Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Huffington Post Sports: What Will It Be?

It has been talked about for a few months now, but the Wrap has confirmation that Huffington Post Sports will launch in October.

So what might it look like and what will its impact on online sports media be?

Let's start with this: It is a natural vertical for HuffPo to expand into. They have a large audience that has come to rely on them for news -- sports is an extension of that. And there is money to be made from that.

HuffPo's aggregation system works ideally with sports, where there are a lot of sources but few places that put them all together. They can filter everything from ESPN to Deadspin, local newspapers to blogs. There is value to being a one-stop, source-agnostic shop for the big sports stories.

And don't discount HuffPo's expertise in search-engine optimization: On any given sports-news story, that is one less spot on the first page of Google News that won't be available to someone else -- whether that is ESPN or a newspaper or SEO-savvy Bleacher Report.

Beyond aggregation, HuffPo's editorial model of using unpaid contributors who want to use the platform to promote their expertise should translate smoothly to sports, where there is no end of "opinion" experts, law experts, business experts, social-media experts, fantasy experts and others who will be thrilled to trade promotion and affiliation for their contributions. That will help to create a pretty compelling mix of posts -- they don't need 200 great contributors; they need 5-10 great participants and a bunch of other people who drive incremental audience and tons of renewable inventory.

(Memo to Arianna and CEO Eric Hippeau: Off the top of my head, I would try to recruit Dave Zirin, Gabe Feldman, Justin Wolfers, Peter Casey, Jeff Ma and a bunch of others -- compelling writers all, across a range of subjects -- who seem to fit the HuffPo model. And find the HuffPo Sports version of Lawrence O'Donnell, the Huffington Post "contributor" who spends a fair amount of his day as a talking head on MSNBC. Find folks who can do TV on the big, "national" sports stories that hit the cable-news radar.)

One other thing to leverage: HuffPo's new "HuffPo Social" relationship with Facebook. If they can translate that to sports content, they may create a new toehold with sports fans via Facebook. (Though you have to presume every other major sports site is planning something similar for launch sometime between now and the end of 2010.)

Where HuffPo gets it is that it was built from the ground up to fit the emerging cycles and systems and rhythms of the Web, whether they point that at politics or entertainment or tech or sports. In that way, it allows the site to play in a way that others won't, because they can't.

The major sports sites have admirably ramped their innovation, particularly in the last 12-18 months, with presumably much more on the horizon. But none are set up to digest sports like HuffPo can do it. (That's not to say there aren't lots of ways to serve fans.)

Will sports fans embrace it? Throw out a portion that won't use Huffington Post regardless of its content -- even if the brand was hidden and they found the interface valuable. Still: That leaves a lot of sports fans. Casual fans on HuffPo for other stories will be lured by HuffPo's take on the "big" sports stories that break into the mainstream conversation (see Google Trends).

Maybe the approach works best with slightly more than casual fans (ID them as "busy fans") who want a scan of the big stories throughout the day, agnostic about where those stories originate. (In addition to those fans going to or Yahoo blogs or their favorite team blog on SB Nation or checking their fantasy team.)

Avid fans are always happy to add another site to their mix -- if that site is adding value to their sports diet. By being source-agnostic, building on HuffPo's "big topic page" strategy and bringing in engaging voices as contributors, they might break into that diet.

Sports media may sometimes seem like an ESPN hegemony, but even ESPN editors will tell you that it is actually absurdly competitive. Not in the same way that cable news is competitive or political coverage is competitive, but especially online: In addition to the other major sites trying to compete with ESPN head-on, there are a lot of nimble, fiesty smaller players trying to fill niches, often trailed by fast-followers.

The key is to actively NOT try to be, NOT try to be Deadspin, NOT try to replicate Y! Sports Blogs and NOT try to be SB Nation. Let those sites win their categories -- partner with them (see's local partnership with... Huffington Post Local). There is a very compelling space in the middle of those cornerstone properties. Perhaps not for long, but for now -- and it's not like HuffPo would be starting from scratch.

Don't dismiss HuffPo as an online sports news competitor, just because that isn't what they have done before. If HuffPo has shown anything, it is that the company is VERY good at generating buzz and getting people to talk about (and visit) the site -- 7.8 million people last month prove it.

Think of it another way -- like PTI: Yes, one big secret to the show's success is the cult of personalities around Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon. But the other big secret is the innovative platform the show was built on.

Similarly, don't get bogged down on "What does Arianna Huffington know about sports?" The site has transcended her personal brand, in large part to a platform that seems instantly ready to be directd into becoming a powerful player in online sports media.

-- D.S.

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