Sporting News is taking a mulligan on its iPad approach. The 125-year-old magazine was early to the iPad when it migrated the publication Sporting News Today to the device last year. Like many publishers, Sporting News saw the iPad as a chance to repackage its print content in an attractive digital package — and charge for it. But a year or so later, it quietly scrapped the app, which cost users $2.99 per month, and is now banking on a new strategy that is built around a free app and is open to aggregation of non-Sporting News content.
“We had a great group of loyal power users,” explained Jeff Price, president and publisher, who joined the company last year from Sports Illustrated. “But we found out that there are really only three things people will pay for when it comes to sports online — live video, niche fantasy and gambling information. And we’re not in those businesses.”
Unlike that product, which was born three years ago as a daily email newsletter, the new Sporting News app due to debut Tuesday is meant to bridge the best of the magazine’s content with a personalized Flipboard-like experience that leans on aggregation, which is fast becoming the norm on the device. Only about 60 percent of the Sporting News’ app’s content will be produced by the company’s own staff. The rest will be culled from national newspaper columnists, leading sports sites like ESPN.com and SI.com, as well as top sports-related blogs and Twitter feeds of both journalists and athletes.
The idea is to showcase the publication’s unique content, while allowing sports junkies to get their fix from all over the Web, which they are likely going to do anyway.
“If people want to read [ESPN personality] Bill Simmons, we’re going to let them read Bill Simmons,” said Price. “We want this to be open. We’ve had a lot of conversations with sports fans, and the message is pretty clear. They go to a lot of places to get their sports information. But nobody’s made it easier for them. So the hope here is that this helps people discover more content about the teams they care about.”
When users first log onto the app, which they can do using their Facebook or Google profiles, they’ll be asked to provide their favorite sports, teams and their local cable company. Then the app organizes its content uniquely for each user, based on that user’s personal favorites, pulling from all sorts of sources.
To help design an app capable of curating and showcasing content from all over the place, while ensuring that the app still scored points on design, navigation and usability, Sporting News turned to Treesaver, a year-old startup which has created a digital reading platform.
“The goal was to make this really readable for users, while creating a format that makes workflow easier for editors,” said Treesaver co-founder Roger Black. For example, the app’s content layout changes completely when iPad users shift from vertical to horizontal mode — without the Sporting News editors having to do anything. “Editors can just focus on their content.”
And while content from multiple sources will be a core component of the apps’ functionality, the move also allows Sporting News to carve out its own identity from its Web site, which as of January powers AOL’s sports channel.
“That made us a top ten site, and that’s been a great deal,” said Price. “But AOL has its own strategy on the iPad with Editions. Our partnership was really a Web-focused conversation. We wanted an app experience that was only about sports.”
The new app also enables Sporting News to better embrace the way fans consume information on tablets — and possibly even direct it. Indeed, the company is banking on this app strategy to distinguish it from many magazine companies — which sell digital reproductions of their print editions on the iPad — by embracing the presentation and openness of iPad-native products like Flipboard.
This isn’t the first time Sporting News has looked to jump ahead of digital trends. Back in 2008, the weekly magazine, as part of an effort to stay relevant in the face of shifting media habits among sports fans, launched Sporting News Today, a daily email newsletter product heavy on original content. It was perhaps right idea, wrong execution
Then about a year ago Sporting News shifted the Today product onto the iPad — but instead of going the app route, it tapped Zinio to produce a reproduction of the newsletter. And users had to pay $2.99 per month, something few did.
Instead, Price’s team is banking on advertising supporting its app business. It has locked up Toyota and AT&T as exclusive sponsors for the first month.
Toyota was attracted to the sponsorship opportunity in part because of the app’s open approach. “Consumers are looking for ways to get their content when and where they want it so The Sporting News aggregation strategy makes a lot of sense with how consumer media habits are evolving in the tablet space,” said Dionne Colvin, national marketing media manager for Toyota. “With the daily updates, personalization aspect and Facebook connection we expect to see repeat usage among passionate sports fans.”
Both Toyota and AT&T are initially running standard IAB ad units, but the plan is to eventually have them produce full-page, magazine-like ads. For the time being, the app will feature full-page house ads. “We want to establish up front that full-page ads are part of the experience,” said Price.