Q/A with Sports on Earth execs: Why it isn’t Grantland; Luring Posnanski from SI as signature hire

Sports on Earth is another Grantland, right?

Like Grantland, SOE features a daily offering of select stories by top writers. It has a similar look. Grantland has Bill Simmons; Sports on Earth has Joe Posnanski. Both are the endless salad bowl when it comes to going long, longer, longest.

Yet Sports on Earth isn’t Grantland.

A veteran scribe put it to me this way: “The Grantland writer will write about his experience getting to the game. The Sports on Earth writer will write on the game.”

OK, that may be stretching it a bit when it comes to Grantland. The site does have quality writing about sports. But it also veers in pop culture and other areas that go beyond the arena.

Sunday, Grantland’s main headlines included posts on Adele, Tim Burton and Liam Neeson. All three couldn’t have been worse Sunday than my fantasy quarterback Cam Newton (you were horrible, Cam), but that’s about it when it comes to sports parallels.

Sports on Earth is just about sports. It will write on Coco Crisp (also had a rough day) getting a poor break on a ball as opposed to Breaking Bad.

SOE, a joint venture between USA Today Sports and MLB Advanced Media, debuted in August. The site features Posnanski, the headliner lured over from Sports Illustrated, Tommy Tomlinson, Gwen Knapp, Dave Kindred, Leigh Montville, Will Leitch, Shaun Powell, Chuck Culpepper, among many others.

With that kind of lineup, the content couldn’t help but be strong. But will it make for a successful site?

And looking to the future, has Sports on Earth secured the domain name for Sports on Mars?

I did a Q/A with SOE general manager Steve Madden and editor Larry Burke.

How did it happen that USA Today and MLB joined forces here?

Steve Madden: The idea for a sports site, and not just a sports site, but one very specific to the best writers on all kinds of sports news, is something that had been discussed on (MLB Advanced Media CEO) Bob Bowman and (MLB.com editor) Dinn Mann. It had percolated along here for a while.

The way the world works, Bob Bowman got to know Tom Beusse (president of USA Today Sports Media Group) because their sons go to school together. They started to kick around ways to work together. It seemed to make sense. BAM has this new technology and USA Today has been aggressive about building a sports destination. It seemed like a good idea to work together to do it.

How do you explain this site?

Larry Burke: I say it is built around great writing. Columns and quick analysis. We do some deeper dives. We’ll do some enterprise writing, like the piece Selena Roberts did on Floyd Landis and Lance Armstrong.

We look at it as the idea of less being more. We all aspire to be a news site per se; a place where you come to check scores or headlines. We want to be on the news without a lot of clutter. You’ll find 5, 6, 7 things to read each day, and it’s easy to navigate through it.

We’ll have some surprises. As you develop a relationship with the site, you’ll say, ‘There’s something I didn’t expect to see. I’ll give it a shot because I like what I saw last time.’

You talk about clutter. Is there a feeling that some of these sites are too overwhelming and people stay away? Is this the counter to that idea?

Madden: I’m not sure that’s a counter to that idea. We don’t think people will say, ‘I’m just going to go there and not go to other sports sites.’ It’s just that a lot of sites are a mile wide and in some spots, an inch deep. We think there’s a real value proposition to providing a lot of focus on sports and the sports of the day.

Voices seems to be a key word There are so many voices out there. Talk about the important of having good voices that people want to read.

Burke: The phrase we kicked around a lot was ‘great writing with a point of view.’ Joe brings that unique voice. We looked for writers who didn’t have that quote-unquote take, but were able to step back and look at things in interesting, smart and sometimes different ways. When you’re writing on pieces in the news, there are a lot of choices. We know people have choices. Why would they come to us? How do we get our place in the universe? The bar is set high.

Joe Posnanski had a good job at SI. You must have done a good sales job to get him to come over.

Madden: The only other sales job I did better was on my wife. It wasn’t so much that I needed a big name. I wanted a name people would recognize because of the quality of his work. That’s why Joe has a following. Joe’s work is emblematic of what the best sportswriting can be. It is insightful, analytical. It’s really well done. He makes an emotional connection that’s really, really important. How can you go wrong? The other writers who have come along are also like that.

(Steve was told) Joe’s piece on Steve Sabol was the single best thing he read on that topic. That’s our goal, to deliver the single best piece on that topic. If that’s the goal, then you need to hire people like Joe Posnanski.

What’s your response when people say you want to be another Grantland?

Burke: It seems to come up a lot more outside these walls than inside. I can see why. Structurally, Grantland is a site about great writing existing in a larger entity: ESPN.com. In a simplistic way, you can say we’re the Grantland of USA Today.

I never thought of it that way. I don’t think anyone here did. I personally feel the writing at Grantland is terrific. I feel there are a number of sites and publications that are doing great work. We’re not trying to knock anyone out of the way. We’re trying to pull up a seat at the table. Everyone here felt that there was a place for something like this.

Grantland does more with pop culture.

Madden: There are a couple of differences. They have the latitude to write about pop culture. We decided one of the things that makes us different is that we focus just on sports. Second part of it is the newsiness. Writing off news is pretty important to us.

What are the goals here? What’s reasonable to expect in this market?

Madden: We’ve only just started. One of the things I’m pleased about is the average time spent on the site. It’s 7 1/2 minutes. Because of the way we designed this thing, the central experience is about reading. Now we have an engagement story to tell, which is great.

The other encouraging metric is direct load. People like what they see and they’ve bookmarked it. They’re coming back daily. Those numbers are pointing in the right direction.







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