FOX Sports Creates a Stir With Its New Digital Strategy

FOX Sports is under media attack after releasing a number of staffers from their digital department. The company is trying to modify its digital strategy and the new vision set by Jamie Horowitz has created a mixed response. Some who have lost jobs have taken to social media to express their gratitude or frustration towards the company, and others have talked off the record to Awful Announcing about their disgust with the company’s new approach.

If you haven’t read the piece that Ben Koo put together it’s worth your time. It highlights some of the internal disconnect that was taking place as departments clashed and tried to get a better handle on how to be more effective in the online space.

When I heard the piece was being produced by AA I expected it to carry a negative slant towards FOX Sports because the majority of content pieces about the company on AA lean in that direction. Some may still take exception to the piece and hint at Koo having an agenda, but I thought Ben did an excellent job and tried to be fair with his reporting. Maybe the article doesn’t project the best image for Horowitz but clearly some people inside of FOX Sports weren’t unified in the digital vision for the company.

As I digested the article, I came away with a few thoughts. Allow me to share them with you.

First, whether it was passed along from someone who was let go or from someone who presently works for FOX Sports, sharing private and sensitive information about a company’s strategy is weak. I’m not naive enough to think that leaking sensitive information doesn’t happen all the time, just look at the political world, but when trust doesn’t exist between management and its employees, it’s only a matter of time before changes occur.

I’m not privy to who did and didn’t get along inside of FOX Sports. If the emotions felt in the article though reflected what was being displayed behind closed doors, then I wouldn’t be surprised if Horowitz and his management team aren’t shedding tears over the loss of some talented people who didn’t share their same enthusiasm for FOX Sports’ online future. Those who departed are also probably glad to rid the turmoil from their lives and turn their time and energy to a new situation.

Second, anytime cuts take place it sucks. I don’t like seeing anyone in the industry lose an opportunity, but it’s a reality of the business we’ve chosen to work in. As I was sifting thru the comments online about the staff reductions I saw a few people point out how the people behind the scenes too often pay the price yet it should be the ones in front of the camera or microphone who suffer for a company’s failures.

I’ve been one of those guys behind the scenes. I loved producing and programming sports radio shows and stations, and without qualified, creative, hard working support players, the talent aren’t as crisp and the product isn’t as good.

But let’s not lose sight of what the public comes to a brand for most; the faces of the franchise.

When you buy an admission ticket to a movie theatre, you pay to see the actors. That doesn’t make the work done by writers, producers, camera operators or graphic artists any less important but without the stars, the film doesn’t put butts in seats.

The same formula exists in every other form of the entertainment business.

If you go to a concert to watch a band play live, the musicians get the credit. The road crew, manager, and sound guy might play a vital role in the production, and for their efforts they may receive a pat on the back and an invite to enjoy an alcoholic beverage after the show, but its the band who gains the limelight and all that’s associated with it.

Turn on a professional sporting event and the players on the court or field earn our admiration, while the ball boys, trainers, chefs, and members of the PR staff gain the occasional thank you and a paycheck on the 15th and 30th of the month. Those folks behind the scenes all play a part in making sure the athletes are taken care of to do what they do best, but the reason people pay high prices to watch a game is because of the players.

The next item which stood out, was Horowitz’s belief that putting the name of the network’s high profile television personalities behind written content was better for the overall ability to generate clicks and increase business. I’m not sure how anyone could find fault with that approach. If a column was produced by FOX Sports and had Skip Bayless’ name on it, it’s much more likely to generate a ton of activity than if the column had my name on it.

Pundits have been quick to pounce on FOX Sports for using ghost writers and pushing their personalities as the main attraction but are we really suggesting that featuring the company’s most recognized talent isn’t a bright idea? You may not like Cowherd, Bayless, Jason Whitlock or Shannon Sharpe but they are a lot more likely to generate a click and emotional connection to a piece of content than lesser known writers, reporters and behind the scenes people.

And do we really think ghostwriting doesn’t already occur? I was stunned by how many people took issue with this.

For example, I think The Player’s Tribune does a fantastic job with their website, but do you really think all of those athletes are sitting down to write columns? Not to mention, writing them as if they had spent 10-15 years in the print business?

Not a chance.

If the material is delivered by a recognizable public figure and a professional media member cleans it up and helps it look its best before clicking send to share it with the world, what’s the problem with that? It’s no different than what producers do on a daily basis to help great on-air talent create memorable on-air content. I’ve witnessed outstanding producers like Justin Craig, Paul Pabst and Ray Necci feed lines, facts, jokes and opinions to hosts to present on the air, and I’ve been in that exact position myself. The brains behind the operation are there to support the talent and it’s the host’s job to create, execute and be held accountable for it.

The final opinion I want to express may make a few people upset but it’s how I and many others in the media feel.

Raise your hand if you were visiting FOXSports.com on a daily basis. Now keep your hand up if you could name 4-5 things on FOX Sports’ website (not video related) worth clicking back for regularly.

Those of you who put your hands up, either stop lying or return to your cubicle inside of FOX Sports’ headquarters.

The majority of people I’ve talked to in this industry over the years would tell you that FOX Sports’ website was an afterthought. I don’t doubt that many inside the operation weren’t talented or working hard to make it better and I’m not suggesting that Jamie Horowitz’s commitment to pushing online video and eliminating written content is the holy grail of solutions. What I do know is that when I’ve talked to people about where they turn to for sports information, opinion, analysis, and entertainment, FOX Sports’ website was rarely in the conversation.

When you ask people about their preferred online sports destinations it’s common to hear them recall ESPN, Yahoo Sports, Sports Illustrated and Bleacher Report. Others may list Barstool, The Ringer, The Player’s Tribune and Pro Football Talk, or local newspapers or league/team specific sites where they turn regularly. The majority of those brands thrive without the benefit of a television network promoting their digital content.

I remain a believer in the value of great written content, reporting and analysis but I can’t blame companies for shifting their position towards heavier video distribution if the public and advertising community places higher value on it. In business there’s an old saying “fish where the fish are” and whether it’s popular or not, FOX is trying to reverse its existing online position of being persona non grata and deliver a digital experience that generates more interest and revenue, while aligning their web focus with their television strategy.

In the AA column, Jamie said something during his presentation to staffers which I think is valid. He commented that “the written word is still relevant, but the advertising value of written content, what we call display, is not growing.”

Therein lies the struggle.

I love to read and visit many websites each day for quality written content, but let’s be honest, how much more likely are we to recall content, let alone an advertiser’s message, if we hear it in audio or see it in video? It takes much more work, time and focus to read and process written material, and it lacks the emotional connection that we gain when we watch or hear something. From a business standpoint, the placement of a client’s message at the top part of a website or in the middle of a written column doesn’t generate half the activity that those other options provide.

As I mentioned earlier, seeing good talented people lose employment opportunities isn’t fun, but we have to be mature enough to separate our feelings for individuals from what’s best for a brand’s business objectives. Anytime change takes place in our industry it’s met by immediate overreactions, yet people quickly forget the reality of the situation.

I realize the debate culture frustrates many sports media traditionalists, but national personalities with strong opinions produce interest. It’s why so many of you reading this column right now are able to recall every single smart and stupid thing uttered on the air by hosts like Skip Bayless, Stephen A. Smith, Colin Cowherd, etc.

I’m also aware that FOX has been pretty outspoken and cocky since arriving on the scene. For that reason alone, many in the industry want to see them fail. But whether they’re arrogant, smug, bullish or smart, the real question is whether or not FOX Sports was due for a digital makeover. If the existing strategy was thriving I don’t believe they’d be making wholesale changes.

It’s fair to question if our industry is devaluing intelligence and analysis in favor of sensationalism, but it’s hard to support that stance when the results show that people would prefer watching a LaVar Ball rant over reading an informed column from a top notch writer. It may frustrate those of us who love to read and write but from a business standpoint, if people are drawn to a car crash then it’s the brand’s job to produce more accidents.

As someone who runs a business, I’ve seen this firsthand. I can write a detailed analysis on a specific industry topic that should help an on-air talent or executive and it might generate a few thousand clicks. But if I create a top 10 list or a strong opinion piece on a polarizing show like First Take, it delivers 5-10x the amount of traffic. People may say they don’t prefer that style of content but their actions tell a different story.

Whether it’s popular or not, FOX Sports’ website hasn’t been great, and the brand’s digital content and social currency lagged behind its competitors. Maybe Jamie Horowitz’s digital video strategy will crash and burn, but I’m not going to act surprised or complain about a company taking a chance to reverse its digital irrelevance. It’s easy to be a face in the crowd and operate in the land of white noise, but instead FOX made a difficult choice and took a giant risk to increase their odds of success. In that respect I give them credit.

When a boat has a leak and the water is pouring in, you either abandon the ship or patch it up. FOX has done a ton of patch work over the years, and Horowitz decided it was time to jump aboard a different boat. That decision will either help him arrive safely on shore or sink to the bottom of the ocean floor. Either way, it’ll be a journey worth following.

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