Behind ESPN's affinity with 'affinity' sites

ESPN’s “affinity” websites, notably Grantland and FiveThirtyEight, are glistening moons orbiting the great home planet. They derive resources and sustainability from a media empire while reflecting back innovation and prestige. Because they are focused on narrower audiences than, say, ESPN.com or “SportsCenter” and have the luxury of covering only stories that interest them, they seem smarter and cooler than the major sites and can draw loyal and younger crowds eager for a more intimate fan experience.

And in turn, they drive new traffic to the core ESPN platforms.

Thus, the birth of a new moon -- in this case an as-yet-unnamed African-American-centric site fronted by seasoned and controversial journalist Jason Whitlock -- has been highly anticipated since it was announced almost a year ago. Whitlock has described it as “a black Grantland.”

If the new moon rises and fulfills the expectations of ESPN president John Skipper, its most prominent champion, it will have the potential of becoming the media empire’s signal social achievement. The rewards for success are enormous, for ESPN, Whitlock, the staff and the audience. It is also the riskiest of the affinity sites. Race is America’s greatest historical problem and its deepest divide. Sports, paradoxically, is the area of greatest visible progress in racial equality as well as greatest hypocrisy. To open a meaningful, ongoing discussion while giving opportunities to a new generation of journalists of color would be an incalculable contribution, well beyond sports.

“We want to be a birthplace for careers,” says Skipper, who added: “It’s also a commercial move. African-Americans believe ESPN is their TV network, but they are more ambivalent about ESPN.com as their site. We want to be the place to go when the community wants some conversation about Jay Z becoming an agent, about the racial aspects of Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. African-Americans are big sports fans, and we want that audience.”

ESPN’s affinity sites are largely representative of the growing media trend of creating a boutique around a marketable personality. The PressThink blogger, Jay Rosen of New York University, calls them “personal franchises” and cites, besides Grantland (Bill Simmons) and FiveThirtyEight (Nate Silver), examples such as Andrew Ross Sorkin’s DealBook in The New York Times, Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog in The Washington Post (he has since moved to Vox Media) and Peter King’s MMQB for Sports Illustrated. Without risk to their brands, the larger institutions can take advantage of the contemporary breakdown between reporting and opinion and benefit from the loyalty created by an idiosyncratic blogger.

Rosen writes, “The nature of authority and trust in journalism is changing. It’s easier to have confidence in ‘here’s where I’m coming from’ than the view from nowhere and its institutional voice.”

Simmons, Silver and Whitlock have distinctive voices; it’s easy to know where they are coming from. Within ESPN, there are executives and writers who resent the attention and resources the sites get and wonder whether they subvert that ESPN directive posted on the lobby wall outside FiveThirtyEight’s New York offices: “OUR MISSION/ TO SERVE SPORTS FANS/ANYTIME/ANYWHERE.” (A far more vociferous version of that kind of internal resentment reportedly helped drive FiveThirtyEight from The New York Times to ESPN earlier this year.) For the most part, the affinity sites expand ESPN’s reach.

Referring to the time lag since Whitlock’s site was announced, ESPN executives say such projects take time and recall the considerable effort that led to the launching of Grantland. Simmons also seemed, to some, an unlikely leader for a team-oriented site. Too self-involved, naysayers claimed. The so-called “Sports Guy” had little traditional journalism experience and was too impatient to pay dues in any conventional way. His innovation was his voice: A game was the starting point for extended riffs on what feelings it stirred in him, what pop cultural events it evoked, how it affected his relationship with his dad. It was precisely what sports fans were waiting for. He honed that style for a number of years, in ESPN The Magazine and on ESPN.com’s Page 2, leading to the eventual launch of Grantland.com.

In engaging, often passionate prose, he connected with his readers. Unlike most of his contemporaries among sports writers, Simmons did not pose as an insider, flaunt credentialed access or talk down to his audience. He was one of them. He was also disruptive, in the current trendy sense, which is hard to recall now that Simmons is more celebrated than many of his sports subjects and a generation of young sports writers is trying to ape his style.

More generous than many personal franchisees, Simmons has allowed other stars to shine on his site, including former NBA player Jalen Rose, the hilariously addictive Men in Blazers (Michael Davies and Roger Bennett) and a number of consistently fine writers, including Bryan Curtis, Molly Lambert, Wesley Morris, Katie Baker and Charles P. Pierce. Grantland’s success has to do with its smart and eclectic nature; like many of its fans, I think, I find something worthwhile, even surprising, to read every day. Although I don’t read all the stories or listen to all the podcasts, those I choose get full attention.

As Howard Bryant, an author and columnist for ESPN The Magazine, put it: “Grantland is important for the ideas that could otherwise slip through the cracks of regular everyday sports writing and a major opportunity to put our stamp on things beyond what we are on top of. I think of Sport magazine and Sports Illustrated in their heyday.”

The Numbers Game

ESPN already had a robust sports analytics department when FiveThirtyEight arrived in March, extending the company’s statistical reach into areas including politics and science. Silver created the site in 2008 to analyze polling data for the presidential election and other races (538 is the number of Electoral College voters) and became a licensed feature of The New York Times two years later. His predictive batting average was incredibly high, unsettling many traditional political writers. (Although sports stats junkies, especially his fellow sabermetricians, were already on board.)

Simmons counseled Silver that, based on his own experience, it would take a year for FiveThirtyEight to find its voice. Silver and his site’s managing editor, Mike Wilson (former managing editor of the highly regarded Tampa Bay Times), told me last month that they were still in the process of identifying a FiveThirtyEight story, which “needs to be both interesting and supported by data.” They justified their lack of Donald Sterling coverage, for example, by the lack of a statistical underpinning. They said that about 45 percent of their stories were sports-related, a figure they would like to lower.

In recent weeks, the FiveThirtyEight menu was skewed toward soccer -- and most of those stories were interesting and supported by data, especially the notion that Brazil would have “little to no long-term economic benefits” from the money spent preparing for the World Cup. That seemed like an important, quintessential FiveThirtyEight story. I didn’t ask how Silver and Wilson would justify their tediously ongoing comparative analysis of 67,391 American restaurants to find “the best” burrito. But FiveThirtyEight is barely 4 months old and under pressure after a mighty buildup. It also has to live up to a grandiose mission statement: “We are an antidote to the raging river of bulls--- that runs through the media.”

Silver has declared himself “anti-take,” which puts him across the river from ESPN in general and even further upstream from Grantland, both of which ride the torrent of informed opinion, speculation and attitude, as they should. The conceit that data-driven journalism always provides more reliable information than reporting without spreadsheets assumes that numbers never lie and that methodology is always solid. It works well, of course, predicting the outcome of elections and games. That fits in nicely with sports gambling, a staple of fandom and increasingly of sports coverage.

One ethical issue, akin to the river riders’ overuse of anonymous sources, is the use of private data sets the public will never see. Some are leaked to advance an agenda. To their credit, Silver and Wilson brought up that issue themselves as among the “nuanced problems” FiveThirtyEight has to face. I’ll have even more confidence in them when the burrito election is decided.

FiveThirtyEight, Grantland and ESPN Films, home of 30 for 30, ESPN’s acclaimed documentary series credited to Simmons, have been grouped together in a unit called Exit 31 (the Interstate 84 exit for ESPN’s Bristol, Connecticut, headquarters). That group is supervised by Marie Donoghue, senior vice president, global strategy, business development and business affairs, whose office is far off the highway, in New York (Simmons and Whitlock are based in Los Angeles). Donoghue says the placement was not to keep the sites clear of the Bristol Bubble’s insularity and corporate jockeying but rather to take advantage of “symbiosis” with filmmaking on both coasts. The three properties, she says, will create videos for themselves and for shows such as “SportsCenter.”

ESPN’s soccer initiative, ESPNFC.com, is not usually mentioned along with its affinity sites, yet, as an attempt to open the empire to new fans and talent, fresh currents of thought and a global stretch, it certainly seems to bear Skipper’s signature. The infusion of “futbol” stories in FiveThirtyEight and Grantland has enhanced ESPN’s excellent daily World Cup coverage, and the appearances of Men in Blazers on ESPNFC.com and “SportsCenter” prove that symbiosis is working.

The W Issue

Sometimes lost in the affinity firmament is espnW, which some ESPN executives told me is a more realistic model than Grantland for Whitlock’s site. That would be a shame. Four years old and staffed by some talented writers, most notably Kate Fagan, the site still seems to be a victim of neglect. It has no personal franchisee or recognizable point of view. Stories tend to be drab or puffy. Skipper points to the annual espnW Summit, a Toyota- and Gatorade-sponsored conference of female athletes, ESPN personalities and other sports figures, as a worthy endeavor. But he seems at a loss for positive points after that. He’s hoping a newly hired editor will revive the site. W’s “charity of choice” is the advocacy group Women’s Sports Foundation, which puts its journalistic independence in question.

Female writers with whom I’ve spoken complain that W has been marginalized; it is expected to support coverage of the WNBA and the various major women’s tournaments without receiving the resources for the expensive, time-consuming long-form projects that could give it credibility. Why shouldn’t women’s events be totally integrated into the main ESPN sites, they ask, instead of consigned to a female “ghetto”? Meanwhile, male executives tell me there are plenty of excellent female writers and broadcasters at ESPN (absolutely true), some covering the major (read mostly men’s, some women’s) events, which proves there is no ghettoization.

Obviously, people are talking past each other here and need to figure out what the site is all about. To some, espnW is attempting to serve an audience that ESPN wants but doesn’t really need. The network’s audience is largely male, the big affinity sites even more so. According to recent ESPN figures, Grantland’s audience is 83 percent male and FiveThirtyEight’s is about 68 percent. In both cases, the 25-44 age group is the biggest bulge, although FiveThirtyEight skews somewhat older.

What W has done well is cover LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) and youth sports news, features and issues. These are areas routinely ignored on ESPN.com and TV until a big story breaks (Michael Sam, sex abuse by coaches) and then covered with a certain naive, "who knew?" surprise. Perhaps, LGBT and youth sports deserve niche sites of their own, even as spin-offs of espnW (its “Small Wonders” youth features could be a start).

Much of the anticipation for the Whitlock site has to do with the big question: Will the network learn from those issues with the espnW site and allow the new site to confront the highly nuanced African-American reality in a sports industry that has progress and shortcomings open for endless debate? This is especially important on ESPN -- where the opinions of such regular black commentators as Whitlock, Michael Wilbon, Scoop Jackson, Jemele Hill, Bomani Jones and Stephen A. Smith have sometimes clashed -- in ways that are still evolving.

Even in his return to ESPN.com as a columnist, Whitlock has been too quick to wrestle in the mud. His opinions, although usually thoughtful and humane, are frequently controversial among fellow black journalists. To read Whitlock’s archives closely is to follow his balancing act between overreactive responses to perceived slights and a bold intelligence that can lead a discussion. He has written about gun control, the N-word (he’s against its use by anyone) and the mass incarceration of young African-Americans -- and he has convincingly related those subjects to sports.

Not as convincingly, Whitlock maintains that many of his most outrageous tweets and remarks came during his “Off-Broadway” period when he was scrambling for attention outside the walls of ESPN. Now that he is “on Broadway, at ESPN,” he will be able to be more of a mentor and statesman, like his own inspiration, Ralph Wiley, who starred on Page 2 until his death in 2004?

Whitlock’s “maturation,” as Skipper calls it, will be a critical factor of his success or failure on his own site.

“I am not deterred, I am not ambivalent, I am fully supportive,” Skipper said of the Whitlock endeavor. “We’ve had good, frank conversations. He has a chance to enter a new phase of his career and get beyond feuding, be more mature. Maybe I was impulsive in my choice of Jason, but you have to go with talent.”