It’s been a very good year for CBS Sports’ digital operation. Following last December’s acquisition of 247 Sports and several major changes to CBSSports.com, they’ve seen 18 per cent growth through November (which they cite as making them the fastest-growing top-10 sports property this year, and the only property with double-digit growth year to date).]
They’ve also placed second to ESPN in ComScore uniques for three straight months from September through November, pulling in 67,319,000 unique visitors in November. CBS Sports Digital senior vice president and general manager Jeffrey Gerttula spoke to Awful Announcing this week about their numbers’ improvement, trends in the digital media space, the criticism they took from The Big Lead, what’s ahead for CBS and much more, and he said this year’s numbers are really about a longer-term plan coming to fruition.
“We’ve had a long view of where we thought the digital media space was going to go,” Gerttula said. “We’ve been executing on a strategy that’s been built around increasingly-mobile search and social behaviors. Playing into that, we’ve been focusing on making our content more real-time, more personalized; our investment in 247 Sports and our continued investment in MaxPreps play along those lines. We see that continuing to register more; more team-based, more passion-based, and with those two properties, we cover really every team from preps and the high school side to the pros.
“And then we’ve continued to invest in voices who play well in those areas, who play well on social, who can play well on mobile, where it’s a little more bite-sized, quick-hitting. We’ve been making content investments that play well in those areas. We’ve had to make hard decisions along the way, and I think those decisions have been noted, but everything that we’ve done for the past few years has been very intentional. We’ve been investing in the places where we saw more consumption was going to happen, and we’ve changed the roster a little bit to get there.”
Gerttula said the integration of 247 has been “outstanding.”
“The team there is world-class,” he said. “It’s been everything we hoped for and more. We think they’re the best in the business on the college recruiting side, but they’re also executing at a really high level on the broader team-based content strategy we’ve been working with them on. They’re the perfect complement to CBS Sports’ national voice, and that was the vision, them being a more team-centric play. They obviously have a very big social presence, and it works very well with the CBS national view of sports.”
“We think it’s healthy,” he said. “It’s kind of a traditional internet play; it’s about community, the fans, providing news to those communities, information to those communities. We think that’s here to last; we’ve seen that as a very durable revenue stream and one that we think’s going to continue. And you know, in the current media market, any time you have healthy direct-to-consumer revenue streams, it’s a great environment and that makes for a healthier business.”
As for Scout itself, AA sources indicate 247 showed some interest in buying them during their last sale (to North American Membership Group in 2013). When asked if 247/CBS would still be interested in a Scout acquisition, Gerttula said “No comment on that right now.”
CBS’ digital properties are in an interesting place relative to some competitors, as their cable CBS Sports Network isn’t trying to go head-to-head with ESPN or Fox on most fronts. From the outside, that makes their digital site seem less closely tied to their TV operation than those other networks, but Gerttula said there’s more integration than you might think.
“Our digital team and the CBS Sports Network team and the CBS broadcast team, we view ourselves as one team, we work really closely together,” he said. “We think the culture over here is one where we’re able to work closely together despite reporting lines. We all think of ourselves as one team, and Sean McManus (chairman of CBS Sports) and David Berson (president of CBS Sports) have been extremely supportive of all of our digital initiatives and we stay very close to them. Is that structure better or worse? I don’t know, I think it depends on the team culture you have, and I think we have a great one. Whether the reporting is the same or not, we think of ourselves as one big team.”
Fox and ESPN also have the ability to split the cost of big hires between their TV and digital operations in a way CBS can’t always match, but Gerttula said that hasn’t really restricted who he can hire.
“I’m confident that when we want someone, we can get them,” he said. “I think the assets that we have are different than ESPN and Fox and we’re not always competing for the same talent. We’re probably a bit more discerning with our assets. With the selection of assets, we’re not always going head-to-head, but when we want someone, we feel like we can get anybody.”
He said key elements for CBS hires include not just expertise, but also voice and following.
“We’re looking for people who, one, they need to be experts in their field and check off kind of the traditional boxes, but we’re also looking for people who have voices that resonate with audiences on social, people who have followings,” Gerttula said. “Like a Jonah Keri type; he’s obviously someone we looked at for a long time, and we’re excited to have him on the roster. We want people who, because we’re CBS, can play well on video, and carry themselves…someone who has a smart voice, someone who is not maybe taking themselves too seriously, but can speak to serious topics.
“We think Bill Reiter is a very good example of that. And then also people like Rip Hamilton or Raja Bell who we have on our NBA roster for a lot of the videos we’re producing, who are obviously charismatic, experts in their field, names that people know, and just have a real positive attitude that people like. It tends to be a real mix of characteristics. I think in the environment today, authenticity is very important in terms of people saying what they believe and being direct about it. We like that and we look for that. That tends to translate into more success on social, more success with audiences that can tend to sniff out people who might not be real.”
CBS has maintained a strong roster of long-time prominent bloggers, including Will Brinson, Tom Fornelli and Matt Moore (all of who worked at FanHouse way back when), and Gerttula said those writers represent a lot of what they’re trying to do.
“We look at those guys as experts in their field,” he said. “Matt Moore just wrote a tremendous piece on Kawhi Leonard. Those guys, to me, are really the backbone of the digital operation. We talk about live coverage and coverage that works in a digital era, these guys represent that. They all have a distinct voice, they all bring their own personality to the things that they write, they’re covering things in real time and they’re doing it in a smart way.
“That’s why those guys have been with us as long as they have and we respect them as much as we do. What they do on a daily basis represents what we’ve seen sports fans trending more and more towards, and I think it’s because you’ve got your phone in your pocket, you’re looking for something now when a news story breaks. You want analysis now, you don’t want to wait a couple of hours, and those guys get that and they understand what we’re looking for and they’re covering those topics. They can be funny, they can be deep, they can do a lot of different things, and that’s what works.”
Emphasizing bloggers and columnists and parting ways with more traditional reporters like Jon Heyman and Steve Elling led to a lot of criticism for CBS in February’s “Low Morale at CBS Sports.com as it Eschews Reporting in Favor of Aggregation” (capitalization all his) piece from Jason McIntyre over at the Big Lead. When asked if he thought that piece was fair, here’s what Gerttula said:
“It’s not really up to me to say what’s fair and what’s not fair, but I do know that any time you make changes in an organization, there’s tough decisions that get made. I respect all of the guys who were here. Some of the guys who were quoted in that piece, I think the world of them, and if that’s what they think, that’s what they think, but I think if you were to ask people here what the morale is, I think you’d hear a very different story. And you heard a very different story at the time.
“But we don’t get caught up in reading the press on that, we just keep plugging away. We’ve got a good long-term plan, and the numbers speak for themselves. We’ve got a stable of guys who’ve been here for a long time and probably would take issue with that piece, but we’re not concerning ourselves with that.”
On other fronts, a lesser-known side of CBS’ digital operation is the large numbers of college athletic sites they run. Gerttula said they plan to keep doing that.
“We’re in that business and as of now, we plan to continue to be.”
CBS didn’t jump into daily fantasy the way some other sites did, and they don’t plan to launch daily fantasy contests any time soon even now that it’s becoming more regulated.
“We create a lot of content for daily fantasy,” Gerttula said. “We’re staying close to the consumers, reacting to what they need. Are we going to launch a daily fantasy game like Yahoo did, go head to head with DraftKings and FanDuel? No. That’s not in our plans. We’ve got a stable, solid fantasy commissioner business. That’s what we’re good at, that’s what we’re going to keep doing.”
Ad-blocking is a growing worry for many digital sites, and Gerttula said it’s on CBS’ radar, but not their biggest concern right now.
“We create free content, that’s how we make money, and ad blocking obviously doesn’t work well with that model. We pay attention to it, but as of right now, is it at the top of our priority list? No. If there was more of it, would it become a higher priority? Absolutely.”
As per those ComScore numbers, Gerttula said it’s great to see CBS succeed there, but that’s not their main goal.
“They are an indicator, we do follow them, but they’re not the bible for us,” he said. “We focus on trying to create content that engages fans, figuring out the platforms that they’re consuming content on, the types of content that they want to consume, and that’s our daily focus. We think ComScore’s more a byproduct of that and I think if you’re delivering content that’s real-time, that’s geared to a more mobile mindset among consumers, if you’re thinking about how you program people on social, if you’re offering staples and utility features that get people to keep coming back to your site, if you’re offering an app that delivers on the basic needs of sports fans, I think you’re growing and ComScore reflects that. We don’t get caught up in that too much, but it is kind of nice. But it’s not the game for us.”
On the ComScore front, there have been plenty of mergers, partnerships, rollups and the sort recently, with CBS acquiring 247, Fox and SI combining their traffic and NBC partnering with Yahoo. Gerttula said not to expect anything further from CBS on that front soon, though.
“I can’t speak for our competitors, but for us, we stay focused on premium brands,” he said. “247, MaxPreps, CBSSports.com and the CBS digital family, those are our three staples. We have the official athletic sites for sure, premium brand sites we operate in partnership with schools. That’s what we’re focused on. We have other strategic partnerships, deeper than ComScore, and that’s how we look at it. What everyone else is doing is up to them, but our position is premium content. We think the environments around premium content deliver a premium CPM and a premium experience for advertisers, and that’s what we’re focused on delivering. We want to make sure the properties that represent us are premium and are ours.”
Gerttula has been at CBS since July 2009. If given the chance to redo anything from his tenure, he said he might tweak a few things, but there wouldn’t be any major changes.
“There’s no major regrets,” he said. “Everyone in this space, you have your swings and misses, but every time you fail at something, you’re learning something. I don’t think there’s been anything that we’ve failed at that we haven’t learned a lesson from. But every day I look back and think ‘Wow, I wish I did this differently’ or ‘I wish I was on this trend earlier.’ It’s a tough space; everything changes and everything changes quickly, and if you’re at the front of the line one year, next year you might be at the back. You can’t be complacent and you can’t be satisfied with what you’re doing that day, because everything’s changing quickly.
“That’s the hard part of this; your willingness to make changes and adjust quickly drives your success each year. I think we’ve had a good year of making the changes we need to make, and we’re seeing some of the benefits of it, but if we’re not ready for the next one, we could find ourselves in another situation. Any time I’ve been complacent or wasn’t moving forward would be something I regret.”
It’s a crowded digital sports marketplace, but Gerttula said CBS’ digital properties stand out by particularly focusing on their tentpoles and then trying to provide everything else fans might want.
“We think we’re one of the few sites that is really, truly still full-service,” he said. “We offer leading, best-in-class fantasy games and content, scores, schedules, basic utility information, and what I think makes CBS Sports stand out is we’re as strong as anyone in NFL, college football, college basketball, the core CBS sports tentpoles. We work closely with TV, and that’s what really kind of defines CBS Sports in our view, and then we’re continuing to fill everything else, making sure that baseball fans have a roster of writers who are giving them fresh, entertaining content every day, and the same for basketball fans and the rest of it.
“So I think we’re really trying to cover off on everything and really do it in that voice I mentioned before, which is to be direct, to be authentic. We’re going to have fun, but we’re going to tell you how it is and believe what we’re saying.”