The restructuring of Sports on Earth early in August following initial co-owner USA Today pulling out of their SoE partnership with MLB Advanced Media created countless stories, with numerous writers losing their jobs, some going after MLBAM, Keith Olbermann putting MLBAM on blast, and arguments both online and in person about what the demise of SoE as we knew it meant.
Somewhat lost in that cacophony, though, was SoE’s insistence that “I’m not dead yet!”
The site celebrates its two-year anniversary Wednesday, and it’s still putting out plenty of content, with 18 pieces posted Monday through Wednesday this week. They still have some big names writing for them, too, including Will Leitch and Mike Tanier. They’re already doing some things substantially differently than they have, though, and further changes are in store ahead.
On Tuesday, I spoke to Dinn Mann, MLBAM’s executive vice-president (content), who oversees content for MLB.com, MiLB.com, and other sites including Sports on Earth. Mann said while the site lost many talented people as a result of the changeover from a partnership to a MLBAM-run site, MLBAM thinks there’s a strong future for it.
“We believe in the content, we believe in the subject matter, we believe in storytelling,” Mann said.
Some of the pieces posted in the wake of Sports on Earth’s changes argued the move proved that high-quality sportswriting couldn’t sustain itself without, say, traffic-friendly posts about athletes’ female relatives. Mann doesn’t agree with that, though, and he said the site’s not going to change its focus from offering insightful stories and analysis.
“I wouldn’t even refer to it as a new site,” he said. “It’s something that would evolve as it would have if there had not been a change. …The one thing that remains the same, for sure, is elevated discussion. It’s smart discussion about the topics that are trending.”
A big part of that goal of smart sports discussion includes keeping Sports on Earth as a site about much more than just baseball. While MLBAM came out of baseball, they also have partnerships for video and more with the likes of 120 Sports, ESPN3, March Madness Live. Top Rank Boxing, Sportsnet New York’s website and YES Network’s website. Mann said he wants Sports on Earth to be a leader in online discussion and analysis across sports, a place where sports fans can come for insightful takes on buzzing topics.
“It’s the sports bar that never closes,” he said. “We want it to be a place where the conversation occurs across all the sports topics of today.”
To that end, they need a strong content staff. Having writers as well-known as Leitch and Tanier helps, but the site needs more than that to survive. Mann said a big part of the plan is integrating writers from MLBAM’s other properties, including MLB.com, and having them write insightful pieces for Sports on Earth. Those pieces won’t necessarily be about baseball, which may seem odd at first, but Mann points out that many of MLB.com’s writers and editors across the country come from newspaper backgrounds where they were asked to cover multiple sports.
“At MLBAM, we have reporters and editors, more than 100, many whom have backgrounds that go far beyond covering baseball games,” Mann said. “They’re people who are terrific storytellers with wonderful contact lists. They’re people who were maybe underutilized a bit in terms of what they were doing.”
A few examples of MLB.com people who have contributed to SoE so far include Richard Justice and Anthony Castrovince, and their pieces seem to fit with both the old and new SoE. Mann said having SoE fully under the MLBAM umbrella means there’s now more interaction between the SoE staff and the rest of MLBAM’s content staff, too.
“Our content staff and their content staff are now helping each other in real time,” Mann said. “There’s a lot more collaboration. …It’s more logically intertwined with our ongoing efforts.”
Mann said SoE will be closer to MLB.com and MLBAM’s other properties than it had been.
“This has become more like those properties,” he said. “We share the same DNA.”
Mann said this isn’t about fitting square pegs into round holes, though. With SoE now a full division of MLBAM, it gives them an opportunity to determine what pieces are good fits for SoE and what might work better for MLB.com. A lot of MLB.com’s content is game reports, news stories and features on individual players, while Mann said SoE takes can be more analytical, more big-picture and perhaps more provocative.
“Even in baseball, there are some things that make better sense for Sports on Earth than MLB.com,” Mann said. “It’s storytelling that has a different perspective. …It has more of a sports bar feel, it can be a bit harder-hitting.”
Mann cited Leitch’s piece on priorities for new MLB commissioner Rob Manfred as an example of something that felt like a natural fit for SoE, given its big-picture scope and analysis. In fact, he said Leitch’s work in general is crucial for SoE’s new iteration.
“Will is clearly the significant persona of Sports on Earth,” Mann said. “He’s just such a wonderful commenter and has such high credibility. …That’s not a bad person to hang your hat on.”
Between the continued work of Leitch and Tanier and the other content SoE is starting to provide, Mann said things are still going well from a traffic perspective despite the changes and the loss of many prominent contributors.
“It’s too early to say anything except that we haven’t encountered a dropoff,” he said. “We’re encouraged by the results.”
There are still some curious elements on the site, though. For one thing, the writers list still has many former contributors listed, including Chuck Culpepper, Tomas Rios and Wendy Thurm. Sports on Earth intends this as an archive system. The look and overall integration of the archives may be redesigned down the road, but former contributors’ work won’t disappear. For the moment, it’s a bit of an odd look, and a reminder that the ownership change led to a lot of people losing their jobs. It also led to a lot of criticism of how MLBAM handled the changes (individually calling them, which meant some found out before others). Mann said he’s not sure there was a better way to do it, though.
“There’s really no benefit to revisiting it,” he said. “There was certainly some disappointment, because people were affected. … There were some misconceptions about the way things went down. When you have that many freelancers contributing to a product, I don’t know if there’s an easier way.”
Mann spent 12 years in the news media before going to MLBAM, and he was at the Houston Post when it closed in 1995. He said he’s well aware of the pain of losing a job.
“I don’t take days like we had here a few weeks ago lightly by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. “There’s just never a good way to say goodbye when bad things happen.”
He said the changes were necessary to make the site work without USA Today as a partner.
“Clearly there was an adjustment that we had to go through after the partnership ended,” Mann said. “We had to shift gears. It wasn’t moving in the most productive direction. You get to a place where you have to pivot a little bit, or adjust. …I’m pleased we were able to keep it alive and keep it relevant.”
Mann said USA Today made the decision to leave the partnership, but there are no hard feelings.
“We love our partner, we wish them the best,” he said. “They wanted to go about the business of looking in the mirror at their own house.”
He said having SoE as a MLBAM property will help them make some changes, including making the site more focused on being a digital product, one that’s updated more frequently and more focused on what’s happening now.
“We want it with a digital DNA,” Mann said. “It sort of got the feeling a bit of being a daily magazine. We want it to perform in a more fluid way.”
Mann said one key change will be putting more focus on content, not just having big names providing it.
“You’ll see a greater variety in the types of posts,” he said. “It matters what you’re writing about, not just putting names up there people have heard of.”
He said they may be looking to hire more big names for SoE specifically in the future, but for now, the focus is on building the site as a solid business proposition.
“Do we still want to be a destination for contributors? Sure,” Mann said. “Do we want to get the house more in order so the foundation is more sturdy? Yes.”
Mann said he loves the staff he has and thinks they’ll provide excellent content for Sports on Earth.
“This still remains a place that employs a lot of great storytellers,” he said. “The stable of people who are here is a team I would go to the wall with.”
He said the layoffs were tough, though, and avoiding further layoffs is a key goal of his.
“I felt bad about it,” Mann said. “I still feel bad. I want to build something that never has to go through a day like that again.”