It hasn't taken the new President and Publisher of Sporting News long to make a big impact on the venerable brand: developing partnerships, transforming free products to paid, launching apps. For Jeff Price, the former head of digital for Sports Illustrated, it is all about building the brand and extending the reach of the publication.
Price comes to the 124-year-old Sporting News with a marketing and sports background and sees his role more as brand champion than publisher. But for a publication that was last the dominate when John McGraw still managed the Giants (OK, slight exaggeration) the challenges of transforming the title into a major player in both electronic and print media will be great.
With the help of one of his new media partners, Zinio, I talked to Price about his New Media plans and the ground already covered since the announcement of his appointment in February by the owner of the Sporting News, American City Business Journal, a unit of Advance Publications Inc.
Price moved immediately to make some hard decisions at Sporting News. These included ending the title's fantasy games operation, the source of some of the title's best web traffic. "The fantasy industry is changing, and we feel it's best to devote our resources to providing the best fantasy content and advice on the Internet, and beyond," Price wrote in a letter to customers.
Price had made the same move at Sports Illustrated, where he was head of digital, said before relaunching the service. Price said he will be doing the same thing at Sporting News, launching a new fantasy games service in time for football season, this time with an unannounced, major new media partner.
Creating partnerships is part of Price's M.O., as this was part of the job description for Price at previous stops at Millsport, Trakus, MasterCard and USA Sports.
← SN's first iPad presence through Zinio is for its daily news product, Sporting News Today.
One of the most important new partnerships Price established was with Zinio, the San Francisco headquartered digital magazine and book company. One of Price's first decisions was to work with his new partner on Sporting News Today, the publication's daily web-based newspaper, rather than the main biweekly Sporting News magazine.
"Part of the struggle that's going on right now in the industry is trying to force fit what your current business model is into this new platform," Price told TNM. "If we were taking that approach we would have started with Sporting News magazine and said 'OK, we're going to put all our energy behind Sporting News magazine and we're going to translate that over to the iPad.'"
So rather than have Zinio port over their bi-weekly magazine, Price would have his new partner bring the previously free Sporting News Today daily to the iPad, as well as other mobile formats through Zinio's digital newsstand. Now, a reader can subscribe to the daily product and read their news on their iPad, or on the web, and just pay once -- currently 99 cents an issue, or $2.99 a month.
So, for now, readers of Sporting News, the magazine, will have to wait for an iPad solution. "We've honestly put that on the shelf for now and we'll come back to that and find a way to make sure that its available for those folks who'd want to engage with the magazine from a digital content perspective."
One advantage of starting with the daily product was that it was already a digital-only product. The other reason was that Price saw that the product filled an important need for consumers. Sporting News Today "was providing packaged content on a daily basis, 365 days a year, really giving a comprehensive review of what happened yesterday in sports and being ready for consumers and business travelers at 6 am in the morning --- we really looked at the opportunity that we had was to fill a void that folks in the newspaper sector are certainly trying to do."
Working with Zinio provided Sporting News the opportunity to have first mover advantage. Price had seen that, on the iPhone and Android, app developers had leaped into the field -- apps like Sportacular and SportsTap were "thinking like start-ups" by providing readers the sports information they wanted on their mobile devices -- they took advantage of the opening created when publishers failed to step up and rethink their products.
Price's appointment as president and publisher at Sporting News occurred shortly after Steve Jobs introduced the iPad at a media event in San Francisco. Price was paying attention to the video demonstrations other media firms were producing for hypothetical tablet products.
"The first buzz came out around the S.I. demo and what was done -- and I used to work at S.I. for a long time so I was very familiar with what they were doing -- we just thought this editorial engine that we had (in the daily Sporting News Today product) had a better chance to solve the consumer need in the space," Price said.
"So we spent a long time talking to a number of potential partners on the back end, because we recognized that "hey, we're not a technology company" . . . We didn't want to just have an iPad strategy, we wanted to have an overall strategy -- that no matter where the consumer wanted to engage in content we were going to create the opportunity to be there for them. And Zinio was really the only potential back-end partner that came with a comprehensive strategy that was certainly inclusive of iPad as a major game-changer in the space, but was not just solely focused on delivering the iPad."
"The other piece that was interesting to us, since we moved from a free product to a subscription product, was the idea that we'd be able to charge the consumer $2.99 a month no matter what device they engaged with it on," Price said.
Sporting News Today will come out with its own branded app some time this summer, again working with Zinio. The app will be able to take advantage of another one of the recently negotiated partnerships -- this one with CineSport, a company that offers web video syndication of sports highlights and on-demand video.
"We will bringing our highlight content, both national and local market content, into the iPad experience -- as well as across every device where we deliver Sporting News Today," Price promises. "So that partnership (with CineSport) becomes a critical component of what we do to improve the overall experience. If you are a commuter walking onto a train -- you're a displaced fan, a business traveler, a college student, the key folks we're going after -- we feel we can create a multimedia sports experience. You're no longer tethered to your TV set waiting for Sports Center . . . that is really is a huge point of difference in the sports category for what we see being planned from the magazine set, so to speak."
I asked Zinio about the idea of working with publishers on dedicated apps as this seemed like a new area for the company. "We are exploring design enhancements and the potential of publisher-specific, co-branded entry points to the Zinio app," confirmed Jeanniey Mullen, Global EVP and CMO, at Zinio.
Zinio's iPad app appeared in the iTunes app store the day of the iPad launch. Both Zinio, and those publishers working with the company, have benefited by the decision to be there on Day One. "The reader response is phenomenal," Mullen said, "as evidenced by the Zinio App for iPad, which has remained in the top-10 in the news category, after it spiked to #1 within the first week of launch."
All these changes will have to be monetized, of course, but Price is looking long term, preferring to have his team work with the advertising community to experiment with these new products, and learn from the experience and the customer feedback. The Sporting News Today web and iPad product currently has advertising from Coors Light embedded, but the deal was not struck as a one-time only sale.
One of the more fundamental changes made so far has been to reorganize the sales team. There is now a national head of print sales, Paul Severini, who will be responsible for Sporting News and Sporting News Today, as well as a digital advertising director, Joey Glowacki, who will head sales for the web, mobile, interactive television, and fantasy games.
One thing the team has learned is that print ad people are very interested in tablet products because the user experience is much more like print.
"The creative canvas is much more in-line with the canvas that print creatives have been working with, than digital creatives," Price observes. "We're not talking about 300 by 250 units, we're not talking about skyscrapers, we're talking about pages and spreads. Now add to that the ability to bring in rich media and video and interactivity, and you have some of the same tools that have existed in the digital space but there in an environment that is much more like print than anything we've seen today."
For Price the introduction of new mobile products is an opportunity for a publication to rethink their products and to reorient them towards their customer needs. To this end, Price said the SportingNews.com website will be redesigned and re-imagined as much more of a breaking news vehicle. Eventually, the daily product, SNT, may stand on its own once it has reached a critical mass.
"I think we're missing the boat if we don't completely re-imagine what the opportunity is with our brands. This is my own problem with many of the folks within the publishing industry. They talk about titles instead of thinking about brands. We've really tried to think about our brand," Price said.
"We're trying to think like a 124-year-old start-up," Price said. "There were two or three players (referring back to Sportacular and SportsTap) who stepped into the sports space and became players in mobile out of nowhere simply because they thought about the consumer and not about the way you force your own business into the model and your own kind of legacy issues."
Price promises to keep things fresh as they roll out their new products and partnerships this summer, and well into the Fall football season.