If a notable storyline heading into this week's Blogs With Balls conference was how far blogs have come over the history of this conference, the key theme of the first day's panels might be just be how much room there still is for expansion. Between the opening panel on social and mobile platforms that can boost and complement blogs, a look at "The Next Worldwide Leader" that featured panelists from a variety of organizations that all have blogs or blog-like elements as a key component of their programming, presentations from groups like Right To Play, Sports On Earth and Thuzio interested in getting their message out to bloggers, and even an NFL panel that both featured bloggers as prominent authorities and emphasized the growing importance of blogs in NFL coverage, the overarching sense was that sports blogs in general still have tremendous growth potential.
Here's a brief look at each of Friday's panels and presentations. My more detailed notes from the day's panels are available at Sporting Madness, while video of the panels themselves can be found at Score Buzz. If you're interested in Saturday's panels, you can follow me on Twitter for coverage of those or check in on the livestream, and we'll have another breakdown of those afterwards. Without further ado, Friday's panels.
The New Playground: Social And Mobile Platforms Overtaking Sites/Blogs:
Amy K. Nelson, SB Nation (moderator)
Jaime Hamel, Digital Strategist at The S3 Agency, co-founder of The Sports Hernia
Tim Wood, managing editor of Bleacher Report
Luke Chatelain, R/GA (digital agency that does work for Nike and others)
The panel started by discussing the shift from reading websites on computers to reading them on phones, with Chatelain remarking that "Mobile is inherently social" and Wood adding that Bleacher Report's traffic has gone from heavily computer-based with a small amount of mobile to the reverse. That segued into a discussion of Instagram in particular, with Chatelain and Wood citing it as a good way to build a following and a profile that can boost your site. Hamel said it's a useful tool, but shouldn't be seen as the be-all and end-all of social media: "It’s another spoke in the wheel you can use to build your online brand." Chatelain talked about how brands are largely behind in their use of Instagram and other forms of social media, while Wood mentioned the way Hollywood uses Instagram to promote movies via photos from their shoots. Other social networks were then discussed, with Chatelain making the point that networks are often used very differently across countries (for example, Pinterest has a U.S. user base that's 80 percent female, but only 55 percent of U.K. Pinterest users are women) and Hamel emphasizing that because so few social networks can really be monetized, they should be seen as ways to boost a blog rather than ways to replace it: "From a blogger’s standpoint, you’ve got to think about your blog as the hub."
That led to a discussion of how many networks bloggers or sites should be active on, with Hamel saying that the key is to focus on a few tools that make sense for each site or person and tailoring your content to those sites rather than just posting the same generic thing on every site. Chatelaine added that it's important not to overload a site; for example, Facebook's guidelines for brands recommend only posting 3-5 times a week. The panel then talked about who stands out as a successful example of using multiple platforms, and Chatelaine chose ESPN's Bill Simmons. "I like The Sports Guy, he’s someone to look up to," Chatelaine said. "If we could all mimic him, that would be fantastic." Hamel concurred, citing Simmons' role as an early blogger: "Without him, I don’t know if all of us are here." Chatelaine mentioned that many athletes also excel at these social networks, including Chad Johnson and skateboarder Omar Salazar. Wood talked about wanting writers who can excel across platforms, using a baseball "five-tool player" analogy, but said strong writing has to be at the core. The panel also talked about ways to use Instagram without inside access (Wood recommended plugging stories with unique or interesting photos) and how small or young sites should optimize their mobile experience (Chatelaine said text-based stories are fine, and recommended just building a mobile-friendly site over spending the resources to develop an app).
Thoughts: The panel title proved to be a bit overstated, as no one suggested that any of these social platforms are overtaking blogs, and most in fact recommended them as a way to promote blogs. However, that made for a better discussion; the panelists came off as reasonable people who could speak to an audience primarily focused on blogging, not evangelists for new social networks or mediums. Plenty of the suggestions and comments here were excellent, particularly Hamel's strategy of focusing on what networks make sense for a given site instead of trying to hit everything. One odd note was Chatelaine's choice of Simmons as a great user of platforms and someone aspiring bloggers should mimic. Yes, Simmons has a massive Twitter following, but it's debatable whether that's thanks to his skill with the medium or the amount of promotion and audience he had before he got on Twitter. Plus, no one denies that the world really doesn't need more bloggers trying to be Bill Simmons. Overall, though, a solid panel, and one several attendees told me later will prove useful to them.
The Next Worldwide Leader: Looking at the up-and-coming networks and channels in sports media:
Lang Whitaker, SLAM/GQ/The Classical (moderator)
Kevin Lockland, VP, SB Nation
Jim DeLorenzo, VP/GM of SI.com
Mark Pesavento, VP (content) at USA Today Sports Media Group
Jonathan Savage, The Score
Matt Ryan, Yahoo! Sports
(Disclosure: I work for Yahoo! Sports Canada.)
The panel started with a discussion of "Worldwide Leader" ESPN and how much each of the sites competes with them. Most of the panelists said they didn't see it as a direct competition with ESPN, with DeLorenzo pointing out that ESPN's broadcast presence makes them a very different entity. Ryan was a notable exception here, though, saying his site already tends to do more web traffic than ESPN. "It’s a bit different for us because we have that traffic already," he said. He said Yahoo!'s key goals include boosting Yahoo! Sports as its own destination instead of just relying on the Yahoo.com firehose, improving the mobile site (which he called "obviously terrible") and attracting a younger audience. He asked "How do we get the 18-24 year olds to come to Yahoo Sports versus Bleacher Report?”
Each of these sites has their own brand and a history of impressions built by that brand (positive or negative), and the panelists had plenty of notable comments on their own brands. The most interesting might have been those of Pesavento, a former Yahoo! executive who took the USA Today job last December. He said he heard plenty of skepticism about that decision. "People asked me 'Why are you going into the burning building?'" he said, adding that he was drawn in thanks to the chance to coordinate all of the Gannett chain's sports properties and the resources of the chain. "This was going to be a protected startup," he said. "We could take some risks but my paycheck was going to clear." He said he recognizes that the USA Today brand carries some baggage, though: "We feel the legacy of USA Today every day. Speaking honestly, it does make it harder to innovate. We have some baggage I would like to get rid of, I don’t mean in terms of personnel, I mean in terms of thought processes.” One of the thought processes he specifically targeted was the tendency to think in terms of the print product first.
That isn't a problem for web-only companies like SB Nation, and Lockland said their web background's been helpful overall. “Being a new media company from the start has largely benefited us.” However, he said it can be tougher for them to explain their company to traditional advertisers, as they don't have the history of a Sports Illustrated or a USA Today. DeLorenzo said SI's print background helps ad sales on the digital side, but can present some of the same challenges in thinking that USA Today faces, while Savage said The Score's TV background was tremendously helpful in getting the digital side going. "We sort of had the fortune of having a startup inside the company," he said. "The digital department was built very differently.”
The panelists then discussed different models of attracting audiences, with Ryan and Pesavento saying enterprise and breaking news/investigative reporting were keys for them. Lockland said SB Nation doesn't want to break news, but rather to focus on analyzing it and building and maintaining communities. Ryan said Yahoo!'s received a big boost from investigative reporting like what they did on the Miami and USC scandals, but they also need their blogs, and they need lighthearted, "buzzy" stories as well as hard-hitting news and analysis. "It's just finding that balance."
This segued into a discussion of what sites each panelist reads, and Pesavento's comments there were particularly notable. He said he has a bunch of regular sites he reads, but he loves it when he sees something great from a site he hasn't read before. "What’s amazing about this time in media is anyone can be a star,” he said. “What I think is so awesome is when I get passed a link from a site I’ve never read before.”
Lockland said SB Nation's always on the lookout for new talent, and given their sports community focus, they're particularly interested in those who have shown an ability to engage with their readers. "By the time they even come to us, a lot of them have the corpus of work that’s really impressive," he said. "Do they have a unique voice? Are they producing something the consumers want? Are they connecting with their audience?”
Ryan said that not all bloggers need to please their audience, though, citing former Yahoo! and current USA Today blogger Chris Chase as an example. "I hope Chris Chase isn’t listening to his audience.”
All of the panelists talked about how they're looking to expand and push the envelope in various ways on the content side, with Ryan and DeLorenzo in particular focusing on moving beyond the standard recap. Pesavento agreed, saying there are plenty of opportunities to showcase those with unique voices. However, a challenge for all these sites despite their success is bringing in the revenue, thanks to users' expectations of getting content for free without intrusive advertising. Pesavento said he's glad he doesn't work on that side.
“If I’m our head of sales, I’m picking the highest point and contemplating jumping,” he said. “We need to find less intrusive, more service-orientated ways of monetizing users.”
Savage said he thinks that's going to change with time, though, as advertisers realize the value of the web and find better ways to connect with the audience.
"I think it will be figured out.”
This whole panel was fascinating from a media standpoint, as these are some of the biggest names in the industry. What was particulary notable was where the sites overlap and don't. There are obvious differences between all of these outlets, but they still seemed to generally agree on a lot of principles: avoiding (or not focusing heavily on) generic recaps, finding unique voices and takes and pulling people from the amazing pool of talent that's out there. It's also interesting that most aren't really trying to go head-to-head with ESPN, even in the web space. With that being the case, we may be stuck with the existing "Worldwide Leader" for a while.
Josh Zerkle, Bleacher Report
Tiki Barber, former NFL player/analyst
Maggie Hendricks, Yahoo! Sports
George Atallah, NFLPA
Will Brinson, CBSSports.com
David Fucillo, SB Nation Fantasy/Niners Nation
The panel started with a discussion of what everyone looks for in NFL news, with Barber mentioing how he prefers critical analysis, Atallah talking about how he's focused on issues and how injured players are treated, Brinson enjoying tape breakdowns and intense analysis and Hendricks saying she favours boxscores and human-interest stories.
After that, Atallah got talking about the side of his job that involves reaching out to writers when the NFLPA disagrees with their portrayal of the facts. He said it's generally reasonably cordial.
"Most of the time, it doesn’t get to nuclear levels,” he said.
Atallah said the coverage of the 2011 lockout presented particular issues.
“In general, sportswriters…don’t have a history of covering labour disputes,” he said.
He said the labour dispute and other recent events such as Brandon Ayanbadejo's stance on gay marriage have represented opportunities for the NFLPA to engage in conversations on wider issues.
"There’s this social consciousness, I think that’s taking place as a result of what’s happening in sports tied into quote unquote labour.”
The debate then turned to social media, with Hendricks saying players and bloggers' use of social media should reflect who they are.
“I think social media is in some ways going to be a magnification of you.”
She said that isn't always going to win you friends, though.
"There’s going to be people who don’t like Chris Kluwe or Brandon Adebayo because they’re so strong for gay marriage.”
Barber said social media exposes much more of the NFL world than people have seen in the past.
“With social media, the consumer and the media now has access to all kinds of stuff they didn’t before.”
Atallah said the expansion of social media and blogs has given the NFLPA new opportunities for their players to tell their stories, though, and it's allowed them to expand their sights beyond the traditional media.
"Now, game access is no longer essential, a critical part of telling stories related to football," he said. "I think that’s really helped us as a NFLPA, as a union.”
Brinson got one of the biggest laughs of the day when he talked about how vicious some people can get in comments and on Twitter.
"The Internet's hateful... apart from everyone here."
The expanded Thursday night games this year were discussed heavily, with Barber saying he didn't like the idea.
"When I was getting older as a player, I didn’t feel good until Friday,” he said. “I think the product goes down.”
Atallah said those Thursday games will be studied from an injury perspective afterwards, but he said they have to also be seen in the context of the whole CBA and its player safety improvements, which include less practices, less padded workouts, less offseason activity and a stand against expanding the season to 18 games. He said that last one's particularly important from his standpoint.
"When you break down the revenue you would get from playing two extra games and the injuries you’d get, it’s not worth it," he said.
Atallah said the injuries in the NFL already are staggering.
“We’re looking at 4,500 injuries in the NFL roughly per year,” he said. "We’ve only got 1,800 players."
Fantasy football was also a subject of discussion, with Barber saying that it can feel dehumanizing for players.
“It makes you a commodity almost, to be traded,” he said. “When I was playing, I hated it.”
Not all of the response to players is positive, though, and Atallah said it's the same thing for him on Twitter, where he's received plenty of racist tweets. He said Twitter interactions can be motivating as well as demoralizing, though.
Hendricks said similar things happen in the Yahoo! comments, but although tools like the thumbs-up, thumbs-down symptom to promote or hide comments help, the bigger problem is societal.
“I don’t know if there’s a good way to erase hate from a comments section because there is hate in the world," he said. “We have to erase hate in the world before we can erase it in the internet.”
Atallah was asked about the NFLPA's approach to concussions, and he said that's a crucial topic for them.
"It’s a major priority,” he said. “We’ve been on the Hill talking about this issue. ... We’ve talked to everybody there is about this issue.”
The final element discussed was why there isn't more coverage of good-news stories and players' charity work. Brinson said the problem isn't a shortage of stories, but a shortage of reader interest in seeing those consistently.
“If you started charitableathletes.blogspot.com, you would have a lot of stories and no traffic."
Thoughts: The NFL panel was particularly notable because of the range of perspectives involved. WIth some of the other ones, everyone seemed generally on the same page; here, there's clearly a contrast between the approach Barber takes, the tack Atallah takes and between the approaches taken by all of the different bloggers. A lot of key issues were hit here, and the charity discussion was particularly interesting; that's a very real element of news coverage that isn't always discussed. It was a solid panel that managed to cover a lot of ground, and made valuable points on much of it.