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Rob Neyer’s ESPN SweetSpot Network Falls Short

Its with great trepidation that I write this piece in which I’ll point to the many deficiencies of ESPN’s newest foray into Sports 2.0, The Sweet Spot Network,  Rob Neyer’s brain child consisting of about 20 MLB blogs. I have voiced my concern to ESPN on this front and feel strongly enough to air my grievances publicly. I’ll get into specifics in a bit, but first I”ll share some thoughts on the network from one of its own members who voiced their own displeasure of the network to me in an email.

“I’ve been clamping my tongue at how much of a joke their SweetSpot network is. They just want to be able to say they have a network and get the traffic credit from the already built in traffic. They don’t try to send traffic our ways, they don’t pay — even on a rev split basis –, they don’t host (so I actually lost money making the move)… it just doesn’t make sense.”

Before I get into the nitty gritty, I should say that 2 great former Bloguin blogs have ventured to The Sweet Spot Network and I wish them the best of luck. In fact ESPN has seduced a handful of our blogs (to various networks they have) in addition to other defections we’ve sustained over the years to other competing networks. It happens as publisher needs change over time and network offerings and areas of emphasis also change.

Over time, I’ve never complained to a blog publicly or privately about leaving  because I always felt they were going to be entering a beneficial and fair relationship. Having worked at Yardbarker previous to Bloguin, I can say its just part of the business and I’ve been on both sides of blogs either leaving or entering a relationship with my company.

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For instance, Bucknuts.com, where I still write occasionally initially joined Rivals network (now owned by Yahoo) almost a decade ago. After a period of independence after leaving Rivals, they joined Scout (now owned by Fox) before becoming independent again. Fast forward to today and Bucknuts is now actually ESPN’s first affiliate site and I believe the biggest.  Saying I write for an ESPN affiliate has often helped me in procuring interviews and gaining credibility for future positions so I 100% understand the value of that brand affiliation that many bloggers have been drawn too.

Unfortunately though SweetSpot membership doesn’t offer anything significant past that affiliation and requires way way too much. Below are some key points to consider:

Monetization – No Compensation for Traffic Representation

Depending on the amount of traffic, blogs can yield anywhere from a few cents to a few thousand dollars a month. The three variables that dictate how much you make are amount of page views, number of ads per page, and ECPM (rate per thousand ad units) your ads get.

There are literally thousands of not tens of thousands ad networks and various providers that can help you fill your ad inventory. Obviously its in your best interest to partner with those that will provide the highest ad rates for your site. For the sports vertical, there are a handful of companies who you can work with who specialize in selling ads for sports sites and are able to extend publishers better ad rates because of the targeted audience they can sell to advertisers.

All of these companies require documents from Comscore and Nielsen that identify you as a member site of that network so ad agencies and advertisers can look up traffic information about the site and the network that sells its advertising inventory.

ESPN requires these documents to join their network. They do not offer advertising or any other form of  compensation meaning two things. 1) Member sites cannot partner with premium ad companies to have their inventory filled at solid rates 2) ESPN gets credit for that traffic thus helping their ad sales although member sites will not capitalize on any success on this front.

I know ESPN has argued to publishers leaving legacy ad agreements, that ESPN needs some way to measure the success of the network. Apparently Google Analytics, Quantcast, and SiteMeter were not suffice despite the fact they measure sites and networks in real time and more accurately than Comscore and Nielsen monthly panel reports.

Ownership of Content – The following section is disputed by ESPN. With conflicting info from ESPN and member sites, the section below should be taken with a grain of salt

Despite not being paid by ESPN or any help with key areas like hosting and design, reportedly ESPN requires ownership of your content. Cue crowd booing.

Actually that’s not that terrible as other networks can often do the same. However in these scenarios the ownership of the content is part of a much more elaborate partnership agreement typically involving monetization, equity, and forms of site support. From the buzz around the blogosphere, ESPN is asking for ownership of content on the site even before the site partnered with ESPN. If only Drew Rosenhaus or Scott Boras could be employed to negotiate agreements on behalf of bloggers.

We’re Like True Hoop Except for All The Good Stuff

Many time over, Rob and the crew have pointed to the True Hoop network as the model they wish to emulate. Per the post announcing SweetSpot’s recent expansion

“We’re just beginning to consider some of the endless possibilities, but we’re drawing on the ideas and the fantastic success of Henry Abbott’s TrueHoop Network.”

Well I think trying to emulate True Hoop would be a great idea. The first thing you could do is pay writers just like they do.

I was a little dismayed to learn that True Hoop also lacked some key services for their network members but came to the realization that the compensation of a several hundred dollars a month for each blog was enough compensation to make up for any short comings in other areas. If you don’t offer design, hosting, and advertising services, well certainly a couple hundred dollars will allow you some budget to address those needs. In some cases its more than enough, but in others its probably less than they could have made on advertising. Regardless it was significant, a great gesture, and something that squashed any qualms I had.

SweetSpot has the same lack of services yet offers no compensation. The quote at the beginning of this blog now becomes more clear. Blogs are LOSING money by partnering with the world’s largest and most successful sports media company. Absolutely ridiculous….

Another drastic shortcoming is the lack of a promotion and vision leading the effort. Henry Abbott has long been considered a good citizen of the blogosphere and knows the blog landscape and personalities well enough to move mountains at ESPN to get the True Hoop Network off the ground.  He was also wise in tapping Kevin Arnovitz as an editor to work with the network to build awareness and promotion.

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With True Hoop you have basically two experts in basketball new media who have gone to great lengths to promote these sites, get them paid, and build awareness through Twitter like the account above.

On the flip side, Rob doesn’t have a right hand man like Kevin and his roots are in old media. You can just rip through the archives and Twitter feeds comparing the amount of promotion each network gets and you’ll see a massive discrepancy in how much affiliate sites are getting promoted between both networks.

You’re On Your Own When It Comes to Everything That Doesn’t Involve Our Logo on Your Site

Bloguin is among a group of a dozen blog networks that offer a combination of services to blogs. There is a lot of ways you can go in terms finding a partner to meet you needs. But other than the brand affiliation with ESPN, you’re not going to get any additional services. Worse is that you won’t be able to partner with networks that can offer you services that ESPN doesn’t provide as they are hell bent on exclusivity. picture_10_copy

This is really a shame as ESPN is about 1/2 a decade late to the blog game and a lot of companies have already staked their claim to the sports blogosphere. Bloguin in addition to many other networks have effectively roped off their sites from future infringements with more aggressive agreements with their networks or outright ownership of the site and content. If ESPN continues to launch blog networks with the strategy of not working with the existing pecking order of the blogosphere, they’re going to find themselves locked out of a lot of great content providers. You can even make the case that True Hoop and SweetSpot have already had to deal with the recruiting reality that many of the best sites are already locked up.

Sites who have made the transition to SweetSpot also have had to pay out of pocket for a variety of services while also having revenue from their site disappear or decrease dramatically.

That’s really a shame as I know having worked with hundreds of bloggers over the years where the revenue that goes into blogs is often invested in a lot of cool blog relevant things such as season tickets, cable/satellite packages, road trips, merchandise, etc.  Worse yet some bloggers pay actual bills with their revenue or put it aside for charity or good causes like their children’s college account. That last sentence comes unbelievably sappy, but its the truth. Bloggers can make money and that money is often a significant part of their livelihood.

The ESPN logo/affiliation comes with a pricetag for any site with over 10,000 hits a month.

In Closing…….

Sour grapes? Maybe. I mean these sites did enter into an agreement with ESPN voluntarily, but at the same token the same can be said about door to door salesman who were duped by Kirby or Cutco.

I think you can chop a lot of my gripes to the fact that ESPN is green to a lot of the blogosphere and that maybe Rob bit off more than he can chew. Still though its a little disconcerting that SweetSpot members are entering into an arrangement drastically inferior to the benefits of the network they’re allegedly looking to emulate.

I’ve discussed the merits of the SweetSpot Network with many other leaders in the Sports 2.0 space and their bewilderment of the value of the network has only reinforced my thoughts that this was a raw deal for bloggers. I hope this message doesn’t again go on deaf ears and that bloggers begin to vocalize some of the shortcomings pointed out in this blog to instill some change going forward.

ESPN has the resources to do much better than this and will hopefully take their foray into sports blogging a bit more seriously. A larger argument can be made that ESPN just doesn’t know how to interact with the growing sports blogosphere with a track record of not crediting them, plagiarizing full articles, ignoring them in blog specific features, and creating PR nightmares for their own.

For now lets hope they realize that a lot of hard work and commitment go into building a successful blog. Partnering with ESPN is indeed a great distinction but it should not have to be a sacrifice at the same time.

Ben Koo

About Ben Koo

Copying and pasting my Twitter bio. I'm also refusing (for now) to write this in the third person. This is me - CEO of @Bloguin, GM at @AwfulAnnouncing, world's greatest chinese jew, proud Buckeye, funny dude, and sports and digital media zealot.

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