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Last week CBS hired former ESPN insider writer Bruce Feldman. Bruce is a really good guy, well respected by everyone, and he didn’t deserve the Mike Leach mess that fell down around him after 17 years at ESPN. In losing Feldman ESPN lost something much more important than a writer, it lost a great deal of legitimacy. Combining Feldman with the Longhorn Network fallout, it’s possible this is the worst four months in the history of ESPN’s college sports coverage.
Most fans are beginning to see that ESPN isn’t completely impartial in its coverage of sports and that when a decision has to be made between business and editorial, business is almost always going to win out.
It’s become increasingly clear that ESPN isn’t giving its college writers — and they still have some really good talent in Pat Forde and Mark Schlabach — the freedom to go after stories as aggressively as much of the talent would like. What’s more, the increasing network entanglements make it almost impossible for ESPN’s college coverage to appear free of bias. And it’s not just me noticing this, one of ESPN’s top competitors has decided to build its online writing stable around college sports.
Aside from Feldman pointing out what many of us knew already — that ESPN’s business model doesn’t really care that much about breaking real stories — CBS’s decision to poach away Feldman is an interesting move because it provides the latest indicia of what has become CBSSports.com’s new online strategy: own college sports.
It’s a calculated decision with the potential for enormous payoff for CBS. Rightly noting that ESPN.com, NBCSports.com and FoxSports are obsessed with pro sports coverage and its difficult to gain traction in those sports, CBSSports.com has carved out a nice niche for itself in the world of college sports. And it isn’t happening by accident.
Consider these six steps:
1. In the past six months CBS has hired Fox Sports’ Jeff Goodman for college basketball, FanHouse.com’s Brett McMurphy for college football, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Tony Barnhart full time, and now Bruce Feldman, formerly of ESPN.com.
Pair these writers with Dennis Dodd and Gary Parrish and you’re talking about a stable of the six best college sports writers in the country, four of whom weren’t full-time employees six months ago.
I’m not even considering the recent blog hires in this, but I’m sure that serves as a nice echo chamber impact. With Bryan Fischer actually bringing in original breaking stories from that angle too.
Roll it all together and you’ve got one hell of a team that has emerged in recent months. (Note: the hiring has not been accompanied by a substantial ramp up in other sports coverage which makes this appear to be even more of a strategic decision).
2. CBS only carries the SEC football games on its national network.
I know, I know, it carries Mountain West football on its cable network and a few other smaller conferences. But other than the SEC none of these conferences are powerful enough to either a. drive coverage or b. complain about the coverage so that independence is questioned.
This means CBS can avoid many of the pratfalls that all too often characterize ESPN’s college coverage. For instance, is it a coincidence that ESPN, the network with contracts with all six major conferences, has yet to break a substantial story in the conference realignment mess?
I’ll let you decide.
Meanwhile, CBS’s prominence in college sports dovetails nicely with the new CBSSports.com focus.
The SEC game of the week has become the crown jewel of all collegiate sports programming. (In the last two years the SEC’s game of the week has beaten ABC’s regional telecasts that are directed to specific parts of the country. That is, the ACC, Big East, Big 12, and Pac10. This is an amazing fact that isn’t garnering enough attention, the SEC game of the week has gone national and now beats balkanized regional action of the other conferences). Combine the SEC game of the week with March Madness — now shared with Turner Sports — and CBS has the two best properties in college sports.
So going after the college sports fan makes complete sense not just online but also with the network’s strategy.
3. Its online competitors are still overlooking college sports.
I hinted at this above, but can anyone tell me what Fox Sports’ strategy with covering college sports is? I have no idea. Neither do its editors.
NBCSports.com has Mike Florio for the NFL, but where is the original content in college sports? Can anyone remember ever visiting that site for something original? SI.com has the second best stable of college sports writers in the country — and recently added Paul Finebaum and Holly Anderson — but CBS Sports has passed them with the recent hiring spree.
Yahoo Sports offers the best online sports journalism, but its stable of college writers is actually pretty small. (Indeed all of Yahoo Sports is small, which is why its outsize impact, it is now the primary rival of ESPN, is so amazing).
You see what I’m getting at here? CBSSports.com has quietly seized the college sports writing landscape in the last six months.
4. The cost to own college sports online was minimal.
Here’s the most amazing part: From a business perspective, CBS’s decision to focus on college sports and hire the best stable of writers in the country didn’t even cost very much money.
What do I think it cost CBS to do this? Probably quite a bit less than a million dollars total for the four new hires. In fact, I bet all six are working for less than a million dollars. (Or putting that in context, CBS has put together the best stable of college writers in the country for less than 1/3rd what Rick Reilly makes in a year at ESPN.com).
5. Here’s an interesting question for you that I’m going to explore soon: if ESPN didn’t employ a single writer how much would that impact its bottom line?
We have no idea because ESPN doesn’t break down profit in that great of detail, but I’ve got a provocative idea for you — I bet ESPN would make more money without employing a single writer.
Here’s another question, how much would ESPN.com’s site traffic drop if all it did was regurgitate the AP stories and supplement it with the video from SportsCenter?
I bet it wouldn’t drop substantially. Not enough, anyway, to hurt the profitability of the site.
This gives you some sense of why ESPN.com isn’t defending its flanks very aggressively, from a purely business perspective being the best really doesn’t matter.
6. Now it’s time for the next step for CBS: integrate your writers into the network coverage.
Seth Davis may be great on CBS’s studio show for March Madness, but what sense does it make to have an SI employee breaking down games when Gary Parrish or Jeff Goodman could do just as good of a job?
Tony Barnhart is already worked into the CBS broadcast, but why aren’t Brett McMurphy and Dennis Dodd? Your college sports telecasts should, in effect, serve as a promotional tool for your online site. Give ESPN credit for shamelessly plugging the hell out of ESPN.com. Hell, ESPN is even running television commericals for Grantland now. Now CBSSports.com needs to make the nation aware of what those of us who make a living writing online have already seen — CBSSports.com wants to own college sports.
Here are prior OKTC stories on the online sports writing market: