While bursting with opportunity, the ongoing digital disruption of the publishing industry has brought with it monumental uncertainties, layoffs and, in some cases, wholesale destruction of some media outlets. Perhaps an unforeseen byproduct of these uncertainties, however, is the migration of a class of renowned print journalists to the Web looking to build new outlets from the ground up (sites like Politico come to mind).
Launching in beta on Friday (July 27), Sports on Earth is an attempt at a highbrow, opinion-driven sports site. The venture is a product of an unlikely partnership between USA Today and MLB Advanced Media, the much-admired tech startup/spin-off of Major League Baseball.
USA Today is in the midst of revamping its digital strategy with new hires like editor in chief David Callaway. Meanwhile, MLB Advanced Media, founded in 2000, serves as the technical arm of MLB, hosting MLB.com, MLB.TV, all 30 professional team websites and the back-end infrastructure for more surprising streaming media outlets like Glenn Beck TV and CBS March Madness.
With Sports on Earth, general manager Steve Madden and editor in chief Larry Burke have a simple goal for their new site: top-notch sportswriting. "On this property the central experience is reading," Madden said. "This is very much planting a stake in the ground and saying that we are about the written word."
In essence, Madden and Burke appear in search of recapturing an old-school, quality-over-quantity mentality with the new site. To that end, Sports on Earth's initial masthead provides some clues regarding the company's lofty vision. Among the notable names on board are sportswriter of the year Joe Posnanski, formerly of Sports Illustrated, as well as Gwen Knapp, Shaun Powell and New York Magazine's Will Leitch, who will serve as a contributor.
Madden and Burke are betting that their diverse lineup will scratch an itch that exists only sparsely on the Web. "I think that sports and sports information is a saturated market, but this take is decidedly not," Madden said. "There’s lots of news and places to go for game stories, but there aren’t a lot of places to go for great sports writing on daily topics."
Sports on Earth will, of course, draw natural parallels with Bill Simmons' ESPN property, Grantland, which launched in June 2011 to showcase longer sports features blended with Simmons' flare for pop culture. Madden understands the parallels and even referenced a good-natured blogosphere joke about a "back-alley knife fight" between Grantland and his new site. But he sees Earth's mission as inherently different. "There won’t be any Mad Men recaps or anything like that for us. What we’re doing mostly is daily takes on things," Madden said.
Sports on Earth will launch in a blog format coinciding with the start of the London Olympics on Friday (July 27), with plans to launch fully in late August. In accordance with the Advanced Media and USA Today partnerships, certain Sports on Earth content will be featured in both the print version of USA Today and other Gannett media outlets as well as on MLB.com.
The site is launching with four exclusive ad partners; each brand has signed up through the Super Bowl. Madden and Burke declined to name the sponsors.