Pivot!

A little over a year ago, Fox Sports added NASCAR writer/reporter Bob Pockrass to bolster their NASCAR coverage. Pockrass’ impressive background was spelled out in a press release announcing his addition to Fox Sports (words bolded by me for emphasis).

Prior to joining Fox Sports, the media and fan favorite, who has covered NASCAR since 1991, wrote for ESPN.com’s NASCAR and motor sports sections from 2015-2018. Pockrass also penned NASCAR stories for “The Sporting News” from 2012-2014 following his role as associate editor for “NASCAR Scene” and SceneDaily.com from 2003-2012.

Pockrass was twice honored as Writer of the Year by the National Motorsports Press Association (2009 and 2013) and has earned multiple writing awards.

While Pockrass was a hire that made a ton of sense for Fox, there was one significant issue: Pockrass was joining a company that had famously decided to shun the written word in favor of videos. With Pockrass unable to write for Fox Sports, he announced where you could actually find his writing (the medium of content that brought him the most renown) to his six figure Twitter following.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago (around the time Pockrass would have to renegotiate a one year deal), and there was an interesting change he needed to announce.

There it is, folks. Click the above link and you’ll see the sports media version of Bigfoot: an actual article that you can read on FoxSports.com. It’s got punctuation, paragraphs, photos, and just about all the fixings you’d want to help yourself to at a word buffet.

And it’s not just Pockrass banging away on a keyboard as part of a literary insurgency at Fox Sports. Jason McIntyre has been steadily producing content for the website as well. McIntyre wasn’t retained when his former writing home, The Big Lead, was sold to Minute Media, who preferred a new editorial path forward. For years, McIntyre wrote on the site he founded and sold, despite being a television and radio regular for Fox. Now, his written work is (finally) under the Fox banner.

Trying to figure out exactly when Fox Sports pivoted back to written articles is a bit difficult, and Fox Sports’ feedback for this article was minimal (our emails to David Katz, Fox’s new head of digital, went unanswered). Over the years since the infamous pivot, there have been a few sightings of written content on Fox’s website, mostly syndicated AP articles like the one below (weirdly, about former Fox employee Katie Nolan leaving for ESPN).

One possible clue as to when written articles returned can be found in a June 2019 press release touting the hiring of Martin Rogers whose written work is now promoted on the website under the Fox Sports Insider section as seen below.

Rogers’ articles are primarily pushed via email, but are also published on the website with the tag “newsletter article”. A plausible explanation is that Rogers’ content was the first written work back on Fox Sports, which escaped any real scrutiny given the content was just public republishing of newsletter content. Despite that caveat, Rogers’ articles represent the first significant chunk of real estate allocated for written content on the website in the post pivot to video era. The shift also seems to signify a subtle walk-back of one of the most scrutinized decisions in all of sports media over the last decade.

Written content is currently a very small sliver of the website, which Fox PR emphasized as “video first”, but perhaps that is slowly changing. It was my goal to get more insight into the reverse course of the famed original pivot that decimated traffic to the site back in 2017. It’s no secret that Fox Sports’ digital prominence has declined significantly since the pivot, with internal emails shared with Awful Announcing showing that in the wake of the pivot to video strategy, traffic to the site surrounding major events Fox was broadcasting fell at times (as much as 92%) because “editorial content was the big driver of referrals.”

The lack of written content has also seen Fox drop off the Comscore sports top ten list, which they were consistently in the top three in the years leading up to the pivot to video (although much of that ranking was inflated due to traffic rollup partnerships that most of these entities employ to puff up the top line number). Depending on the month or the traffic measuring resource, the most common estimates of loss of monthly visitors and traffic to FoxSports.com fall in the 60-85% bracket. Below are the most recent (last August) publicly available numbers via SBD, which don’t show Fox in the top ten.

With so many outlets cutting sports media jobs, could Fox Sports aggressively reenter the space by going on a hiring spree? Would Fox personalities who are now writing at external outlets, like Ken Rosenthal, Jay Glazer, and Bruce Feldman at The Athletic, perhaps return to Fox? Would Fox revisit the writing of Clay Travis and Jason Whitlock, who were moved off of the website prior to the pivot to video due to advertiser concerns about their content?

Despite my best efforts, Fox offered scant participation in this article, which is not surprising given the history and the moving pieces over the years. The original pivot to video could be characterized as pretty swift and a surgical regime change orchestrated by Jamie Horowitz that saw an exodus of digital executives flee for new opportunities before dozens of writers were let go after months of dread about their futures with Fox.

Within a week of that move, Horowitz was gone. The other key architects in the digital regime change (which in effect, shuttered Fox Sports Digital as its own entity) have also moved on. Former YouTube executive Chara-Lynn Aguiar now finds herself at ESPN. Gabe Goodwin has moved back to producing various shows and films. Alexis Ginas, Horowitz’s chosen new digital head plucked from her management role at Match,  is reported to be on extended leave (Fox did not reply to inquires about Ginas’ current role with the company).

Despite the lack of clarity about Ginas’ ongoing role, Fox Sports made a noteworthy move in bringing in David Katz to oversee Fox Sports Digital. Previously, Katz had run ThePostGame.com and Yahoo Sports, both of which were heavily focused on written content during his tenure. Katz was unable to comment on his hiring back in September 2018, along with questions about written content returning and any possible overlap in responsibility with Ginas.

Katz is well regarded within the industry and several people referred him to as a “Shanks guy,” meaning hired by Eric Shanks, the CEO of Fox Sports. One source familiar with the inner workings of Fox Sports shared that “Katz was brought in by Eric to be a janitor to quietly cleanup the mess Jamie (Horowitz) made. They don’t want to talk about the cleanup, because they don’t want to acknowledge the mess.”

Fox pushed back regarding any noted decline in digital numbers and pointed to a recent press release that touted 24% year over year growth of video consumption on social platforms. The press release made no specific mention of the Fox Sports website and was primarily focused on statistics tied to growth in viewership of streaming live events, a well documented societal and industry trend that is not unique to Fox.

However, reading between the lines a bit, a potential clue about Fox Sports’ ambitions to regain digital relevancy via written content maybe found in this Washington Post article citing Fox Sports as an entity who has kicked the tires on acquiring The Athletic.

No substantive negotiations have taken place, a person at the Athletic said, though some media companies have reached out. According to three members of the industry, conversations took place with Fox Sports but didn’t advance. The Athletic declined to comment on that, as did Fox Sports.

Sports media enthusiasts may cackle at such a possibility, given The Athletic’s trajectory dramatically ticked upward after the company went on a hiring spree of popular Fox writers who were forced to find new writing homes despite many still doing television work for Fox today. The Athletic was worth under $40 million before the likes of Bruce Feldman, Jay Glazer, Stewart Mandel, and Ken Rosenthal were told their writing was no longer welcome at Fox. They subsequently found their way to The Athletic in the months and years to come.

The Athletic is now valued at over $500 million, a very steep price for Fox (or anyone else, for that matter) to pay. It should be noted Fox regularly makes big bets in the industry, such as their $160 million investment in DraftKings (which they subsequently wrote off the majority of and would later sell to Disney) or their $236 million investment in The Stars Group, the company that powers Fox Bet, the company’s legalized gambling play.

Since the prestigious group of writers have moved to The Athletic, they’ve broken many big stories, which has in turn moved the needle significantly for The Athletic in terms of subscriptions, eyeballs, revenue, and brand awareness. Ken Rosenthal (along with Evan Drellich) broke the initial explosive Mike Fiers scoop that implicated the Astros in the now infamous sign stealing scandal. The pair have since written several of the big followup stories that have also significantly moved the needle for The Athletic. Despite being broken by a high profile Fox Sports personality, Fox Sports has been left to watch The Athletic and Rosenthal bask in the ripple effect of one of the biggest scoops in recent sports media history.

Even when Fox is able to coordinate high profile stories to break on television, such as Jay Glazer’s scoop of the Bengals confronting a Patriots videographer, the inability to have a written article by Glazer or someone else at Fox limits the impact such a scoop can yield. So many of the interested eyeballs looking to learn more about such an explosive story purposefully seek out an article explaining the bombshell development as opposed to watching on particular channel or finding the video on either social media or Fox’s website. Glazer’s video often might be in those articles, but the millions of people who opt for a standard written article on the subject don’t have that option on Fox’s website, despite it being their huge scoop. With the obvious loss of eyeballs, revenue, engagement, and relevance in these two examples, the question needs to be asked: could Fox perhaps reacquire the writing rights for some of the industry’s biggest news-breakers, many of whom currently work with them?

A source informed Awful Announcing that those who were forced to find other writing arrangements, like those at The Athletic, would be able to continue those relationships and not be forced to renegotiate their written content returning to Fox (some of these individuals have ownership stakes in The Athletic and would be very firm in not returning, given the financial interest). However, Fox Sports is said to be more rigid in negotiating with new hires who may want to continue writing at another outlet while doing television or radio work for Fox. Similar to Pockrass, if you’re a new hire on television and radio for Fox, the expectation going forward is that your written content should also be on Fox (Fox Sports pushed back that this rigid preference was not an actual policy).

Fox isn’t the only party with a bit of remorse about the pivot to video and the subsequent rise of The Athletic. In 2018, Jamie Horowitz had talks about getting involved with The Athletic after his departure from Fox Sports. There are multiple versions of this story, including Horowitz having interest in becoming CEO (an idea that perhaps was being championed by the powerful agency CAA, which had made an investment into The Athletic). Another version is that Horowitz was being looked at for a possible advisory role with the company. In whichever version you hear, CAA is typically playing the role of an aggressive matchmaker on par of a mother yearning for grandkids sooner than later. Regardless of whichever version of the story you believe, the architect of the demolition of written content and Fox Sports Digital was surprisingly bullish about written content less than a year from his removal at Fox Sports (although The Athletic’s paywall model may have been the variable that was the rationale for that very sudden about face).

Despite Fox’s unwillingness to share much about the future or the past of the website, I think it’s fair to say that, given the return of written content, the dialogue with The Athletic, and Horowitz’s personal interest in The Athletic, all involved now see that returning to digital relevancy on par with their network peers has no specific recipe, but does require one key ingredient: written content. People like to read, and people like to read about sports. Monetizing that content can be a challenge, but a major sports portal will never thrive and compete without written content. I imagine that, in time, Fox will realize the path back to the relevancy of yesteryear will require them to navigate the poor optics brought on by pivoting back to text but more so pivoting back to reality.

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 - EIC and CEO at @comeback_sports and @AwfulAnnouncing, world's greatest chinese jew, proud Buckeye, funny dude, and sports and digital media zealot.