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4 traits of successful digital sports publishers

By Philippe Guay


New York


It’s no secret the face of publishing is changing rapidly. However, there is a great opportunity for publishers to seize new audiences and connect with readers in a more personal way than ever before.

One of the big changes we’re seeing is a disaggregation of news — an unbundling of the newspaper we are most familiar with. Much like how customers can purchase one song instead of a full album, today’s readers can now consume just the specific news section they are interested in. As a result, the sports section is now able to break out and stand on its own online.

But how can sports news step into the spotlight and succeed? 

Let’s break down the four traits of sports publishers that have successfully embraced digital.

Sports sections should focus on the user experience, an area in which The Athletic excels.
Sports sections should focus on the user experience, an area in which The Athletic excels.

1. Focus on the experience

Adding a digital element to news has many challenges, but one of the most difficult is understanding the experience of consuming news online has few similarities to physically holding the sports section. The volume and velocity at which you can read and engage with news online can be overwhelming for readers, so how you present your articles is key to keeping your audience’s attention.

User experience (UX) is a top priority at native digital sports publishers like The Athletic. With a focus on mobile and the ability for readers to customise which teams, sports, and content they see, the company is often described as more of a tech company than a publisher. Except the emphasis on experience isn’t just being seen in newly emerging sports sites — it’s industry wide.

Companies like The Atlantic and Slate are also beefing up their UX departments after recognising the link between experience and revenue. To keep readers engaged and on the page long enough to generate valuable ad dollars, publishers have to know their customer well enough to give them exactly what they want. And when it comes to sports, what readers want is the hometown perspective.

2. Focus on the hometown

For many sports fans, their connection to their favourite team runs deep. So deep, in fact, that studies have shown people put their dedication to their sports team above that of their work, friends, and religion. Sports fans talk about the collective “we” — we won the game, we sucked last night, we’re looking good for next season. So it shouldn’t be a surprise readers aren’t interested in hearing about your team.

The beauty of digital publishing is you can tailor the experience to specific segments of people, and the most successful sports publishers are doing just that. USA Today, for example, has developed a series of microsites operating as team-focused news hubs. Chicago Bears fans can head straight to Bears Wire to see news, stats, and videos related only to their teams.

On the other side of the United States, fans are logging on to Seahawks Wire for Seahawks news. Readers are connecting with their teams and the experts who write about them, and the expertise of the sports beat writers are critical to the publishers’ success.

The Players Tribune has a strong focus on quality storytelling.
The Players Tribune has a strong focus on quality storytelling.

3. Focus on quality

What keeps readers coming back for more? It’s the same thing that drives newspaper sales: quality reporting. And, although the need for quality writing is easily understood, sometimes in the push to create a digital strategy quality takes a backseat. The desire to drive additional revenue can be too enticing, leaving a strategy built for clicks rather than for readers. But publishers such as The Players Tribune show just how powerful quality storytelling is for sports publishers.

“I think it’s doom and gloom if you’re building a media company that was built just for clicks,” said Jeff Levick, CEO of The Players Tribune. And he’s right. The Players Tribune was created to give athletes a platform to share their own stories, not to generate revenue. By focusing on quality, the revenue has quickly followed as advertisers flock to be associated with the authenticity of their stories.

Balancing the need to generate ad revenue with the desire to publish quality content can seem daunting for sports publishers, yet it’s critical for longevity online. To succeed, digital sports publishers must look for quality in all aspects of their site, including their monetisation strategy.

4. Focus on modern monetisation

As the Internet has matured, so has users’ tolerance for obnoxious, irrelevant advertising. Developing a digital revenue strategy requires careful consideration into your readers’ behaviour. Publishers like The Athletic are banking on the subscription model to avoid advertising altogether.

However, it isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution as it requires a large number of consistent subscribers to maintain profitability. Many publishers have found greater success with a sophisticated ad strategy combining elements like banners, sponsorships, and videos.

Video remains an expanding opportunity for sports publishers to build revenue while simultaneously improving the user experience — a rare combination. Publishers like the New York Daily News have seen their engagement KPIs and revenue increase as a result of including SendtoNews’ sports highlight video player on all of their sports articles. Not only is the company generating revenue from pre-roll on the highlights, but it is also keeping users in the sports section longer — 44% longer year-over-year to be exact. That translates into additional revenue from other advertisements across the sports section.

By combining a mix of advertising methods with high-quality, official sports content, publishers like the New York Daily News can thrive online.

While everything is shifting both in print and online, publishers are innovating like never before. For sports publishers, in particular, the digital landscape is ripe with opportunity. To know success is to know your customers, and you can’t get a better customer than a die-hard sports fan.

About Philippe Guay

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