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An (SB) Nation Rises

Newspapers have spent the last several years getting used to a radical idea: that they now compete (and unwittingly collaborate) with hordes of individual bloggers dedicated to a single sport or team.

Now, they face an interesting new challenge: New competitors are coming to town, and they operate at a much larger scale than all those bloggers.

First came ESPN Local. In April 2009, ESPN rolled out the first of its local sites, ESPN Chicago. Since then, ESPN Local outposts have appeared in Boston, Dallas, Los Angeles and New York – and in every city, they’ve quickly become tough competitors for newspaper websites, offering smart writing (often by writers who’ve jumped ship from local papers or been downsized by them), along with video tailored for the local market and audio from a local ESPN radio affiliate. This smorgasbord of content has given ESPN’s ad-sales staff new opportunities to pursue local ad dollars, whether as part of local deals or larger agreements. (See more about ESPN Local and the challenges it poses to existing news operations here.

Now, here comes another competitor: The blog network SB Nation is rolling out 20 regional sports sites in rapid-fire succession. Sites for Boston, Chicago, Detroit, New York, Washington, D.C., and Arizona launched a week ago, and have since been joined by sites for Dallas, Houston, and Kansas City, with Cleveland, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and St. Louis on tap for the coming week. (For more on SB Nation’s rollout, see Paid Content and the New York Times.

SB Nation’s rollout is almost dizzying in its speed, but that blitz reflects the fact that its plan leverages the service’s more than 250 sports sites – most of them team-oriented — to efficiently create regional bundles of sports news. SB Nation CEO Jim Bankoff told PaidContent’s Staci D. Kramer that the rollout didn’t require hiring any new people: SB Nation has only 29 full-time employees, with most of its sites’ contributors receiving monthly stipends, and already had technology to support its sites. Its new networks are ground-up affairs, smart agglomerations of existing assets, while ESPN Local’s sites are smart but top-down endeavors designed to focus the mothership’s national resources and strengths on local markets.

And these two new local players part ways in another crucial respect: ESPN Local has beat writers and columnists, much like the newspapers from which so much of its talent is drawn. SB Nation’s sites, on the other hand, are written by fans for fans – without a whiff of apology for their outside-the-pressbox perspective. “We embrace fan bias,” Bankoff told the New York Times’ Joseph Plambeck. “Newspapers focus on objective coverage – and when you combine the two, you get both perspectives.”

(To be sure, these divisions are not hard and fast. SB Nation does have sites whose writers are credentialed, while ESPN has its innovative TrueHoop network of basketball blogs. Both are interesting developments that bear watching, but I’ll leave them for future columns.)

As a fan, watching ESPN Local and SB Nation come to town has been intriguing.

I’m a Mets fan first; my enthusiasm for other teams and sports is a distant second. My reading habits long ago became fragmented: With the exception of the New York Times, which is the closest thing I still have to a local paper, I rarely visit sports sections as destinations in themselves. Rather, I follow individual writers who happen to cover the Mets, visit Mets pages within the New York dailies’ sports sections, and read Mets coverage through links curated by Mets blogs or tweeted by Mets bloggers and fans I follow.

I quickly became a fan of ESPN New York, whose Mets coverage is consistently superb. But I go to ESPN New York’s Mets blog, and almost never see the site’s home page. The same is true for SB Nation: I’m a daily reader of Amazin’ Avenue, SB Nation’s very smart Mets blog, but doubt I’ll ever go to the New York page. (Disclosure: My Faith and Fear in Flushing co-writer Greg Prince and I contributed to Amazin’ Avenue’s 2010 annual.)

The fragmentation of reader habits, and the attendant atomization of media brands, is a factor every new venture must consider, and with which existing media outposts must wrestle. But besides the fact that most sports fans are less parochial and more regionally minded than I am, for now the financial world in which media brands exist is still based around size and scale. Advertisers still seek brands – whether they’re individual properties or networks – that allow them to efficiently tap local markets. And as my friend Dan Shanoff pointed out last week, big media/telecommunications companies also still think this way. SB Nation’s network, Shanoff notes, isn’t just a smart ad play but also an efficient way for it to demonstrate its usefulness as a partner or potential acquisition.

Finally, I find myself coming back to a consistent theme of this column. Much as I wish it were otherwise, these are anxious times — at best — to be a sportswriter for a newspaper, with SB Nation just the latest competitor to worry about. But if you’re a fan who likes to read, this is a golden age, marked by an explosion of compelling, entertaining stories from pressboxes and couches alike. And if there’s a limit to fans’ hunger for that content, we sure haven’t seen it yet. I worry about the future of newspapers, but I don’t worry about the future of sportswriting.

Jason Fry is a freelance writer and media consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y. He spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy. While at WSJ.com he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing, and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom. Write to him at  jason.fry@gmail.com, visit him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.
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