The sports media world took a major hit yesterday with the news that Sports on Earth, the “highbrow” USA Today and MLB Advanced Media-backed sports blog, is undergoing a major staff reduction (read: a lot of people got fired) after USA Today’s parent company Gannett decided to split its print and digital businesses.
As most people who read sports articles on the Internet will tell you, Sports on Earth wasn’t the site for hot takes for the sake of hot takes. It wasn’t about publishing pictures of athlete dicks, or athlete boobs, or athlete pursed lips. It wasn’t like most sports blogs out there — it was a bastion of smart, well-thought out analysis and profiles. That probably played a role in its downfall.
I don’t know the inner workings of Sports on Earth. I don’t know what politics might be going on behind-the-scenes at USA Today. Maybe this was a long time coming for SoE. Maybe it had nothing to do with content and more to do with, I don’t know, cost-cutting, or someone at the company having a bad hair day and taking it out on its most talented and thoughtful publishing arm.
But here’s what I know about sports media, via our little window at SportsGrid: Where were the tits? Where were the asses? Where was the scandal? Because our biggest hits are invariably posts that involve at least one, and hopefully all three, of those themes.
Here’s an example: Ever since it broke yesterday, our post featuring photos of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones posing suggestively with young, non-his-wife ladies has been the top trending story on the site. The only things that have come close to rivaling it are the articles on David Wilson’s sad press conference and HBO’s decision to put “Hard Knocks” on its streaming online service. Otherwise, it’s all Jerry — the article got the biggest “reach” on our Facebook page, and the most shares on Twitter, by far, of any story posted over the past two days.
Here’s another example: We have a policy here at the site when traffic is slow. It’s called “See what Paulina Gretzky is up to.” This is a practice that the site has had for years, since well before I arrived as the Weekend Editor in 2012. Go to Paulina’s Instagram page, grab some photos, make a slideshow. And you know what? It works every time. A massive success. Because when given the choice to read an honest assessment of whether ESPN and The New York Times are propping up irresponsible betting practices or looking at a famous hockey player’s daughter’s boobs, the latter wins.
Of course, in the slow sports-news months of July and August, articles like this are some of the only things that pass for news. There isn’t much of a chance for anything else to make noise. But these types of stories are ALWAYS our biggest hits, even in heavy-news times. And we’re hardly the only outlet to recognize this — that’s why Sports Illustrated’s most popular issue of the year is the Swimsuit Edition. It’s why Golf Digest put, yes, Paulina Gretzky on their cover a few months back. Visit Busted Coverage, The Big Lead and nearly every other major sports news blog to see similar examples of this. Sex sells. It’s a tried-and-true method of bringing people to your site. That means you.
There is room on the Internet for smart, well-researched pieces. Grantland is a prime example of that. But it’s really, really tough to make it with that model (and to be honest, Grantland’s uniques aren’t that impressive on a raw-numbers scale — it’s the time spent on each page that advertisers pay for). It’s why newspapers left and right are either going under or being propped up by billionaire entrepreneurs with nothing better to do.
Again, I have no idea if a lack of near-visible nipples is what doomed Sports on Earth. And maybe I’m just admitting my own place in the Internet’s screwed up relationship with journalism — i.e., sacrificing smart takes for dumb sex, valuing hits over quality, reporting gossip and tabloid fodder instead of, you know things worth reporting. But the reality is that advertisers and sales run everything on the Internet, and not satisfying them has been the downfall of many an online venture.
I lament the strangling of another great outlet in service of the almighty dollar, and wish the current iteration of SoE (and its former writers) all the success in the world. But I’m not surprised this happened.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to find a way to squeeze “Tim Tebow” and “Justin Bieber” into the SEO headline of this article.
For the record, I didn’t reach out to Will Leitch or anyone at SoE for this because it’s still a pretty sensitive time, and even if the answer to the question of “Why?” was “Yeah, lack of boobs,” I doubt anyone would say so.
UPDATE, 8/7/2014: I’m getting a lot of feedback on this, both good and bad, but figured I’d clarify that this is not meant as “advice” for SoE writers, nor is it meant to bash what they were doing. They did great work, as I said up top, and hope there are more sites/entrepreneurs/writers out there willing to take a chance on good writing in the future. Lots of outlets — from Deadspin to SI to tiny personal blogs — make their numbers on scandalous articles. It’s not admirable, but it’s the truth.
Like lots of those sites, we try to balance the “click bait” with things worth reading, such as Rick Chandler’s excellent piece on Matt Barnes’ basketball (and video game) camp. Hopefully, this article helps posts like that get noticed.
In other news, hey, we have a post that blows the Jerry Jones story away, finally! Thanks for reading and making that happen.
Photo via screencap of Sports on Earth