Tuesday, December 22, 2009

TMZSports.com: Hot Story or Non-Story?

Kudos to Brooks for breaking the story that TMZSports.com may be launching in 2010.

Now, the bigger question: Is it a big deal? (Or, in TMZ terms, is there any fire behind the smoke?)

The answer is: It's interesting, but not nearly as big of a deal as the morning's breathless tweeting makes it out to be.

First, some context: It's not like "reporting what ESPN can't or won't" is a new strategy. It was a core foundation of Deadspin's success. What has changed since Deadspin launched is the number of outlets willing to run Deadspin-broken stories. It changed the competitive landscape. The old standard was: "Does this meet our standards" (whatever those standards might be -- journalistic... or more pragmatically business-oriented).

The new standard is "Are fans talking about it?" If that's the case, then you have to cover it, or you're not serving fans as comprehensively as they want to be served. Someone else will cover it. Someone else will get that audience. And while your core underlying popularity will not erode, you aren't helping yourself when it comes to mitigating the fragmentation of the consumer audience. (But I'm not naive: No number of page views is worth alienating Tiger if Tiger is core to your business. See the remarkable silence from the, um, journalists at Golf Digest.)

Next: Let's be very very clear. The Tiger Woods scandal is not a template for a business. It is the sports industry's "black swan" event -- there has never been anything like it, and -- given its unique conditions -- nothing like it will ever happen again. It was a traffic cash cow for TMZ. It was a traffic cash cow for lots of places. Again: It is neither a template for nor a harbinger of future coverage, let alone should be the basis for a full-time news site.

And if you don't have a new Tiger Woods-level scandal every week or every month, what kind of coverage are you offering?

TMZ.com already dabbles in sports -- most of their coverage seems to revolve around one or the other of the Kardashians, and their significant others, Reggie Bush and Lamar Odom. That is a tough nexus: For most sports fans, that level of celebrity is uninteresting. And for the non-sports fan (who drove the volume of Tiger coverage), Khloe Kardashian might be mildly interesting, but Lamar Odom is most definitely uninteresting.

So who is the target market? Avid fans don't really care about celebrity scandal; casual (or non-) fans don't really care about the athletes whose names would be involved. So where's the natural market? Sports-media sites and bloggers who are going to turn around with your "exclusive" and go trolling for a quick hit of page views?

I suppose there's always some interest in athletes dating (or simply schtupping) celebrities. But not THAT much interest. And certainly not among sports fans. (For more on this, check out Leitch's post at NY Mag about how the Tiger scandal won't change sports journalism.)

Here's a relevant recent example: The biggest mainstream celebrity name in the NBA was recently allegedly cuckolding another NBA superstar. Again: Allegedly, Shaq was having freaky relations with Gilbert Arenas's wife. On its face, this seems like a juicy piece of news. But this didn't hit the radar, not because outlets like Deadspin were unafraid to discuss it, but because avid NBA fans really didn't care and casual (or non-) fans don't really care about Shaq's sex life, and certainly don't care at all about Gilbert Arenas.

Meanwhile, what other "scandals" can they cover: PED cheating? Not only totally out of TMZ's comfort zone, but a topic fans have proven again and again not to care about. Think they'll be digging into Reggie Bush's financials to see if he got paid at USC? They're more likely to be hustling for pictures of Reggie out with Kim at the club last weekend. (Athlete sex tapes? OK: Maybe. But only for a brief flurry of attention. I suspect fans have no interest in seeing the starting QB on your fantasy team having sex. And those tapes are few and far between, not something you sustain a full-time site with.)

Beyond whether avid, casual or non- fans care about what TMZ Sports is going to offer, there is a serious question about the flow of scoops that would be necessary to sustain a site built on them. Deadspin does a better job than anyone at wrangling tips -- of really good stuff -- and it's still just a small part of the site's day-to-day coverage. (Their best original reporting has not been gossipy, by the way, but illuminating original in-depth research and explanation by Daulerio and Tommy Craggs.)

So does TMZ Sports make ESPN's job harder? Not really. If ESPN could largely sit out the Tiger Woods frenzy -- for whatever reason -- and not see even a minimum of erosion from its online audience or its brand, any OTHER athlete news or gossip -- at least negative news or gossip -- is a non-factor.

Does TMZ make other sports sites' jobs harder? Actually, it makes it easier. As quickly as TMZ can break an exclusive, the other sites can have them posted on their own sites -- happy to credit TMZ, but understanding that their own fans are served just fine by the commoditized scoop. (For examples, see every step of the Tiger scandal.)

Does TMZ make Deadspin's job harder? Yes (nominally) and no. To the extent that Gawker Media is putting an emphasis on original reporting, that's a strong new competitor for what -- in the larger scheme of things -- are limited offerings. On the other hand, as quickly as TMZ breaks something, Deadspin can be all over the second-step angle. Let TMZ make the market, then Deadspin can hustle for those critical new details that the audience is looking for. You saw this throughout the Tiger Woods scandal. I zipped by TMZ to see if anything new was broken, but I went to Deadspin more frequently for comprehensive coverage and new angles I knew TMZ wouldn't have, because TMZ doesn't understand the sports fan audience like Deadspin understands the sports fan audience. (Now, if TMZ Sports wanted to pony up the quarter-million dollars -- plus bonuses -- it should to bring over an editor like Daulerio? Might be a different story.)

So I guess to sum up, archetypally, TMZ Sports' "extreme" gossip is the latest on Khloe and Lamar or cornering the market on athlete divorce lawyers spinning their clients' stories; Deadspin's "extreme" gossip is coverage of sexual affairs in the sports media industry and Daulerio going on a date with a divorced Linda Cohn.

Last point: What about the money? Because if Tiger coverage showed us anything, it's all about the business imperatives.

Is there even a business to TMZ-style sports gossip? Sports isn't your typical Hollywood entertainment. To one of Brooks' points, there is a monopoly at the top. There are a limited number of extremely powerful players. And, mostly, fans don't really care in the same way that entertainment fans care about their celebrities.

So who is the audience? If it's avid sports fans, they're disinterested and not coming (and traditional sports advertisers trying to reach those avid fans won't give you their dollars anyway). If it's casual fans, the names involved aren't appealing enough to visit the site (and non-sports advertisers that might want to reach casual or non-sports fans don't care about spending on sports-related sites... not when they can spend on TMZ or US Weekly or People, all of whom can very easily cherry-pick relatively the rare juicy crossover sports-related coverage.)

In short: Is TMZSports.com solving a problem no one needs or wants or cares to be solved?

There's no question: Deadspin has proven that there is a market for provocative sports reporting. But Deadspin has a very finely honed sense of what works -- and, for all the clout, it's not a huge audience or a particularly big business. By driving what other sports media folks -- sports radio, bloggers, even ESPN from time to time -- talk about, it has massive influence. But it's sports fans talking to sports fans. I'm not sure how TMZSports.com fits into that.

Finally, let's all stipulate to something: No wailing, navel-gazing discussion of "But is it good/bad for sports journalism?!" The market conditions are the market conditions, and judgments about whether a new entrant is "good" or "bad" for the industry is pretty useless. (See all the hand-wringing about the Tiger coverage.)

The more important questions are, internally at sports-media companies, "How does this affect my business?" and, externally for fans, "How does this coverage resonate with me?"

I suspect that when TMZ finally digs into the business, they will realize that they are better off trying to make sports a compelling sliver of their core TMZ.com product, rather than trying to build an entire business around it.

Otherwise, they might as well go the route of the New York Post and simply create a spin-off site dedicated to covering all things Tiger scandal.

-- D.S.

UPDATE: Daulerio has a very good post about all this stuff.

1 comment:

Robyn said...

Good stuff, Dan!