Next week, ESPN.com is going to launch "Heat Index," a new section dedicated exclusively to the Miami Heat. Here is why this is really smart:
ESPN gets it that, in some compelling instances, topics trump traditional "league" coverage. In this case, the Heat will be the biggest ongoing story in the NBA this season -- and among the biggest stories in all of sports.
"Heat Index" is not unlike what I did in the summer of 2009, launching a site dedicated to full-time coverage of Tim Tebow.
My thesis was simple: In the same way that "hyper-local" had become an interesting (if not yet profitable) strategy for news-media companies, I argue that "hyper-topical" can be at least as powerful. Geography will always be a driver, but so is interest.
Indeed, heading into the fall of 2009, there was no bigger ongoing athlete story in sports than Tebow. And he did end up being a source of non-stop fascination for fans -- on a daily basis (up until a few weeks ago, really), there was never a lack for material.
TimTeblog.com did a fair amount of traffic, driven by a wide variety of sources: Direct access; links from the Tebow-centric ecosystem of newspaper sites and other blogs; and from search. (Among the distribution strategies I used to reach a bigger audience was to write a weekly column from the "Tebow beat" for Yahoo! Sports.)
"Heat Index" isn't like ESPN's recent forays into topic-driven coverage, things like the Tebow Tracker or LeBron Tracker -- both more aggregations of existing ESPN coverage, not creating content specifically and originally for the conceit itself, as the Heat Index will be.
In this way, think of "Heat Index" as "ESPNHeat.com" -- it is closer to their "ESPN Local" initiative (ESPNNewYork.com, ESPNChicago.com, ESPNDallas.com, ESPNLA.com) than it is to simple aggregators like "Hunt for October" or "Tebow Tracker."
ESPNMiami.com didn't necessarily make a whole lot of sense -- the Dolphins or Marlins or The U are of limited interest. But everyone has their eye on the Heat this year (and next... and the next). ESPN will likely be able to get 90 percent of the audience (and sponsorship) interest in a Miami-focused product by simply covering the Heat.
Here was a key takeaway from my TimTeblog experiment: The slicing of topics only goes so far, unless you are satisfied with extremely limited appeal (and I'm not saying that wouldn't work -- but the resource-intensiveness of doing it well severely limits your ROI).
Here are the criteria I would set out:
*Topic of "national" (or large regional) interest: It has to be something that a lot of people care about.
In the case of Tim Tebow, he was the most popular player in college football history, coming back as the defending national champ with a potential best-of-all-time storyline. Hundreds of thousands of fans -- maybe millions -- couldn't get enough.
It wouldn't work to have a blog dedicated to, say, first-year Alabama starting QB Greg McElroy. Simply not enough people care.
*It has to have staying power: You need something that will have drama for months, if not longer.
In the case of Tim Tebow, not only was the storyline going to run from July through the end of the college football season in January, but it was going to extend from January through April, as Tebow morphed into the most intriguing prospect of the 2010 NFL Draft.
As a counter-example, Titans assistant Chuck Cecil flipping off a ref is a great story for about 24 hours, but it doesn't last. And even something like the Carmelo trade rumors have a shelf life limited to a few weeks; it's simply not worth the resources to try to build a full-on brand.
*There has to be a steady flow of news: Original reporting is fine, but the best coverage is a mix of original content and putting together -- and reacting to -- the best of what else is being said out there, along with a mix of forms (video, podcasts) and interactivity (letting users help).
In the case of Tim Tebow, there was never a lack of storylines in any given week -- or even by the day. And there were at least a half-dozen stories written about Tebow every day, giving me more than enough material to react to. I averaged 3 posts per day from July '09 through April '10.
As you look at the landscape, again too many topics simply don't rise to the level of content flow. Consider the drop-off in Teblog coverage since the start of the season, when there is so much less going on with Tebow -- and so much less being written or said about him.
Here is an interesting thing: I covered Tebow more comprehensively and -- because of the level of my obsessiveness -- with more nuance than anyone else out there, and I did it from New York City, not Gainesville. And as a one-person shop, not a team. It speaks to the opportunity to do this kind of coverage leanly; obviously, ESPN has the kind of resources and distribution and sales team that would allow for hiring the country's top LeBron specialist -- Cleveland's Brian Windhorst -- and having multiple staffers keeping closer to a full-time dedication to the beat.
However, this "content flow" issue matters -- a lot. There might be an audience very interested in a blog exclusively about Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, but on the production side, it would pass out simply because there isn't enough content oxygen to feed the process on the kind of rhythm to make it a compelling site.
(Even something as huge as the LeBron free agency story -- while of interest for months or years ahead of last summer -- only had day-to-day content flow from June through July.)
Ultimately, this is why traditional topics work: A site dedicated to "movies" will never lack for material; however, it will never optimally satisfy consumers, because very few consumers care about ALL movie coverage -- they like a specific genre or star or "this week's release."
In the end, under these criteria, there are only a handful of sports topics that can command (or merit) the kind of dedicated attention that ESPN.com is throwing at the Heat, and -- not unintuitively -- it's not hard to figure out what qualifies: Tebow. Tiger. Anytime you have some kind of season-long uber-superlative in play. There are a few others. (I used to think Lance qualified, but there are simply too many stretches of too long duration where there is nothing to say; the same goes for our biggest Olympic stars or gender-bending novelties like Danica Patrick.)
But who is to say that these criteria can't be changed? One of the opportunities is figuring out what the concept of "topic" really means to consumers; what is evident is that a traditionally linear sport-by-sport or team-by-team interpretation is only part of it and that other interpretations not only exist, but can thrive. After all, if you had said to people back in the summer of 2009 that someone was going to start a blog entirely about day-to-day coverage of Tim Tebow, they would have laughed (and they did). But the proof is in the page views.
I remember back in 1997 as a young editor at ESPN.com suggesting that ESPN.com create a section entirely dedicated to covering Tiger Woods, full-time. (I still have the memo I wrote.) The idea was dismissed. I think it's fair to argue that, since then, more pages online have been consumed about Tiger than all other stories in golf combined.
More than a decade later, you can see ESPN shifting -- even partially -- towards a topic-driven model. Geography (or "local") is part of that. Elsewhere, SB Nation has built its business on an unmatched network of team-focused sites that certainly qualify as "topic-driven"; the topic is the team. (ESPN's True Hoop Network is a smaller version of that.)
And, obviously, this extends way beyond sports into every other category that is out there. If ESPN can do "Heat Index," why wouldn't AOL's TechCrunch do a full-time "Zuckerberg Index" or "Facebook Index" for the tech crowd out there obsessed with the Facebook founder and his company. Or Huffington Post launch "Majority Index," specifically covering news related to the twists in the 2010 election battle for the majority of seats in the US House and Senate.
And you can bet that entirely new innovations will quickly follow from other media companies. Like mine.
Follow me on Twitter via @danshanoff.