconi Awards for his broadcast on the radio, and was simulcast across the country. Nicknamed the “Sports Pope,” his opinions about the baseball season frequently became gospel. Love him or hate him, Francesa’s thoughts and personality became one of the biggest in the game. Now that’s gone, leaving a void for other voices to emerge as the major “thought leaders” generating much of the baseball conversation.  

This is all part of a much larger trend, with many of the major sports media outlets paring back their coverage of America’s Past-time. Longtime staple Fox Sports has shuttered the baseball writing on their website, ESPN has removed many of the biggest names in their baseball department, and Sports Illustrated is pivoting to shorter-form video focused more on entertainment than the game.

New Guy on the Field! (Image via theathletic.com)

That’s created quite an opportunity for new sports-media venture The Athletic to become the authoritative source of MLB coverage and fan conversation. The subscription-based website recently announced that they’re drastically expanding their baseball coverage, assembling an all-star roster bringing together some of the most respected MLB reporters in the industry. Led by Fox Sports main writer, Ken Rosenthal, the site has also added Jayson Stark, formerly of ESPN, and the legendary Peter Gammons to the team, established their own analytics department headed up by Enos Sarris from Fangraphs, and recruited Emma Span from Sports Illustrated to become a veritable powerhouse of baseball writing that will be incredibly interesting to see.

By bringing together so many of the biggest voices from disparate sports media outlets, all with different editorial missions and a particular emphasis, or “flavor,” to their reporting, The Athletic has created a journalistic jambalaya of national baseball coverage positioned to dominate coverage of the game from every angle (traditional stats, stars & stories, advanced sabermetrics, etc.).

Beyond that, the site has established coverage at the local level for 20 of the 30 MLB franchises by bringing on well-established “beat reporters” from those markets with individualized team expertise. That’s positioned The Athletic to merge local and national coverage at an unprecedented level. As Enos Sarris said when reflecting on his decision to join the site, there’s “a real chance for synthesis and original thought, born of a structure unique to this venture;” creating an all-new player in the sports media focused on generating high-quality baseball content.

As traditional outlets and personalities fade to the background, The Athletic could emerge as one-stop shopping for fans of all stripes and colors interested in an analysis of the sport on every level, from every perspective. It’s still only Spring Training, but if all goes as planned, The Athletic may have just established themselves as the “Yankees” of baseball coverage, becoming THE authoritative source of all things MLB.

*Pop Quiz; Holiday Trivia: Who was the first President to throw out the ceremonial “first pitch” on Opening Day?

**Bonus Points: Which former President was once part-owner of an MLB franchise? What was the team?

A Communication major from the University of Southern California, with eclectic experience in the sports, business, and the entertainment industry, John Collins is the baseball writer at Front Office Sports. An avid sports fan and highly opinionated writer, John is of the firm belief that Bull Durham is far superior to Field of Dreams and looks forward to you telling him otherwise. Reach out: John@frntofficesport.com any time!

Digital Media

NASCAR’s Rebranded Content Production Team Working Wonders

Seven months ago, NASCAR’s executives merged the creative, design, editorial, social media and NASCAR Productions crew into one team, with one goal in mind.

Kraig Doremus

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Restructuring NASCAR’s content production has made huge dividends for the sport thus far thanks to influencers like GoldYeller and The Flippist. Image courtesy of NASCAR.

Seven months ago, NASCAR’s executives merged the creative, design, editorial, social media and NASCAR Productions crew into one team with one goal. The goal? Figure out ways to best share resources and content with fans.

“We brought together 65 people,” said Evan Parker, vice president for content strategy. “We have a strong team of creators, all with different talents like graphics, scripts, longform writing and social media videos. There’s less debating on what to create and more creating happening.”

The move has already begun to pay dividends with the February debut of Unrivaled: Earnhardt vs. Gordon on FS1. The documentary, which covered the rivalry between Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Jeff Gordon, was released on February 14, the Thursday before the Daytona 500. It made for a natural timing opportunity, given the two drivers’ many battles at the track.

READ MORE: A Look at the New Foundation of Richmond Raceway’s Ticket Sales

But it also made for a huge early test for the redesigned team, which they passed with flying colors. According to Parker, the documentary drew the highest rating for a feature in FS1’s history. Collaboration was a major reason why. NASCAR’s design team handled all graphics and clips, while out-of-network personalities ranging from Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to ESPN’s Ryan McGee and Marty Smith. Then there was in-house, Emmy-award-winning NASCAR Productions team, who provide the flexibility to shoot top-quality work at the drop of a hat

“We can simply fire up a camera and go,” said Parker. “We have camera operators, editors and writers ready to work. The hardest part of determining what to create is finding a balance between what we have to do and taking a creative risk.”

Now, with the team newly unified, the NASCAR crew has shifted their focus to engaging current fans while seeking out new ones.

“We want to reach fans who have attitudes and interest on the upswing about NASCAR,” said Pete Jung, vice president of brand marketing for NASCAR. “With new fans, especially young adults and Hispanics on the rise, we understand that they are an important part of our future. We want to be younger and more diverse.”

One way to reach those new fans is through a social media strategy that leans on connection far more than volume.

“Our social media focus is on engagement,” Parker said. “We’re not as worried about impressions this year but rather getting our fans to engage with the content. We’re creating content that is shareable and that fans want to have a dialogue about.”

The dialogue is important for the NASCAR social team and has been enhanced through influencers like GoldYeller and the Flippist. GoldYeller created five stop-motion Lego videos leading up to the Daytona 500, including one about Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s iconic 1998 victory, which came in his 20th attempt and was his lone triumph in the Great American Race.

The Flippist, meanwhile, created a custom, animated flipbook that also featured Earnhardt’s 1998 win, along with Austin Dillion’s 2018 triumph.

READ MORE: How Two Top Brands Market Products Via Partnership With NASCAR

“Not only are we seeing great social media engagement, but we’ve seen lots of growth in our priority markets,” said Jung. “We want to extend our reach to our target audience.”

As for the future, while coy on the details, Parker couldn’t hold back his excitement.

“We’ve got a binder full of documentaries and other unique projects,” he said. “We’ve got a goal to engage and find new fans and just a few weeks into the season, it has paid dividends as we’re creating content that gets people talking. Having a unified team has truly paid dividends.”

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Here to Stay: Generation Z’s Impact On Sports Content Strategy

Shorter attention spans, wider viewing ranges and a penchant for influencers. Here’s how the next generation consumes sports.

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Photo Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Generation Z is already impacting modern culture and that’s unlikely to change.

The generation, born after 1997, will make up 40 percent of consumers by 2020 and already has a direct spending impact of $143 billion dollars. A recent panel at South by Southwest discussed strategies to capture their attention, as well as how Gen Z will radically shift the way content is distributed. 

“They’re going to be huge,” said Kathleen Grace, CEO of the production studio New Form. “They’re coming for us, and it’s pretty cool. They consume differently than any other generation.”

READ MORE: Bleacher Report Is Focused on the Second Generation of Social Media

The under-22 demographic consumes more than 3.5 hours of video daily, a majority of which is on mobile devices, according to Dude Perfect Chief Business Officer Jeff Toney. Much of the video is consumed in short snippets and by brand influencers connecting with the audience, a strategy that cultivates a special trust as well as offering plenty of engagement for those content creators nimble enough to stay ahead of the curve.

“You can’t become predictable,” Toney said. “One unfortunate thing is the generation is a little ADD, ‘Entertain me now if, I don’t like it, I have 1,000 other options to be distracted with.’ … The challenge is between continuing something that is popular and doubling down on what works, but, in parallel, introducing fresh, new concepts to continue to engage the audience.”

The impact on sports is yet to be fully felt, but it’s coming, said John West, founder of Whistle, a sports and entertainment media brand.

“The young generation is redefining sports; less watching on TV, less attending live traditional sports,” West said. “They’re still followers, but on social and they’re able to follow niche, non-traditional sports.”

That surge in non-traditional sports activity is driven by direct involvement  The proliferation of digital media allows participatory sports to reach more people looking to try and improve instead of passively watching elite athletes. Activities such as CrossFit and rock climbing benefit from improved exposure, which in turn can help spur participation numbers. But West, who has three children in Generation Z, said he often sees them outside recreating videos they see on platforms like Dude Perfect, from there they film it, edit it and add music before sharing and challenging their peers.

“To us, sports has been defined by leagues,” Toney said. “Traditionally, it’s only a select few who can compete on the professional level. But people who don’t have those inherent genes are competitive and like to compete with friends.”

Advertising consumption habits are beginning to change with those content shifts.

A Nielsen study found the demographic has an 86 percent recall rate of products, suggesting massive potential for stickiness. But according to West, Generation Z is also more likely to find content when it’s shared by a friend and allows them to engage directly. It’s incumbent platforms to provide the influencers and creators to establish genuine and authentic relationships with their key audience, which Generation Z users feel they can trust more.

“This generation views social influences and creators as their new celebrities,” West said. “There’s a relationship that can be developed that is tough to develop with LeBron James and Tom Brady.”

To that end, Toney said it’s important for creators to give users a view behind the curtain to get to know them better. For sports teams, in particular, that means showcasing its athletes away from competition. By and large, Generation Z cares far more about the name on the back of the jersey than the front. “When I was growing up, I’d follow the Detroit Tigers, doesn’t matter who’s on the team,” Toney said. “Nowadays, you’re not following a sport, you’re following a player because they fall in love with the personalities.”

READ MORE: How 3 Prospects Grew Their Personal Brands off the Field Before the NFL Combine

West said that despite how much older generations want to believe the social influence won’t stick, he doesn’t expect this media model to go anywhere.

“It’s amazing to me in traditional media and sports, they’re still skeptical the influencer is a fad,” he said. “We don’t see any data that when a 24-year-old turns 25, they un-wire. The habits they’re forming now are generational shifts that grow up with them.

“Embracing the power of social entertainers and the brands they’ve built organically is step one.”

It’s up to sports media to adapt accordingly.

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Big Ten Network Elevating Digital Game During Conference Tournament

The Big Ten Network will leverage its contributor network to increase social content during this weekend’s Big Ten Tournament in Chicago.

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Photo Credit: Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament starts Wednesday in Chicago and digital will be the name of the game. It’s the second year BTN has exclusive rights to the first 10 games of the tournament, and Jordan Maleh, BTN senior director of digital marketing and communications, wants to make sure the network is optimizing its reach, not only for those with access to the Big Ten Network but non-viewers, too.

“Live events are our core business and we’re thinking year-over-year, how do we adapt to digital?” Maleh said. “In terms of elevating and impact, the plate has become a little more full. So from our end, it’s knowing how we complement the events and games and understand how to maximize our rights.”

BTN has long featured school-specific social handles to push school-specific content and while those follower counts are lower than the mother ship BTN accounts, the engagement is increased because of how rapid school fan bases can be, Maleh said.

That’s especially true when the social content leverages the tournament broadcast rights.

READ MORE: Pac-12 Network Grows Viewership Thanks to Cross-Platform Integration

BTN uses third-party editing company WSC to cut and post highlights across social media. Those highlights are sponsored by State Farm, while Gatorade-sponsored vignettes of iconic Big Ten Tournament moments will be pushed across the channels. All the while, on-air talent from BTN will be synced with the Opendorse platform and push video from their personal handles.

But the most ambitious part of the digital strategy revolves around BTN’s multiplatform video/producer, or MVPE program, which will feature seven videographers creating custom content for each of the 14 school-specific accounts.

“From our end, a unique angle different from other networks is the content we break down to school-specific,” he said. “That’s where you get every highlight and every piece of content for that school. That’s where you see Tom Izzo and Cassius Winston walking into United Center or celebrate if they cut down the net.”

MVPE began last year with three pilot schools — Michigan State University, Penn State University and University of Minnesota — to best maximize the network’s rights and provide more comprehensive digital content. The MVPE program was partly modeled after the NFL’s Live Content Correspondents program but adjusted for BTN’s school campus model. The network embeds the freelancer with the athletic department and provides equipment, ranging from laptops and cameras to GoPros to capture exclusive content.

“From our end, we never had a presence onsite,” Maleh said. “We want to make mobile-first content as fast and the most efficient we can. This is day of, hour of and minutes after.”

It’s worked, in a big way: This year, the program expanded to include seven total schools to prove its sustainability and profitability, with the intent to eventually cover all 14 schools. According to Maleh, MVPE coverage included approximately 55 percent football and men’s basketball and 45 percent Olympic sports.

“That’s a huge value add for the schools,” he said. “A lot of departments might not have the bandwidth to cover, so that’s where we come into play.”

The Big Ten Tournament will be a departure for the program as the seven correspondents are all in Chicago producing for each Big Ten school which will expand the depth of digital coverage of the tournament, Maleh said.

The Big Ten Tournament MVPE content will be presented by Yahoo! Sports, and Maleh is excited about the program’s future. The first year, it generated 4 million video views. This year, that number soared to 26 million. The 2,987 social posts across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter generated more than 97 million impressions. Between impressions and views, sponsorship buy-in can ultimately help the model remain sustainable, Maleh said.

“We want to be a scalable content consumption model,” he said. “There is growth, extreme growth, and with our future goal of all 14 schools, that’s scalable and that’s an interest for us.”

READ MORE: How the NFL LCC Program Brings Fans ‘As Close As They Can Get’

Maleh hopes the program is something other conference networks might model initiatives on, continuing the network’s innovation pattern. It would only be natural, given the Big Ten Network’s legacy as a pioneering brand on television.

“We take pride in being the first collegiate conference network,” he said.  “As a benchmark, we do compare against the landscape of other conference networks, but from an innovation standpoint, we like to be the first network to do X.

“We like to be first in the space. We have been and hope to continue to be.”

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