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Here's AOL's Playbook for Becoming a Sports Content Leader, but Is It a Winning Strategy?

In a crowded field, digital giant hopes to find and fill a niche

AOL wants to become part of the daily sports discussion. Illustration: Jesse Lenz

Yannis Pappas, comedian-turned-host of one of AOL's new sports video programs called 2 Point Lead, is sitting in a reception area-turned-makeshift-set in the middle of AOL's New York headquarters. He's whipping line-drive questions at Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo faster than a pitching machine set to high speed, while a crew tapes the interview.

"You're Italian: Pizza Chicago style or New York style?" Pappas fires. Rizzo tries not to bobble the query. "Two totally different styles—they're both great," he shoots back. "I'd go with New York, though."

The crew breaks out into smiles, as Rizzo ponders the fact that he's probably just pissed off every loyal Cubs fan.

2 Point Lead—which Pappas calls "the ultimate sports fan comedy show"—sits atop the batting order of AOL's lineup of new, original sports series. The short-form videos, lasting between 30 seconds and three minutes, have a tendency to lob softball questions at their guests, but they're targeting the biggest names in sports. And episodes range from irreverent interviews to satirical skits.

"It's basically one—hopefully—funny viral clip every day," AOL's president of video and studios Dermot McCormack explains. "And because it's every day, we think our odds of becoming part of the cultural conversation are really good."

That's ultimately AOL's goal: to become a central part of the daily sports discussion, without trying to be ESPN or Fox Sports. And it's working with an assortment of partners to develop that content, including Relativity Media and Derek Jeter's The Players' Tribune

"We want to be the place that gives you what you're not getting in sports media, whether that's context around the game, exclusive access or just a source of humor," McCormack says. "We want to be the Moneyball of sports. We want to shoot the gap. We don't want to be the biggest or the smallest. We want to go and fit a unique place, and then build."

No Shortage of Challenges

Never mind that AOL has tried to be many different things at many different times over its 20 years as a media giant. On the surface of it, the move to sports seems out of step, perhaps even ill-advised. AOL.com doesn't even rank in the top 20 destinations for sports content online, and sister publication HuffPost Sports only comes in at No. 18, per comScore numbers from March 2015.

The competition is stiff, including ESPN, Bleacher Report-Turner Sports Network, Yahoo Sports-NBC Sports Network, CBS Sports and Fox Sports Digital, among others.

"There's a tremendous amount of competition from the major media properties, developing or emerging ones, sports leagues, teams and the athletes themselves," says Brian Yamada, the chief innovation officer at digital marketing and ad agency VML. "Everyone is a content producer today."

But McCormack explains that sports' bottomless appeal represents the upside. AOL is betting on sports to showcase its Content 365 strategy, a way to show the scale and premium inventory it can offer through content of all shapes and sizes. "We picked sports [because] it wasn't a vertical that we've traditionally been super strong [in], but we saw audience growth there," McCormack says. "We saw younger males there. We saw a basic way of expanding our audience. And ultimately, as we head into the NewFronts, that's what we need to do."

AOL Homepage internal research shows that 69 percent of AOL users say they want to consume sports content. The company claims its sports channel on AOL.com has grown 224 percent in pageviews year over year and 18 percent in unique visitors month over month. On social media, sports is AOL's most active account for the most number of retweets and mentions. The @AOLSports Twitter account increased its follower count 40 percent in the first quarter of 2015, including an extra 10 percent during March Madness. It currently has about 5,000 followers.

How AOL Is Playing to Its Strengths

Since AOL doesn't have the capital to pay for the rights to livestream professional sports content—which can run into the billions—it can offer the broad reach of its AOL On network. Currently averaging more than 1 billion views a month, according to the company, AOL On houses some 1 million original and partner digital videos available for streaming on desktop, iOS and Android mobile devices and 16 over-the-top devices including Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV and Roku.

Video is key to AOL's plans—after all, it's what today's sports fans and athletes demand. Ryan Duffy, head of video for AOL video partner The Players' Tribune, acknowledges that writing will forever be an essential element to sports coverage, and social media empowers athletes to tell their side of the story (at their own risk, of course). But he adds that video provides a visual narrative arc that trumps all other media.

"Twitter is a thought-publishing platform; you only have 140 characters," Duffy explains. "It's the same thing with a 15-second Instagram or a six-second Vine. On occasion, that's all you need. But when athletes want to address something they have more to say about, video is a longer form, a somewhat more elegant vehicle."

To get sports fans the clips they want, McCormack says, AOL is focusing on two main areas. First, it's cementing deals to run exclusive and nonexclusive content on AOL On from publishers like The Players' Tribune and Fox Sports Digital. Ben Maggin, Fox Sports Digital vp of business development, says AOL's broad reach and the option to let Fox keep sales rights around its inventory are the major reasons it wanted to work with the company. "We're interested in reaching as many new audiences as possible with our premium content, and AOL's audience has significant scale," contends Maggin.

Adds Jeter, the just-retired Yankee great who launched The Players' Tribune: AOL has "the reach and audience to expand our distribution and brand awareness. And creatively, they think about sports content from a storytelling perspective as opposed to results-oriented reporting, which is obviously our approach as well. They're a great partner for us."

Second, AOL is investing in original content, co-producing series with partners that will show behind-the-scenes looks at athletes' lives and sporting events, rather than broadcast the games themselves.

Relativity Television CEO Tom Forman is one of those partners. He's working with AOL on a documentary project called Journey to the Draft, which follows three college football stars participating in the 2015 NFL Draft. Think of it as a hybrid between HBO's behind-the-scenes NFL doc Hard Knocks and the fictional Kevin Costner film, Draft Day.

"If this were a series of game highlights or analysis, I'd worry that we might get lost in the crowd," Forman says. "But we're telling unique stories with unprecedented access, filled with drama and emotion that will appeal to sports fans and nonfans alike. That's the sort of programming that works anywhere, every time."

Literally anywhere and anytime, adds Deion Sanders, Journey to the Draft's narrator, veteran NFL analyst, and a former football and baseball star. "You don't want to watch your favorite show at the time it airs, unless that's Deion's Family Playbook on OWN," Sanders says with a chuckle. "You want to be able to watch what you want when you want it, and call out what you want on your fingertips."

Sanders adds the show can help rising stars refine their images beyond the arena. "We didn't have the access, these media opportunities," he says. "It's a tremendous experience. It's unbelievable what you think these three young men have gone through. They have the same goal, and yet it's somewhat different because they have different situations and different families."

For example, West Virginia University wide receiver Kevin White, who's expected to be drafted in the first round, sees opportunities like Journey to the Draft as a way to show his laid-back personality outside of football and let fans experience his life through his eyes. "Everyone is doing Instagram and Twitter and Facebook," White says. "People are social media famous. The world is changing now where you get as much attention off the field as you do on the field."

"In an increasingly fragmented media landscape, sports remains one of the last and best ways to reach a large, broad and fiercely passionate audience," Relativity's Forman says. "Game rights are outrageously expensive, so I'm not surprised to see cable networks and digital platforms exploring sports documentaries. All of the rabid fans at a fraction of the cost."

Creating Shows Tailored to Today's Internet

Two other series AOL will unveil at the NewFronts come from The Players' Tribune. The first is How It Happened, an animated series focusing on sports stars' retellings of incidents, set to be released in Q3. The other is Thursday Sports Show, a cheeky look at the world of professional athletes from the eyes of "professional fan" and host Ben Lyons. Scheduled to launch in late May, the weekly show will invite pop culture icons, comedians and other athletes to talk about the sports they love, like going to the batting cages with an NFL star or learning about footwork routines that have helped them during games.

"Sports fans expect athletes to communicate with them outside of traditional storytelling," Lyons says. "They want to find human elements."

Among the AOL originals rolling out, 2 Point Lead might just be the funniest. Host Pappas says the idea is to create a show that directly speaks to the Internet. "That's how I consume all of my sports content," Pappas says about the short-form format. "If I'm not watching it live, I'm looking at my news feed, what clips and highlights are being shared."

Original sports content is also making its way over to Makers, AOL's female-focused documentary video portal. To date, Makers has profiled 20 female sports personalities and athletes, and it will significantly increase that number in upcoming years. Maureen Sullivan, AOL.com and lifestyle brands president, says sports content has always been one of the top performers in the Makers library.

"Sports is not just for men in a certain age demo," Sullivan points out. "All of us connect with sports content. And the more of a human angle that you can take to sports and the more access you can give to the athletes themselves, the more that piece of content can resonate with a broader audience."

Using the wattage of sports stars to help the storytelling is a tactic being employed across AOL's content plans. For example, AOL sent youth football phenom Sam Gordon to cover the Super Bowl and asked the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, Kathrine Switzer, to cover that race. Sullivan says she hopes to tap Mia Hamm to help with coverage of the Women's World Cup. "I think that's where you'll see our sports strategy as a company," she says. "When it's a cultural moment, what human element can we add to enhance what's happening on the field?"

Place Your Bets

So, will it all work? Will AOL move the needle and make its presence felt in sports content? VML's Yamada argues that, so long as AOL is able to get its content to stand out, the reward could be great, given the insatiable appetite for sports online. He also notes that that ad inventory sells at a premium since hundreds of brands are clamoring to get in. Other agency observers note that, while the price point changes depending on content, the higher cost for certain demographics like men can be worth it because it's an efficient way to reach them. AOL has already attracted brands including Merrill Edge, Bank of America, GMC, Olay and Extra spearmint gum.

"I'm sure that it's AOL's bet to try and find ways to combat the declining CPMs of programmatic by creating more premium inventory," Yamada says.

Paul Verna, an eMarketer senior analyst, believes AOL is in a position to succeed. "There are a lot of ways that you can capture people's attention with sports content," Verna says. "I think there is a lot of opportunity to do that, especially since they are AOL. They have a lot of infrastructure and a lot of smart people behind it."

Verna adds that while the strategy to focus on sports certainly seems a little different than last year's star-studded content rollout, it's a little less risky than relying just on high-powered celebrity talent from all fields. While other publishers like Yahoo have attempted to lure the biggest names, that tactic can be costly—especially if the talent doesn't connect with the audience, he says. Sports stars are more willing to come on board and have a fanatic following.

"AOL may have tacitly recognized that and decided to go in a different direction" than last year, Verna says. "Sports careers are very short. After you retire as an athlete, most of them try to stay connected. This is one way to do it."

Yamada isn't quite as ready to call a win for AOL just yet. "We need to know if they can find the right areas of sports content that will activate the people they have access to," Yamada says. "Can they do enough to change their current sports content viewing behavior?"

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