What Happened To The Sweet Science?

by , Jun 28, 2012, 12:54 PM
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For publishers wondering how to protect their paying business with Internet pay walls, there is a very interesting lesson in the story of two great American sports. 

Boxing was as popular as baseball in the 1940s.  A. J. Liebling, the great New Yorker writer, wrote about “The Sweet Science” in the 1956 book called “the greatest sports book ever” by Sports Illustrated.  But something happened over the last few decades to keep boxing from growing with the times, while Major League Baseball has built its success through thick and thin. 

Consider the evolution of baseball and its revenue worries.  It went from anxiety about paid attendance when broadcasting games on the radio, to fears about whether fans would come out to pay at the park if was available free on television.  Now every game is on television, many free, and the fans fill the stadiums at higher and higher prices.  Attendance is up, and revenue is up even more.  Perhaps more importantly, the earnings power and value of baseball franchises has continued to grow. Witness the astonishing – but probably worth it – $2 billion price paid for the Los Angeles Dodgers recently.

Meanwhile, consider the audience size and revenue of once widely popular boxing, which went to a “pay per view” business.  Boxing has declined from being one of the main topics of conversation in barbershops and bars across the nation to a curiosity.  Few sports fans know who the top boxers are, and it is rarely mentioned on ESPN or your local newspaper. 

The comparison of boxing to baseball occurred to me when watching a talk show on baseball on the MLB network right before the latest Pacquiao-Bradley fight.  I realized how much content there is about baseball in addition to the actual game broadcasts  -- and how little about boxing.  The more free-on-TV-games there are, the more reporting and commentary there are about the games, the more people want to go to the games.   

The contrast with boxing is interesting because boxing is rarely free on TV.  Because fewer people watch it, there is far less reason for ESPN and Fox Sports and even your local newspaper to report and comment on boxing.  So although it has not disappeared, boxing has lost share of mind and share of dollars in the competition for attention and ticket sales.

The example of baseball game attendance as an analogy for newspapers’ and magazines’ paid circulation is interesting in two ways:  Teams sell subscriptions (season tickets) and single copies (single game box-office).  More specialized stadiums have helped drive the continued rise of ticket prices, up 50% from 1997 to 2001, even while more and more games were broadcast.  Owners now focus on creating a fan experience that is worth an ever-higher price.  This is a parallel concept to today’s most successful print properties being focused on maximizing the reading experience, like Esquire producing a holographic cover, and the ongoing success of ESPN The Magazine, a lavish, large-format magazine in a market with a Niagara Falls of other free content.

The Internet is powered by a limited amount of original content, and a giant amount of content about that content.  A publisher’s goal should be to create the content that others talk and write about.  Package it in print, if you are a publisher, in a supremely designed and produced package, but don’t wall off the content online.  Be sure it can be a part of the online conversation of blogs and discussion boards that will help make your brand and content important in its market.

Of course the point here is to help think about how to implement a pay wall for your site.  It does make sense to capture revenue from those who love or need your content the most. Major League Baseball does this with the MLB.TV Premium service for those who don’t want to miss a single game.   But it is important to understand that the wide distribution of your content has a place too in building and maintaining the brand, making it part of the “conversation” online -- which then helps bring in new paying readers.

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