ESPN Does Pay Bloggers……Just Not Their Own

Awhile back I wrote an extended piece on why I didn’t like ESPN’s affiliate model network.  Currently ESPN has three different external networks which span the NBA (True Hoop), MLB ( SweetSpot), and NCAA (not named). The piece I wrote back in April seemed to solicit a lot of reaction including:

1- A handful of really nasty and unprofessional emails from ESPN. One of them went out of the way to point out that the very few select bloggers who do get paid by ESPN, actually make way less than I suggested. Ok…. I had it wrong. ESPN does NOT pay very select bloggers a GOOD monthly stipend, but rather pays select group of very select bloggers a very SMALL stipend. My bad.

2- Support from sports 2.0 and online advertising professionals who were glad that I accentuated the case against ESPN

3- Support from bloggers for explaining how and why their various network models were flawed.

It seems that my take has been embraced by others as one blogger  references a lot of my talking points in explaining why he turned ESPN down. I’ve also heard of many other sites giving them a no, so it’s no real surprise that Rob Neyer, who runs the MLB network, is having a tough time finding quality bloggers (maybe its because they’re already alligned with network partners that provide real value).

“As you’ve noticed, Billy, we don’t yet have all the teams covered. I’ll be completely honest with you … I thought we’d have 25 teams covered by now, and probably all 30 by the All-Star break.

Instead we’ve got 21, with (at this moment) no real prospects for more. I do think we’ll make some progress this season. I just don’t know when, or how much. “

Rob’s post actually didn’t go over too well as seemed it to dismiss the possibility of new bloggers being able to fill the void of unsuccessful recruiting efforts

“The sad truth is that even if you’ve got the time to write about your favorite team every day, you probably don’t have the analytical skills or the writing chops we’re looking for. You might, someday.”

Not the most glowing endorsement to get in the blogging game eh? The above quote and the tweet below definitely don’t have the feel of a guy who really embraces blogging as a new form of media (besides his own blogging of course)

Enough picking on Rob on getting back on point as to why these networks are flawed regardless of what out of touch ESPN suit runs them.

I’ve meant to write this post for the last week or so, but the timing seems right given that (where I write on the side), the first ever ESPN affiliate, is now  considering leaving ESPN. Below is a snippet in a recent article and its just a morsel of the full story behind the scenes which I can’t share in this post.

But we never fully realized our ambitions to have more timely and more considered recruiting information, and we took a ton of grief for just affiliating with the “four letter word”.

Now, I ask you: should we stay or should we go? Is it worth the “brand” without the cattle? Is ESPN more a hindrance or a help?

The chatter in the comments and in the forums is very critical of ESPN with negative opinions about ESPN’s partnership with Bucknuts outnumbering positive ones by about a 6:1 ratio.

Well the owner of Bucknuts knows my feelings about this and my prior blog on this topic is probably a better suited to make the case against ESPN, but I’d like to submit some new evidence that I think is further proof of a senseless, dumbfounding, and somewhat incompetent digital network strategy.

Below I present exhibits A, B, and C into evidence. Please note the ESPN advertising on all three and the site you are seeing the advertising on. Although they are promoting ESPN on ABC, these ads refreshed every couple of days to promote games on ESPN as well and I know for a fact it was ESPN’s ad campaign.





Yes, ESPN bought ads on and you know what? It was a smart move. The above 3 screenshots show ESPN buying ads across three different advertising companies and three different publishers. Someone even just emailed me that Fanhouse also received some ad dollars from ESPN as well.

Given that the NBA playoff schedule can be painfully erratic (multiple days between games) in addition to games being televised on three different networks (TNT, ESPN, ABC), the ESPN ad campaign certainly made sense. In fact it worked on me several times when I came to the realization that a big game was coming up that I was unaware of.

ESPN targeted quite possibly tens of millions of sports fans spanning 3 different sports specific ad networks and the campaign (which refreshed creative for every game of the semi finals and finals) most likely was spread across thousands of publishers. Seeing some of the accounting for these campaigns, I can tell you that they paid well and the ad buy was pretty significant. In fact ESPN also had a very large campaign a couple months before promoting ESPN3 which targeted many of the same networks and publishers.

Between those two ad buys, you’re looking at a handful of ad companies and thousands of sports websites dividing up what was likely a 100k-200k ad buy by ESPN….maybe more.

But what about the 60-80 official ESPN affiliates? With ESPN finally making the move to advertising its events and products externally off of its own properties and channels, sadly ESPN neglected their own affiliates here.

All of the sites you’ve seen with ESPN advertising above, all have advertising deals that outsource the selling of ads on their site to others. All of these outsourced ad companies require very basic documents that allow your traffic numbers to be part of their umbrella network numbers that ad agencies look at to help guide ad buying decisions. These documents are standard practice and nobody really requires them unless they are selling your ads.

But that’s not the case with ESPN. They require you to leave any existing premuim advertising agreement you already have or give up the right to enter one in the future.  ESPN simply aggregates all their affiliate’s traffic numbers and rolls them up to their total number and that’s what ad agencies look at. The end result is a number inflated by blogger’s hard work. The higher number helps attract ad buys….. buys that go on and not to any of the bloggers sites.  ESPN refuses to offer any substantive advertising package for any affiliate sites. I have heard they offered to try to sell ads on some larger sites, but it was more of a ploy to get certain sites signed up.

In a nutshell, you’re helping ESPN sell their own ads, you’re not allowed to sells yours , and when ESPN themselves feels like throwing some bucks around, they’re not going to figure out a way for you get any of those dollars.

Their defense for requiring advertising network documents is that it will help them track the growth of the network as whole. If that were true, they’d use Google Analytics, Site Meter, Quantcast, and not unreliable panel tracking systems that are only relevant to ad agencies.

The truth is that Yahoo Sports  leaped over ESPN in terms of total audience size online in 2007 when they purchased the Rivals network and it probably took suits at ESPN awhile before they realized that it was effecting their ad sales. Hmmm…. if Yahoo leveraged a publisher network to get the upper hand, then why not do the same except not by means of an acquisition or any real substantive partnership? Why not just offer a partnership based 100% on pimping ESPN’s brand and not based on technology, platform, advertising, content promotion, and hosting?

I think some of this was just arrogance. ESPN must have laughed off Yahoo Sports at first and could you blame them? An upstart internet company on the West Coast, whose main business was search advertising.. Yahoo couldn’t be a threat right? But Yahoo’s best in class fantasy sports offerings, growing stable of traditional sports writers, the acquisition of Rivals, prowless at SEO, and Jamie Mottram’s growing sports blog empire served as a fatal recipe that saw ESPN not only passed by Yahoo but also having that lead grow for years. Yahoo also just acquired Citizen Sports for a reported 50-60 million dollars, so it looks like Yahoo has already beat them to the next frontier on Facebook and mobile phones. Maybe ESPN shouldn’t have adopted a strategy of trying to figure out how to optimize playing auto play videos bracketed with ads on seemingly every page and rather looked to the greater web for some ways to reclaim their top standing.

This leads us to today where Rob Neyer can’t fill out his network, the college football network is on the verge of imploding per multiple sources, network sites can’t monetize effectively nor gain access to ESPN’s own ad spend, and then there is this kicker below.


Most network sites don’t or potentially are not allowed to run any ads (or at least premuim ads) as you can see above. But what you do see is ESPN’s video player which is required on many network sites playing a Jim Beam commercial. News flash: Pre roll 15-30 second video commercials pays A LOT better than typical banner ads. Although its not obvious to the trained eye, ESPN is actually running lucrative advertising programs camouflaged as additional content for network sites and I am sure you can guess by now who is pocketing this ad money.

I don’t really enjoy the role of calling attention to some of these details, but its painfully glaring to me just how ill conceived ESPN’s foray into external networks has been. I’d also like to point out that around the new year, long before I ever voiced my displeasure here, I did multiple calls and exchanged dozens of emails with the folks at ESPN on this very topic to little avail.

While you could maybe consider my opinion to be that of bitter competitor to ESPN, I think you’d also have to take into consideration that I’ve written at large about the online sports space and generally write very positive pieces that span companies like Yardbarker, FSV, FanSided, Fox Sports, Watercooler Sports, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation.

In the end, ESPN’s motives are pretty clearly murky at best and bloggers are suffering the price and getting a raw deal.  You don’t have to take my word for it as below is part of email I received from an ESPN affiliate who came to the realization that ESPN’s network provided no value and was actually costing him money.

“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.”

I think the most obvious remedy to all of this is either paying bloggers flat fees if ESPN didn’t want to roll up the sleeves to figure out how to run ads on network sites. The other option is running ads on network affiliates and when a advertiser (say Nike, EA, or Gatorade) didn’t have an ad to display, ESPN could fill the unsold inventory with house ads promoting their shows, upcoming games, etc.

The network model described above has actually been adopted by Canada’s The Score Network and has been quite successful attracting bloggers to sign up, building awareness for The Score’s programming, and also attracting advertisers who are excited about available blog inventory. At this point this is an obvious move, but I think the poor saps at ESPN in charge of these type of efforts would probably look a little passe in offering up these ideas in 2010 when they should have been explored around 2006 or at very least when Yahoo got the jump on ESPN in 2007.

Time will tell if sense and innovative thinking will prevail over arrogance and stubbornness, but given the track record and the having personal knowledge of some of the individuals over at ESPN, I think we’ll continue to see more of the same. To quote one industry person “ESPN doesn’t think its a good idea, unless they came up with it.”

About Ben Koo

Owner and editor of @AwfulAnnouncing. Recovering Silicon Valley startup guy. Fan of Buckeyes, A's, dogs, naps, tacos. and the old AOL dialup sounds