Last week I gave you all of Outkick the Coverage’s data for the college football season. Our top markets, our number of unique vistors — just over 2 million — and I compared that data with the past two football seasons.
You guys love to read the OKTC data, all of which is from Google Analytics.
You guys like checking out those numbers so much much that lots of you asked about the larger online sports sites. Specifically, how many visitors do those sites get a month? Who gets the most, how do they compare in overall readership and, most importantly, are they good businesses?
Today ESPN tweeted out lots of data about the sporting landscape online for the month of November.
You can go read that release linked above and look at the comparison site data that ESPN highlighted.
I pulled out the top ten largest sports sites based on unique visitors from that release.
Now, unique visitors isn’t a perfect metric, but it’s the one that I use the most often on Outkick. (No metric is perfect because all of them can be gamed on some level).
But I do think it’s the easiest to understand.
Put simply, every computer or wireless device has a different, unique IP address. The number of unique IP addresses that visit a site in a given month is the number of unique visitors that site records
The last several months, for instance, Outkick has gotten over a million unique visitors a month. That’s a ton for us, but it pales in comparison to the larger sites.
So how large are the top ten biggest sports sites in the country?
Here’s the ranking based upon unique visitors from ESPN’s data (I also included SBNation):
3. Bleacher Report
40.092 million million
4. FoxSports.com (Outkick’s traffic is included here)
5. USA Today Media and affiliate sites (all of the local Gannett newspapers)
6. CBS Sports
7. NFL.com and affiliated team sites
8. Sporting News
9. SBNation (a collection of hundreds of team or sport-specific blogs)
16.472 million (Not included in ESPN data, but I used Quantcast numbers)
10. Sports Illustrated
11. Cinesport (a sports highlight service carried on many websites)
If you break down these sites, most have substantial partnerships with large portals. The Yahoo and NBC deal is self-explanatory — all of the sports headlines on Yahoo.com come from this group, which is the vast majority of their traffic. Fox Sports has MSN.com’s sports traffic, Bleacher Report has all of CNN.com’s traffic, USA Today has dozens of newspaper websites, Sporting News is AOL.com’s site, SBNation has hundreds of sites and has mastered Google search, and the NFL has 32 team sites plus NFL.com. (I’m not sure which partnerships CBSSports.com has, but I’m certain that they have several.)
The number of people who still start their Internet usage on Yahoo, AOL, or MSN’s homepages would blow your mind.
FanHouse’s traffic was public and when a story was prominently featured on the AOL.com homepage, the readership numbers would explode. We called it the firehose effect. A story that might otherwise have 3,000 readers could suddenly have 300,000 readers in the space of a couple of hours.
But that traffic has nothing to do with the site or the author.
People click entirely because of the headlines.
AOL decided to kill FanHouse.com, a move that led to me starting OutkicktheCoverage, when Sporting News agreed to pay $5 million a year to be the featured sports site on AOL.com. Effectively, Sporting News is buying that placement on AOL.com in exchange for the resulting traffic the site receives. (How many people would visit Sporting News without AOL.com? A trickle). So AOL decided that creating its own sports content was more expensive than just selling placement on AOL.com. Voila, suddenly sports was profitable instead of costing money.
As a result ESPN.com is the only major online site without any major partnerships driving traffic. That is, it’s effectively stand alone. (Of course, with the ESPN television networks as well.)
The alarming thing from a business perspective? If most of these sites lost their portal or major media sponsorships, the majority of traffic would effectively dry up and die overnight.
Which is what you’re seeing at Sports Illustrated as Time Warner moves in the direction of supporting Bleacher Report over SI.com. In fact, SI.com would probably have died as a major site if Peter King had decided to leave earlier this year. In fact, from a purely business perspective, Peter King staying at SI.com made no sense at all. He’s subsidizing the entire site right now. If King had taken his act solo, he would have probably made many more millions of dollars over the next decade. Instead, he took a guaranteed payment from SI.
Basically, Peter King kept SI.com afloat.
For the moment, anyway.
But here’s the really interesting question, how many of these sites are good businesses? That is, how much money are all of these millions of sports media readers actually bringing into the corporate coffers of the major sites?
Probably not very much. Even as stripped down online sites, most still employ a lot of people. And the economics of online sports remain tricky.
Why do I say that I don’t think these sites are making very much money?
The Huffington Post had 84 million unique visitors last month, over two years after AOL.com bought the site for $315 million.
Now every site’s cost structure is different, but if the Huffington Post has nearly twenty million more unique visitors than the largest sports site on the Internet and it isn’t making money. The Huffington Post has been crushed for profiting off free writers. So doesn’t that make it likely that most major sports sites aren’t very profitable either?
I think so. (We don’t know for sure about sport site profitability numbers because theses sites aren’t broken out individually. ESPN.com, for instance, is a tiny pinprick of the overall $9 or $10 billion a year in revenue that ESPN produces. The site is incredibly important for ESPN’s brand, but it probably isn’t very important — at least not right now — in terms of the overall revenue produced by the company.
Unless you find a larger media company to sell your company to — as Bleacher Report recently did for $200 million to Time Warner — most of these major sports sites aren’t very lucrative businesses. In fact, most of them actually lose money.
Putting all this into perspective, ESPN pays the NFL $112 million for every Monday Night Football game that airs on the network.
I bet the NFL makes more money off a single Monday Night Football game than the top 11 largest sports sites on the Internet make in a year.