Monday, June 07, 2010

SB Nation Goes Big With Local

Long before the ESPN Local initiative, SB Nation was the most well-positioned company in sports media to serve the "local" market. After all, SB Nation was already intensely -- if not directly -- local: A network of team-focused blogs, it was fair to presume a lot of traffic came from the team's home market.

And so it made -- and makes -- perfect sense for SB Nation to pull together all the team blogs in one city and create hub sites that service fans who want to read all about the teams in one city. They launched a bunch today and plan to create 20 city hubs in the next 20 days.

Brief aside: We are around 15 years into the idea that, for sports fans, geography stopped mattering as much as it used to -- that changed as soon as you could get online and follow your team from anywhere. My first company, later acquired by AOL, was launched specifically to service the untapped "displaced fan."

Now, your physical geography as a fan feels entirely irrelevant -- with the exception of actually attending games, you can be a St. Louis Cardinals fan in Brooklyn just as easily as you can be one in St. Louis.

That said, a plurality of a team's fans will naturally still reside locally. And a fair number of fans in a city who like multiple sports teams will probably like all the teams in that city. Thus, the ESPN Local strategy -- and SB Nation's new product.

SB Nation already has solid (many spectacular), leading blogs in each market -- the content was already there, as was the core audience, as was the publishing platform. This just bundles them together, creating a portal for, say, the DC fan to get the latest on all the city's teams in one place.

(As a differentiation from ESPN Local's strategy, I also like SB Nation going into 20 markets in 20 days -- SBN doesn't have the same logistical hurdles as ESPN; SBN better take advantage of that nimbleness to get into markets that ESPN isn't in yet... but will likely get into eventually.)

Beyond serving fans in new ways, the gist of any local strategy is to unlock the huge potential of the local ad market -- there are advertisers out there who want to reach people in specific cities, and platforms like SB Nation and ESPN Local are new ways to do that.

SB Nation uses the phrase "ground-up," which I like better than "grass-roots" as an alternative to "top-down" to describe their content. Ultimately, SB Nation has powerful potential for consumers and marketers because SBN clearly signals the user's interest, the ideal in any relationship where you are trying to serve consumers, including matching them to relevant advertisers.

(Is it the same declaration of intent as doing a Foursquare check-in at a bar to indicate that you want to get a drink or a Hunch query to indicate that you are in the market for a point-and-shoot camera? No, but if I visit BulletsForever I am clearly indicating that I care about the Wizards.)

The other thing you'll notice in the coverage of the local launch is the focus from Bankoff and Blez on SBN's fan-centric tone and voice. While retaining the credibility of expert analysis, SBN stakes out differentiation from traditional journalism in each local market.

Here is why that is important: It is complementary. It is something that local newspapers and local cable-sports networks can't or won't do well -- that creates the opportunity for a partnership that helps both the local media (likely already nervous about an ESPN Local entry) and SB Nation.

When you think about what is next for SB Nation, this new local strategy feels like a core proposition.

Having the individual blogs is great -- if I'm a Florida fan and a Wizards fan and a Broncos fan, I can get all those things from SB Nation blogs.

But my type of fandom -- while entirely enabled by the media and technology landscape -- is still not the predominant organizing principle within media, which would be based on local interest; if you're building a platform that has to make a bet on fan interest, a plurality will like the Wizards and Redskins and Caps and Nationals as a local combination.

And so SB Nation needed to shift its taxonomy from individual team blogs to more formal local collections not just because it is a solid advertising opportunity, but because that is still the metaphor of larger companies that would be interested in partnering with or acquiring SB Nation.

SB Nation fits exceedingly well as a piece of a larger media company's sports strategy -- that could be AOL/Fanhouse (Jim Bankoff used to be an exec at AOL); that could be Yahoo (SBN's lead editor's sibling happens to be the content impresario at Yahoo); that could be a newspaper company (SBN is based in DC, handy for discussions with a company like Gannett that needs a boost of content and community locally).

Of course, the best fit is Comcast.

*The cable giant has existing local sports presences hubbed around TV networks -- their online strategies are still a work-in-progress that would benefit from SB Nation's reach and depth.

*Comcast has aspirations of becoming the dominant national sports-media rival to ESPN; SB Nation gives them an instant online foothold locally, a prerequisite for any would-be juggernaut.

*Comcast obviously has more than enough cash to do a deal, and the upcoming incorporation of NBC's assets is the right time to fold in other acquisitions. (It complements NBC Sports's recent push into Yahoo-style "national" blogs focused on each sport.)

*Oh, and let's not forget: Comcast's internal VC unit happens to have an investment in SB Nation; they have already signaled their faith in SBN's potential.

It feels like the right move for both, particularly given that the acquisition market for content companies is beginning to heat up. Put it this way: I don't think SB Nation is an independent company in 2011.

For now and on its face, SB Nation is re-organizing (or "co-organizing") its content around local markets, rather than (or in addition to) individual teams. (Obviously, high-quality individual team sites -- however or wherever they are accessed -- remain the heart of the company.)

The move isn't just about serving fans now, but also about positioning the company for the future.

-- D.S.

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