MEDIA

Are Niche Brands The Future of Sports Media?

When former ESPN president John Skipper suddenly resigned in December 2017, longtime ESPN personality and host Dan Le Batard addressed the move emotionally on air during his daily radio show. Like most at the company, Le Betard was blindsided by the news, telling his listeners Skipper was “the reason I work here,” before tearfully reading the statement Skipper made in a company-wide email. 

Now, just over three years later, it appears the pair is back in business together, venturing off from The Worldwide Leader after Le Batard left the company on January 4th. This week Le Batard and Skipper officially announced their company, Meadowlark, which “will emphasize a creator-centric point of view, partnering with industry-leading storytellers on a variety of content projects with an initial focus on sports.” Previous reports said the company will be a  “left-leaning” sports media venture, and the duo could aim to add big name talents and former ESPN colleagues like Jemele Hill, Bomani Jones and Kate Fagan, amongst others. 

The move is another in a sports media trend, with big brands losing ambitious talent looking to forge their own niche within the larger industry. As bigger platforms look to consolidate smaller brands and create content hubs, other niche companies are looking to expand into communities that can thrive self sufficiently. 

The shift follows a similar trend in movies and television.. For many, the Game of Thrones series finale represented the end of content monoculture as we once knew it. Gone are the television events that could garner an audience of 19.3 million like the Thrones finale, or a $2.78 billion box office like Avengers: Endgame. Instead, audiences seem to flock towards more specified content streamlined to their tastes, which then become more intimate social events and communities. With seemingly infinite options in terms of both content options and platforms, consumers are more spread out than ever before. No longer are they forced to watch whatever is on the four major networks, or even the two largest streaming platforms, instead they can survey vast databases of content to find what appeases them best and on their own schedules. To capitalize on that, and rather than funnel their content onto streaming giants, major networks like NBC and HBO have formed their own services, offering their content via monthly subscription separate from the likes of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime. Production studios have looked at similar setups, most notable, Disney’s monstrous platform Disney+, which now houses some of the most lucrative content of all time all in one place. 

The sports world has adjusted in kind. A central hub for one sport or league is hardly a new idea: the NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL and others all boast networks of their own, as do college conferences like the SEC and BIG 10.. But an online, on demand database of content is near revolutionary, especially with the WWE’s many broadcast partners and the pay-per-view model that was standard for the company for decades. UFC’s Fight Pass operates similarly, with live content, original shows and a database of past events, though they have signed and extended a partnership with ESPN for its biggest events since the inception of Fight Pass. Now, rather than just watching live events, fans were able to dip into the WWE or UFC archives, and dial up any past event they wanted, on demand. Where league networks control the content on their networks, here fans are able to do so themselves, no longer subject to network programming, allowing them to streamline their own viewing experiences at a moment’s notice. 

The WWE may have been the first to adjust because they might also have been the first sports entertainment entity to be subjected to ambitious understudies looking to find new outlets to compete. As smaller wrestling factions found ways to build larger audiences with online broadcast and word of mouth, the WWE adjusted and took their brand digital as well. This new evolution of wrestling’s regional model allowed for the likes of Ring of Honor to build their own fanbase and talent pool, largely on the back of the live gate for their traveling show and their more traditional pay-per-view model, which eventually headed online as users paid for live streams of events. New Japan Wrestling forged a domestic thumbprint though similar means and online streams that helped grow a fanbase stateside.  The WWE’s streaming service and on demand database of content the WWE Network has been a rousing success for the brand, pushing them to a record $960.4 in revenue in 2019, and Ring of Honor even followed in their footsteps with their own successful streaming service. Even with the loss of live audiences in 2020, more success for the network is expected in their latest round of revenue reports to shareholders, scheduled for next month. Their third quarter subscribers averaged at 1.6 million, up 6.5% from 2019. 

But as each sport and league breaks out to content of their own, streamlined to their very specific audiences, so too does the coverage of those same sports and leagues. More and more, as networks continue to emphasize commentary over analysis, shows like First Take, Undisputed and Le Batard’s Highly Questionable become flagship offerings. Now, rather than give their work to a larger network, some are going independent, and cashing in. Hill and her former Sportscenter co-anchor Michael Smith left ESPN after a tumultuous battle over the company’s on-air aversion to politics and other lingering issues, and both have set off into the next stages of their careers with their own production companies. Hill has several outlets at the moment, including a show with another former ESPN anchor Cari Champion, Stick To Sports, and a Spotify podcast. Smith landed at Peacock, NBC’s streaming service, with Brother from Another with former ESPN colleague Michael Holly.

Both of those moves, however, fall short of full-fledged sports media companies or content networks. The closest parallel to that ambitious endeavor is probably Bill Simmons’ journey, first with the ESPN offshoot Grantland, and now with his current home The Ringer, which recently sold to Spotify for nearly $200 million. But Simmons’ platform was built and purchased largely on the back of Simmons seizing the podcast space at the right time. In doing so, Simmons built a nine-figure empire, and Le Batard and Skipper may look to follow suit, as Le Batard made the savvy move to secure the RSS feed of his podcast as part of his severance with ESPN, signaling that podcasting appears to be a part of at least Le Batard’s plans if not the larger plan with Skipper. 

While media heavyweights like Hill, Le Batard and Smith may have grasped the value in creating platforms and content networks as they began to develop a celebrity profile of their own, the athletes they cover may have beaten them to the punch.  Whether it’s taking the opportunity to form brands of their own, as means to either create their own media hubs, or to give fellow athletes the platforms to be their own media voices, they’ve taken their resources and become powerhouses in the media space over the last decade. The LeBron James-backed Uninterrupted strives to be a “content-led, athlete empowerment brand.” Derek Jeter’s Players’ Tribune serves as a platform for athletes to give their own first-person accounts of their stories, through videos, podcasts, editorials and everything in between. The Boardroom takes the stories off the courts and fields and into the boardroom, looking to shed light on the business side of the sports industry. Rather than just singular pieces of recurring content like a podcast or a weekly video series, these content factories of sorts look to cover many bases, and compete with the likes of Simmons’ The Ringer or Barstool Sports as all-encompassing media entities. 

With platforms like Twitch, Spotify, Youtube, Instagram, Snapchat and a host of others, there’s no need for Skipper and Le Batard’s company to utilize broadcast television networks for their video content. They can realistically create their content and host it across online spaces, footing the production bill themselves but also raking in the revenue they produce. That revenue is the biggest question at hand, as the talent they’re rumored to be looking at will be expensive, as will production costs for the content they’ll look to produce and promote in order to make an impact in an already crowded market. Sponsorships and paid content opportunities will be abound, and there is always the option of offering the network as a subscription service through the likes of Patreon or their own machinations, similar to The Athletic or what is believed to be their spiritual and perhaps literal opposition, Clay Travis’ Outkick sports. But with names like Le Batard and Skipper, they should find no shortage of suitors as they look to raise funds to kick start their business, and Dan, Papi and friends will be flooding airways, timelines and RSS feeds like they never left.