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Under your radar, USA Today is making moves on the sports front

Outside of those within the industry, most haven’t noticed the quiet overhaul USA Today has been undertaking to their sports coverage. I liken their transition to a renovation/restoration of a restaurant or bar. Walls go up around the windows so you can’t see inside. You know what the old space looked like and you see new stuff go in and old stuff go out, but you yearn to sneak a peak at what’s behind all the demolition and construction.

It remains to be seen when USA Today will unveil their new unified sports strategy and what it will look like but below is a recap of some of the things you may have missed:

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- In early January 2011, Gannet names Tom Beusse head of the newly formed USA Today Sports Media Group. The former CEO of Westwood One is tasked with “managing the national sports agenda for USA Today as well as Gannett’s 82 newspapers, 23 television stations, and websites including highscoolsports.net and bnqt.com.

- In late 2011, reinforcements come in the form of David Morgan and Mark Pesavento. The pair were part of the brain trust who led Yahoo Sports from digital upstart to becoming the largest online sports media property (larger than ESPN in total reach). In particular, the pair was crucial in the conception and growth of the various Y! Sports blogs such as Puck Daddy, Shutdown Corner, and Ball Don’t Lie. Given the social influence of the Y! Sports blogs and the reputations of Morgan and Pesavento, a bit of buzz builds on if USA Today will emerge as a force within online sports media.

- In early 2012, USA Today announces the acquisition of Big Lead Sports for about $30 million. Already an investor in Big Lead Sports, the acquisition gives the USA Today Sports Group additional reach for advertisers as well as a relationship with writers of over 500+ sites. Most of the sites under the Big Lead Sports network banner are affiliates while some like Thebiglead.com become owned and operated properties of the USA Today Sports Media Group.

- In late March, USA Today made a spash by adding popular baseball writer Joe Posnanski away from Sports Illustrated.

- A couple of weeks back, about a dozen long term staffers are let go to the surprise of many. The general perception at this time was that the scuttling of the higher priced veterans would lend itself to new hiring for a larger, younger, and hipper team that would more easily lend itself to more frequent posting and a different type of content voice.

-Not too long after, SportsJournalists.com, noticed a bevvy of openings on Career building for over 30 positions with the Sports Media Group. The majority of the open positions have “blog editor” in the job title.

- Fast forward to yesterday as the USA Today Sports Media Group acquired Dan Shanoff’s Quickish. The service will continue although it seems Shanoff will be focused on other projects as the article states, “he’ll also work on other digital projects for Gannett, as an “audience-development executive” working for USA Today sports-biz guy Dave Morgan.

What to make of this all? Really it’s anybody’s guess until they pull back the curtain. Within the last year, big time management has been plucked from Yahoo, print veterans have been displaced, a pair of interesting acquisitions have occurred, and meanwhile the “Now Hiring” sign is up and in a big way.

Personally I’ve heard predictions as to what the end product will look like from “It will be a joke” to “It will be a big deal” and everything in between. With a very optimistic outlook in online sports media, it’s definitely clear USA Today is investing to have a seat at the table with the big boys. Turner Sports, who recently lost their stewardship of Sports Illustrated’s website, is likewise trying to get a seat at the table. But rather than investing, the word is that they’re hoping to buy their way into the big game with a possible acquisition of Bleacher Report rumored to be over $200 million.

While it remains to be seen what will come of USA Today’s efforts to become more relevant digitally as well as Turner’s aspirations, the question begs – is there room for another big player and how can they harvest users in an already crowded general sports space?

I’d wager there is room for another major player to be relevant nationally but two might be stretching it. With that in mind, I’d be curious to know where our readers go for national content of the more generic form. How would you break up your % of pageviews between the major portals like SI, ESPN, CBS Sports, NBC Sports, Fox Sports, Sporting News, Yahoo Sports, and others? What could a new entrant do to become your destination of choice? If the right mix of writers were added to a USA Today or Turner Sports managed Bleacher Report, would you shift your online habits to adopt a new portal?

Ben Koo

About Ben Koo

Copying and pasting my Twitter bio. I'm also refusing (for now) to write this in the third person. This is me - CEO of @Bloguin, GM at @AwfulAnnouncing, world's greatest chinese jew, proud Buckeye, funny dude, and sports and digital media zealot.

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