The Web’s longform sports evolution continues

When the SB Nation blog network rolled out its redesign Tuesday, it also introduced a new longform feature that’s becoming a standard part of many sports web ventures.

This comes on the heels of the launch of Sports on Earth, an online component of USA Today’s revamped sports operation that features the writing of former newspaper columnists Joe Posnanski, Dave Kindred, Chuck Culpepper, Tommy Tomlinson, Gwen Knapp and Shaun Powell, as well as Deadspin founding editor Will Leitch, among other established names.

With Tuesday sunset being the start of Yom Kippur, the SB Nation debut feature was “Mortal Gods,” a long, compelling treatise on baseball great Al Rosen written by R.D. Rosen (no relation) and worthy in quality with the efforts of other sports outlets vying to carve out new audiences with distinctive reporting and commentary.

While the overall SB Nation design is cleaner and much easier to navigate than before (with more than 300 fan blogs it needed to be), the visual experience with the longform feature still needs some work. For the moment, it looks like several different magazine format blocks jumbled together.

That’s a minor quibble, however. The most encouraging development about this project is the addition of noted sports author and historian Glenn Stout as the guiding force behind the SB Nation longform feature, which will appear each weekday.

He’s the author, most recently, of “Fenway 1912″ and since 1991 has been the editor of “The Best American Sportswriting” series. In an interview with Massachusetts journalist and soccer blogger Kevin Koczwara, Stout explains what he’s aiming for:

“There is always a market for quality writing. We’re not trying to duplicate any other site or any other publication; Grantland, Sports on Earth, The PostGame, The Classical, Deadspin, ESPN and even magazines like Sports Illustrated are all doing something different. So are we. We’re not bound to the news of the day. I’m personally not interested in writing from the couch, or work that apes sports talk radio or exists just to create empty arguments, and we’re not posting twenty stories a day. I’m focused on one thing – making sure you’ll find a sports story worth reading and spending time with, stories you can’t get anywhere else, that you’ll share with your friends, talk about, download to your tablet to read again and want to come back tomorrow to see what’s next. I think we’ll produce lasting work that will stand up to what any other outlet is doing and I’ll put our best up against anyone else’s.”

(Koczwara previously wrote about Stout last month for The Classical.)

How big of a market is there for longform sportswriting on the Web? Can it be as profitable as its recent proliferation might indicate? That’s still to be determined, but it is clear it’s being seen as a way to increase the value of a web property and attract more advertising interest.

Another commercially successful sports blog network, Bleacher Report, began hiring professional writers earlier this year to augment its hefty stable of unpaid fan bloggers. What it offered in audience it lacked in stronger advertising appeal, and changes to its design commenced soon after. In August, Turner Sports bought Bleacher Report for a reported $180 million.

After so many discouraging years of the so-called “race to the bottom” mentality prevailing in the wild expansion of sports sites — loaded with the bimbos, celebrities and snark referred to in the subtitle of this blog —  there’s an emerging realization that chasing page views and appealing to the lowest common denominator just aren’t enough.

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