Back in 1886, The Sporting News was established as a print magazine, particularly focusing on baseball. The publication has been through a lot of owners since that time, and through a lot of format shifts. And now, as Sara Fischer wrote at Axios this week, their current (since-2020) private equity ownership (led by Hong Kong-based firm Pax Holdings) has brought in another $15 million for the publication in a funding round:
— Sara Fischer (@sarafischer) September 12, 2023
Here’s more from Fischer’s piece:
Why it matters: It’s not common for a brand that launched in the 1800s to raise growth capital, but TSN CEO Rich Routman said he sees it as a “series A against the firm’s new strategy.”
Zoom out: Digital media companies have mostly struggled to raise money this year, given a slowdown in the ad market.
Routman said the firm’s focus on affiliate revenue, or money it makes by brokering sales and subscription sign-ups to third-party websites, is what made it attractive to investors.
Details: The raise values TSN in the “eight figures,” Routman said. He declined to provide annual revenue figures, but said the firm is profitable.
The money will be used to continue expanding the website globally and to continue building its affiliate business, which today represents 40% of the firm’s revenue. (Advertising represents the other 60%.)
As noted above, it’s been quite the ownership history for The Sporting News. The publication was started by Alfred Spink (a director of the St. Louis Browns baseball team) as a print magazine in 1886, and it stayed in his family (including his son, J.G. Taylor Spink, who the Baseball Hall of Fame’s annual award for writers used to be named after) through 1977. The Sporting News was then owned by newspaper companies Times Mirror (1977-81) and Tribune Co. (1981-2000), then by Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc. (2000-2006), and then by Advance Media (2006-2013).
In 2013, shortly after ceasing its print publication and launching a new site on the bones of AOL FanHouse, The Sporting News was sold to Perform Group. Perform launched a dramatic expansion of The Sporting News’ part-time staffers in 2015, launched over-the-top streaming service DAZN in 2016, used The Sporting News to promote that company (the start of the affiliate revenue approach that’s now so big for them) while also launching a radical website redesign that year, and then put The Sporting News under DAZN Group in 2018 (when they spun off their business-to-business services as Perform Content, which they’d later sell to STATS owner Vista in 2019).
In December 2020, DAZN Group sold Perform to Pax Holdings. That new ownership has expanded their affiliate approach well beyond just DAZN to outlets including other streaming services, sports betting companies, and merchandise companies. It’s also seen them launch 10 new international market editions across Latin America, Europe, and Asia. And that’s now led to this funding round. Here’s more on what they’re planning from a release:
The Sporting News (TSN), one of the most iconic brands in sports media and the oldest sports publisher in the United States, today announced it has raised $15 million. This incremental investment will be used to facilitate the growth of the brand and pivot the TSN business to being more transactionally-led. The fundraise was led by LSE-traded Playtech, alongside several other market leaders in the sports and digital media industries.
In addition to the fundraise, TSN has made a strategic investment in SuperDraft, an online daily fantasy sports and player prop platform, previously backed by Caesars Entertainment. TSN will facilitate the day-to-day operations of SuperDraft and utilize it to create another revenue stream, while offering its audience a new means to engage with TSN, bolstering its commitment to grow through DTC and transactional revenues.
“We believe that the future of the digital publishing industry is the pivot from revenue per thousand page views (RPM) to ‘lifetime value’ (LTV),” said Rich Routman, Global CEO of TSN. “The digital publishers who are able to demonstrate that their audiences equate to more than viewable advertising impressions and can lead to transactional customers will be the next set of leaders in digital media. We are excited about TSN’s future and look forward to delivering more value to our audience.”
Those comments from Routman are interesting, especially given his history. He took the Sporting News global CEO role in August 2022 after six years as president at Minute Media (the company that currently owns The Big Lead, The Players’ Tribune, FanSided, and more), and previously worked at Perform (including as president and CRO of Sporting News Media from May 2013-February 2015, and as global CRO from March 2015-January 2016).
So Routman has lots of familiarity with advertising-supported media in general, and with The Sporting News in particular. And that makes it quite notable to see him talk about shifting away from advertising and pageviews towards “transactional customers” and affiliate revenue, and how he thinks that’s the future of digital publishing. And the investors here (led by London-based Playtech, known for its gambling software) certainly seem to be buying into that approach, and it’s notable to see that happen in an era where the digital advertising market has been down and there hasn’t been a lot of value placed on online written content. We’ll see what this extra funding and this affiliate revenue-focused approach leads to for The Sporting News.