In 2007 ESPN hired away Rick Reilly from Sports Illustrated and gave him a five year $17 million contract, worth a reported $3.4 million a year. Reilly, then residing on the back page of SI’s magazine writing one 800 word piece a week for the piddling sum of $1 million a year, already had the cushiest job in sports media. He knocked out a really impressive column every other month or so, otherwise he just cashed checks. Then, in an amazing display of ineptitude and a colossal misunderstanding of modern media, SI and ESPN engaged in a bidding war for Reilly.
Now, first let me say that I don’t blame Rick Reilly at all for the money he received. In two decades when I’m old, washed up, and rarely have an original or interesting thought to opine, I hope two major media companies duel to hire me for $10 million a year — inflation, people — but the move demonstrated how out-of-touch modern media is with how the Internet works. ESPN “won” the bidding battle and plopped Reilly on the front page of ESPN.com where he now makes, by my calculations, in the neighborhood of $50,000 per column.
That’s $59.86 a word.
Charles Dickens just rolled over in his grave.
I have no idea what he’s doing at ESPN since I haven’t read him, neither have you, and neither has anyone else who is under the age of 50. But Reilly’s hiring by ESPN provides an instructive view inside the company and demonstrates how poorly ESPN still understands the Internet.
Last week I wrote a piece explaining how Yahoo Sports has become ESPN’s biggest rival in the world of sports. As part of that piece I discussed the different cultures of the two places and outlined the eight steps Yahoo had taken to become the prime challenger to ESPN.
Step six was Dave Morgan and Mark Pesavento hiring Jamie Mottram away from FanHouse and putting him in charge of Yahoo sports blogs. Mottram arrived at Yahoo in 2007, the same year that ESPN hired away Reilly from Sports Illustrated. Mottram’s arrival was a move that was completely under the radar unless you were young or a blogger. Almost immediately Mottram began hiring some of the most talented bloggers on the Interwebs to focus on sport specific beats. Hardly anyone noticed.
(Not that any of y’all care, but I’ve written posts once or twice for the Dr. Saturday college football blog run by Matt Hinton. I received nothing in exchange for said posts so while I may be opinionated about the intelligence of Yahoo’s moves, they haven’t bought me off in any way.)
Both of those moves, hiring Reilly and hiring Mottram, occurred in 2007 and I think offer compelling and illiuminating examples of the two companies Internet strategies. Namely, Yahoo knows how the Internet works and ESPN.com still doesn’t have a clue.
By putting Reilly on the front page of its site, ESPN.com can probably brag that two million people a month read Rick Reilly’s columns. Since there are no comments allowed that probably doesn’t equate to very many additional pageviews.
Nor do I believe that Reilly’s columns are bouncing all over the Internet on message boards, social media, and the like bringing in millions of people who otherwise might not be visiting ESPN.
So ESPN’s editors will pat themselves on the back and brag about what a brilliant addition Reilly was to their site. But my argument — and I’m completely correct in this — is that Reilly actually doesn’t provide any additional page views or readers for ESPN.
Not a single one.
In fact, you could have plugged in any number of other writers in Reilly’s spot on the front page of ESPN and the readership numbers would have been the same. Hell, you probably could have given Bill Simmons the front page location by himself, not paid him any more money, and increased readership numbers by a greater degree than by putting Reilly up online beside him.
(Right now I should probably mention that Reilly also does television work with ESPN. Something called “Homecoming with Rick Reilly” — which you, like the vast majority of American sports fans, haven’t watched — and an occasional thirty second comedy bit on golf. He also hosted SportsCenter the other day. So ESPN is definitely getting its money’s worth from him in television too.)
Again, I don’t begrudge Reilly his money — I’ll write one column a week for $3.4 million a year for anybody, even Kate Gosselin — but I think it’s interesting to compare the old school, print media hiring dynamics of ESPN with the new school Internet hiring dynamics of Yahoo.
Yahoo’s strategy wins by a landslide.
Now you might be asking, does OKTC have any data to support the dynamic hiring strategy of Yahoo as compared to the moribund hiring strategy of ESPN?
Yes, we do.
Get ready to be bedazzled because OKTC has the Yahoo Sports Blog numbers via June’s comScore Media Matrix and they’re amazing.
The Yahoo blogs — which didn’t exist prior to 2007, the year that ESPN hired Reilly — single-handedly beat all of ESPN.com.
Let me repeat that, the Yahoo blogs standing alone have more unique visitors a month than all of ESPN.com combined.
Here’s the unique visitors data:
Yahoo Sports Blogs in June: 41.8 million
ESPN.com in June: 36.2 million
And here’s more, those Yahoo blogs put up more than 326 million page views in June. I’m bolding the next sentence because it’s simply amazing.
That means the Yahoo Sports Blogs standing alone did more page views than these entire websites: CBS Sports, Sports Illustrated, MLB, BleacherReport, Yardbarker, Scout, SportingNews, NASCAR and just about anyone else you want to toss out there.
These are mindboggling numbers, but if you dive in and look at them even closer, here’s the stat that will really blow you away — I bet Yahoo is paying less for all of its bloggers combined than ESPN paid Rick Reilly by himself. In fact, I guarantee it.
What’s more, just using the top ten most frequent writers on Yahoo’s blog network, those writers have produced over 14,000 pieces of content for Yahoo Sports Blogs. How many pieces of written content has Rick Reilly produced for ESPN.com? Since his debut on June 2, 2008, Reilly has filed 219 columns or articles. (If somebody really wanted to ensure that these are all actual pieces and not just news stories, they could click through the 13 page archives and actually break down each piece.)
Even if you include every two-bit thirty second humor piece Reilly has provided ESPN, he’s still only at 878 pieces of content.
Conservatively, Yahoo has paid less money for over 20,000 pieces of written content than ESPN has paid for 219 pieces of written content. As if that wasn’t enough, Yahoo’s blog hires, again starting at the same time as Reilly, now produce about 180x the page view traffic as Reilly.
For much less money.
My point is simple: Rick Reilly’s $3.4 million a year salary has provided virtually no tangible benefit to ESPN.com’s bottom line, whereas Yahoo’s bloggers, making less money and producing volumes more content, have actually, in the same time frame, taken over Internet sports.
It’s an instructive case study in what I’ve been writing and talking about for a long time — old school newspaper editors are hiring online in ways that make no sense. The same hiring model that helped to bankrupt newspapers has now spread online with no tangible benefit to the online sites.
Meanwhile the smartest sports media company on the Internet, Yahoo, has avoided the pratfalls that have trapped its rivals.
So lock this down as yet another reason why ESPN should be scared to death of Yahoo Sports — at Yahoo they actually know how the Internet works. At ESPN, they’re hiring Rick Reilly.