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Personally-branded sites key to staying ahead of the curve for sportswriters, media outlets

It used to be you could entice a prominent writer to join your staff with an offer of a signature column. Of course, that now is as ancient as somebody shouting out “copy” in the newsroom.

How about a featured role in a TV show? Nice, to be sure, but that still seems so yesterday.

No, there’s a new trend occurring in the sports media landscape. If you really want to attract or keep that big-name star, create a personally branded website. Then to add some extra incentive, give that star complete control over editorial content and hiring for the site.

Call it the sports version of a studio allowing a big-name actor to direct and produce a movie.

ESPN actually started the trend by telling Bill Simmons to conceive and develop Grantland. Monday, Sports Illustrated unveiled Peter King’s new MMQB site which will have its own staff covering the NFL.

Then right on top of that, ESPN signed on Nate Silver and his popular FiveThirtyEight site Monday. Send in those resumes because Silver will be in a hiring mode to fill out his staff.

Obviously, it is a no-brainer for ESPN to exploit Silver’s massive web powerhouse. However, it is telling that Silver said the presence of Grantland helped entice him to choose ESPN over other offers. The template already was in place. Judging by Silver’s comments, Simmons likely recruited him.

“I would say also the importance of Grantland, a successful precedent, was very important for me,” Silver said. “There were a lot of dimensions I thought about.  This decision took me a long time, but one of the pivotal ones was what I call execution, based on who can actually put this vision into practice, who can be a good partner.  Based on meeting John and Marie Donoghue and Ben Sherwood at ABC and Bill Simmons and David Cho, I have a lot of confidence that they’re going to do this the right way.”

Grantland also is the most-used comparison to King’s new site. Like Grantland, MMQB will be more about telling stories and offering insights rather than tick-tock, nuts-and-bolts coverage of the NFL. King isn’t even sure if his staff will cover games.

“What I like to do, and part of the excitement in this, is to bring people inside the NFL,” King said. “Access. If you look at what I’ve done at Sports Illustrated, that’s a big part of it.”

So what intrigued King about starting his own site at age 56?

“The ability to say this is what I would like to do and here are the people I would like to do it with,” King said. “This is an attempt to stay ahead of the curve and not get crushed by the curve.”

Indeed, if you go to the site’s home page, it clearly states at the top, “MMQB with Peter King.” If that isn’t cool for a lifelong sportswriter, what is?

You can be sure other big-name sportswriters and personalities have noticed. If they are so inclined, they might push for their own personally-branded sites.

It wouldn’t be a stretch for ESPN to give the keys to Michael Wilbon and say, go have fun. How about Skip Bayless and/or Stephen A. Smith site? That would be an alarming proposition for their critics, but hey there’s a lot of scary stuff on the web.

If King’s site is a success for SI, it would make sense to do something similar for Tom Verducci and baseball. Yahoo! Sports could do the same with Adrian Wojnarowski and the NBA.

It doesn’t have to be limited sportswriters. ESPN could opt to do a Kirk Herbstreit site for college football. NBC Sports might give Cris Collinsworth his own NFL site.

The possibilities go on and on.

It’s all about branding. The top sportswriters and TV analysts have become major brands. Fans want to hear their take on sports.

You can read about the NFL, or you can read King’s version of the NFL.

Bill Simmons’ brand was strong enough to launch his own site. Sports Illustrated believes Peter King’s brand will attract readers to MMQB. ESPN knows the power of Nate Silver’s brand.

The people who contribute to those sites then are an extension of those brands. They were hand-picked by Simmons, King, Silver, etc. If the person passes Simmons’ litmus test, then there must be something there.

This isn’t to say we are going to see a proliferation of personally-branded sites on the big outlets. But I believe there is a budding trend here.

More big names will get their own sites in the upcoming years. It’s just a matter of who’s next?

For more Ed Sherman on sport media, check out Shermanreport.com and follow@Sherman Report on Twitter.

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