A case study: Grantland and successful online publishing

Throughout college, the majority of the sports news I consumed was from the Chicago Tribune (my daily newspaper), ESPN (both TV and Web) and closer to graduation,Deadspin.com. The paper provided me with short and quick updates on my favorite local teams, ESPN gave me the big, national picture and Deadspin popped out offbeat anecdotes, sometimes controversial rumors and entertaining commentaries.

In the last two years, another media property has been added to my favorites list because it fills a void missed by the other three: long-form sports articles that are not only informative, but highly entertaining.

Grantland.com was launched in 2011 by ESPN’s “Sports Guy” columnist Bill Simmons. The articles range from intense “30 for 30”-type pieces to the latest pop culture news. Grantland pieces are original, thought-provoking and witty. Just like director Christopher Nolan challenges his audience with complicated movies filled with twists and turns, Grantland expects quite a bit from its readers. A grain of salt, an appreciation for sarcasm, maturity and a sense of humor.

What’s most telling about this site is that it’s been very successful. According to Compete, the site has more than 600,000 unique monthly visitors.  

This brings me to my larger point. Even though almost anyone can be a publisher these days, not all of these publishers will be successful, have loyal followings and make money.

Among the countless sports websites on the Web, Grantland has set itself apart because of its high-quality content—Simmons is an outstanding writer. Consequently all of the other elements for publisher success have fallen into place: like advertising, content expansion onto new platforms (apps, tablets, print, etc.), enhanced site design and specialized sponsors.

Still, it hasn’t been a cake walk. Grantland’s ad sales team works hard to make money in a challenging environment. Eric Johnson, ESPN Executive VP-Multimedia Sales, tackled that topic in an Ad Age interview:

“We started with presenting sponsors, such as Subway, that have a customized integration into the site. Now we're looking at selling flighted sponsorships around events, so you might see us sell one around the Super Bowl or the NBA Draft. We don't have the desire to just sell display rotational ads. They don't fill a need and it's more profitable this way.

And in some ways, Grantland is like a Hollywood studio that creates different pieces of content, like some of the podcasts, that we can use outside of Grantland but carry the brand with them. One of the deals we have done recently is having Blue Moon sponsor "30 for 30 Shorts."”

Again, because Grantland has strong and diverse editorial content, high-quality advertising breaks have come a bit easier.

I don’t think success based on high-quality content is limited to online sports publishing. Any media company that has expertise on niche topics has a major opportunity if it can be unique, offer a fresh voice and appeal to a core loyal audience.

Grantland publisher David Cho isn’t ready to take a breather and rest on his laurels just yet. He told Ad Age:

 “We're fans of the New York magazine model, where they have the blogs Vulture, The Cut, Daily Intel. That's sort of what we want to do: create destination pages that are stronger and feel like products of their own. We felt like we are putting out some good stuff that's getting lost because we were relying on the home page.”

Online publishers should take note of Grantland’s approach and emphasis on content as they get their sites off the ground.

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