The Future of Thrashers Coverage

Brook Barnes of The New York Times pointed out that ESPN.com is expanding into covering the local sports market in three more cities (New York, Los Angeles and Dallas). This began as an experiment in Chicago where ESPN Chicago went head to head with the local sports media by using ESPN's radio resources, video and local bloggers providing team specific content.

Barnes: In less than three months, ESPN Chicago has become the city’s top sports site, attracting about 590,000 unique visitors in June, according to data from comScore, an Internet measurement company. Second place went to The Tribune’s online sports section with 455,000 unique visitors.

Even if ESPN Local were to expand to Atlanta I'm not sure they would have much of an impact on Thrashers coverage given their tepid hockey coverage. According to QuantCast, they estimate that the AJC.com sports page averaged 45,000 page views the last three months (this strikes me as extremely low compared to the Chicago Tribune website). In June and July, Bird Watchers Anonymous has averaged 22-25,000 page views. I can't get an estimate of the hits for the AJC Thrashers page for the last two months, but I suspect that this site is fairly competitive with their numbers.

The truth is that I can provide informed coverage of the team for a fraction of what it costs the AJC. I've followed the NHL for 24 years and the Thrashers from 10 years. Each time the AJC gets a new beat reporter they have to gear up and learn the basics of the NHL's CBA, the waiver rules, and so forth--all things a die hard fan can pick up on HF Boards in their spare time.

The expense of coverage has already led to sharp cuts in road travel by many NHL beat writers. Papers in New York, Los Angeles and Nashville have not traveled on key road trips last season. It seems highly likely that the Atlanta Thrashers will be in that category in the coming season. I anticipate a lot of AP stories from road cities.

SportsBusiness Journal recently surveyed editors from 50 North American daily newspapers (46 U.S.,  four Canada) that regularly covered at least one team in the NFL, NBA, NHL or Major League Baseball both at home and on the road. The pool included 15 of the nation’s 25 largest daily papers and 30 of the largest 50.

Those 50 departments had cut the equivalent of 303 full-time jobs through an 18-month span that ended in May, reducing staff sizes by about 20 percent through a combination of buyouts and layoffs.

Not surprisingly, sports sections are smaller. Space was down about 20 percent from the start of last year, with sections sliced by an average of six pages per week, or almost a page a day. For many, that continues a steady decline that began about five years ago. All but two papers reported reductions in travel.

Dan Shanoff points out that ESPN's new local sports coverage in many ways copies what SB Nation has already started. Replacing local media coverage with fan generated content produced at a lower cost than a traditional paper. Newspapers losing $1 million a week are going it hard to compete with sites that provide comparable content for a fraction of the cost. This is the harsh reality of the new digital media.

Shanoff: Local newspapers' sports power was already under erosion on other fronts, besides ESPN: SB Nation has put together the best collection of team-based blogs found online, across every sport, in every market, with coverage that -- yes -- complements local news, but also goes a long way to displace it. Its distribution deal with Yahoo -- itself a traffic firehose -- amplified that power exponentially.

For decades the formula for professional sports teams was to put out a sports entertainment product and grant access to the local newspaper and TV media. In exchange for the access to players and game events these media outlets would "broadcast" information to readers and local TV news watchers. This was a major plus to an emerging sports team like the Thrashers who were seeking new fans in a crowded sports entertainment marketplace (Atlanta). But for teams in non-traditional markets, the well-worn path of using mainstream media didn't always work out so well.

Dirk Hoag: "Even when they were traveling, the amount of space they gave the beat writer was ridiculous," said Gerry Helper, senior vice president of communications and development for the Predators. "We need more coverage. More attention. If we don’t feel we’re reaching a broad enough audience, or even reaching our core fans (through the local newspaper), we have to find other ways."

The days of using newspapers and local TV news sports segments to widely distribute content to casual sports fans is fading away. The future of media is online and it will be user directed. A team like the Thrashers can not just hope that a Braves fan will stumble upon an article about the Thrashers while perusing the paper and become more interested in the team. Young people don't read newspapers anymore, they heavily utilize social media like Facebook, My Space and Twitter. If the Thrashers want to generate new fans they need to facilitate social media where younger people chatter on about their love of the Thrashers. They need those young adults who will drag their friends to a game at Philips Arena. That's the future of reaching new fans.

SB Nation and other sites are catering to exactly that sort of fan. The person who just can't get enough about their favorite team. The fan who has been looking for more depth than the local paper or TV station wants to offer or can afford to offer. Once again I want to thank all the fans who have adopted SB Nation as a place for their Thrashers content. The good news is that the future is quite bright.

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