The future of independent sports websites

On Sunday NBC Sports and Yahoo! Sports announced that they have entered into a content-sharing arrangement, the latest example of old/new media collaboration in the hotly contested sports domain.

Unlike Turner Sports‘ recent acquisition of Bleacher Report, this isn’t a consolidation. Nor is it a vast reorganization, as has happened at USA Today, which also acquired The Big Lead.. Both NBC Sports and Yahoo! Sports will team up on a cross-platform basis primarily for major stories and events, save the Olympics (which remains NBC’s exclusive baby).

Yahoo! Sports has been jockeying with ESPN.com for top spot in ComScore’s sports web traffic rankings for some time, and this new deal is expected to yield 50 million monthly unique visitors for the new partners, the best sports numbers on the web.

The best quick analysis comes from Eric Fisher of the Sports Business Journal, who Tweeted Sunday night that “Point being, big scale, tons of content, lots of cross-platform integration all now pre-reqs to really play in this space.”

“This space” is now almost entirely dominated by corporate media entities or league-run sites such as NFL.com. Of the Top 10 sites on the ComScore sports list, the newly expanded and revamped SB Nation remains as a rare independent. The addition of excellent new content, such as the daily Longform feature I wrote about recently, was done to make SB Nation more valuable to advertisers.

But what about potential suitors for a merger, or a content-sharing agreement? Last week, Brian Solomon of Forbes dug into SB Nation’s prospects, speculating that it’s only now breaking even after spinning off from the liberal Daily Kos political blog network. It could be ripe for some kind of association, at the very least.

In just a very short order, the top corporate sports media players have strengthened their grip on the numbers and metrics that advertisers value most. Others are struggling to keep up, namely Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News, which announced today it is ending its 126-year print run and will become digital only.

As a veteran of corporate media who’s spent the last eight years on the digital side, I appreciate the power of the full-service sports sites. They reel in enough revenues to subsidize the longform experiments going on at places such as ESPN.com’s Grantland and USA Today’s Sports on Earth.

But the obsession over reaching numbers also figures, at some point, to crowd out anything but the top traffic-driving content. With the exception of ESPN.com’s espnW, most of these sites do little with women’s sports. While soccer has grown in popularity that’s reflected on many of these sites, some of the best material produced about the sport continues to be on independent sites, including the new XI Quarterly and American Soccer Now.

This is encouraging, but I wonder about the ability of other, and still-to-come independent sites on niche sports topics to enter the fray — on their own level, of course — and sustain themselves. If they’re successful enough on the right subjects, they might easily be swallowed up.

The competition to cover the NFL, college football, Major League Baseball and other dominant sports undoubtedly will be ramping up, even more fiercely than what we’re seeing now. But there is so much else about the sports world that doesn’t fit this bill, and the young male demographic desired by advertisers, that could be neglected entirely in the battle for more page views and unique visitors.

I don’t know what the numbers are for The Classical, which just celebrated its first year and was launched via Kickstarter with some impressive editorial ambitions. As editor David Roth writes, it’s “less business-neutered, less gymnastic in its starchy and secretly dumb avoidance of the colloquial; it has some intimation of humanity to it.” We need more of this quirkiness, however uneven The Classical has been at times, and even though it’s not a full-time job for the contributors.

The opportunities are there to deliver news, information and community on sports topics that are starving for attention, and have a respectable audience to reach. Like the best hyperlocal news sites, it will take some very dedicated, patient individuals to “cultivate a small field,” shunning volume for topical distinction and quality.

But it’s becoming a greater challenge to make this work, since “scale” seems to be all the rage.

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