The current shutdown of most North American sports thanks to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has also had a lot of impacts on those who cover sports. Companies like Entercom, SB Nation, USA Today, and more have announced layoffs and furloughs around this. And Kristie Ackert of The New York Daily News has a fascinating piece on what this has meant for online baseball sites, diving into the impacts for Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus and Baseball Reference. The whole piece is well worth a read, but here are a couple of key quotes from it:
As the calendar turned to the scheduled Opening Day, FanGraphs founder and CEO David Appelman was making hard decisions. He had to cut the pay of the 10 full-time staffers and let go about 20 freelancers. Appelman also shuttered the Hardball Times, the site’s long-form journalism platform and put out a blunt state of the site message on March 30 titled “We’re asking for help.” In it, he asked readers who valued the extensive statistics and analysis the site offered to sign up for a $20 or $50 membership or to buy merchandise to help keep them afloat during the baseball shutdown.
“The support you’ve shown the site gives us some breathing room, but not as much as is needed,” Appelman said in a post on the site updating the situation on April 8. “Our yearly expenses include employee salaries and benefits, contributor pay, stats contracts, and server costs. And even though we continue to roll out new site features and publish new content, our daily traffic is still down 60-70%, sometimes more, affecting our ad revenue.”
…Baseball Prospectus’ losses have been mitigated because it is a subscription-based site and it also publishes an annual. The company also does data analysis for teams. BP president Bret Sayre said that because of that business model, he has yet to have to cut pay or consider layoffs.
“Our biggest thing that we’ve been doing is trying to reduce as much non personnel expense as possible over the last few weeks. Our value is in our people and our creativity, and that we feel ties directly to how we do with subscriptions and all that,” Sayre said. “So we have not cut any staff. We have not reduced our payroll and we are doing everything we can to avoid doing that at all. That’s really been our main focus is to keep our staff together and keep our product at a high quality. Even though there are fewer people paying attention to it with everything going on with the world, we want to make sure that the quality of what you put out there is not suffering.”
As for Baseball Reference, they’re also highly traffic-dependent, but their approach so far has been just asking people to keep visiting and to disable ad blockers. But it’s obviously a hard time for everyone in sports media, and that can be seen in the quotes here. And both Sayre and FanGraphs’ managing editor Meg Rowley have some notable further remarks to Ackert on how they’re trying to keep producing new and innovative content during these times, and how they’re hopeful that baseball fans will return to their platforms if and when things do get more back to normal.
But the honest discussion of the traffic declines at FanGraphs is perhaps particularly notable. We’ve seen some data on declines for sports media companies with stories like what’s going on at ESPN (down 62 percent year over year for the wek ending April 12), but it’s interesting to have some specific numbers for a digital site. And that helps to illustrate just how challenging it’s going to be for many sports media companies going forward.