It didn’t start with Bill Simmons, but he created a blueprint for how to create an affinity site that resonates with sports fans. Grantland wasn’t the first of its kind, but since Grantland we have seen the rise of more specialty sites led by well known media personalities such as MMQB — the Peter King led site focused on football — and now the Vertical — a site led by basketball insider Adrian Wojnarowski — is set to launch focusing on professional basketball. Those aren’t the only examples of focused sites and media offerings — specifically podcasts and digital video — that are out there as Clay Travis, Katie Nolan, Barstool Sports, and For the Win have catered to specific market segments to get clicks and fan engagement. The prevailing wisdom has always been that the company is greater than any media personality — a major ESPN tenet — but as fans become more nuanced and tastes become more fragmented that could change.
There are a few reasons for this, but the major tipping point could have been when these personalities could directly interact with the fans. Social and digital media have allowed so many different touch-points that people often identify with the person rather than the company. Bill Simmons has created such a strong cult of personality that his followers made his podcast one of the most successful in the U.S. after the Bill Simmons podcast and Channel 33 launched only a few months ago.
Fans of Peter King and interesting styles of football coverage may rather go direct to MMQB than SI.com because they know exactly the type and tone of the content they will consume. Millennials and college students flock to Barstool because it specializes in a specific type of commentary and humor. These sites are becoming more successful because people care about who is there and type of content they provide.
The same could be said for personalities at larger, more established media companies. FOX and FS1 have noticed the pull of large names which is why they made their run at Colin Cowherd. They also recognize that they must cater to all types of viewers. Fox gave Clay Travis the creative freedom to step into some non-PC topics. Katie Nolan’s show Garbage Time has garnered a following through its entertaining podcasts and digital video offerings despite its late-night time-slot on cable. SI backed King’s MMQB project and made an attempt to land Wojnarowski so it understands the benefits of the specialized site movement. ESPN on the other hand has mostly stuck with the idea that the four letters on the company masthead are more important than who is delivering the message. Both strategies have benefits and drawbacks, but the change in how media is consumed may have given people like Bill Barnwell, Zach Lowe, and Scott Van Pelt more power than they had in the past.
The Vertical is just another example of this happening. Per reports, Wojnarowski was almost picked up by Sports Illustrated, but instead returned to Yahoo — and he stole SI’s Chris Mannix –for his affinity site launch. There is a lot of hype for the Vertical and the podcast has been extremely successful in terms of download numbers and high-profile guests. All of this seems to could indicate that the power of personality is becoming more important and could compete with the strength of the company brand. Media giants can try and battle this movement or embrace the change to realize the brand strength of personalities may be gaining momentum.
Michael Colangelo is Managing Editor of The Fields of Green and Assistant Director at the USC Sports Business Institute.