After almost three years outside the national spotlight, sports journalist Jay Mariotti is making a comeback.
On Wednesday, Mr. Mariotti debuted his own franchise news site in conjunction with Genesis Communications, a Florida based media company. Under the agreement -- something in the model of Bill Simmons' Grantland site, which is part of ESPN -- Mr. Mariotti will write columns, host a radio show and shoot video while Genesis takes care of the operation's tech and sales responsibilities.
In late 2010, Mr. Mariotti's relationships with AOL and ESPN soured following domestic violence charges and, in an introductory post on the new site, he wasted no time before taking shots at both. Mr. Mariotti took particular aim at ESPN, which he lambasted for getting too close to the sports industry it covers. "I'm worried that every writer at ESPN is going a PR guy for the SEC," he later told Ad Age.
Mr. Mariotti said expects his site to become "next digital prototype for sports commentators and columnists," but he'll have to make money in order to reach that goal. Earlier this week, Ad Age spoke with him to find out how he plans to do it.
Advertising Age: You're not someone many would put on a list with Bill Simmons and Nate Silver. How are you going to make this work?
Mr. Mariotti: When I was on ESPN every day for eight years, and doing radio, and writing a daily column, my saturation was probably greater than Nate Silver's. I'm a guy who would tape his show, then write a column, then catch a plane to Cleveland to see a LeBron game, and then go back. It was an absolute lunatic job. When you say less prominent, yeah, I've taken a couple of years off. But I don't think those listeners, viewers and readers go away.
Ad Age: Will you need to be more confrontational in order to stand out? Maybe taking a Skip Bayless approach to news?
Mr. Mariotti: No. I've never sought to be confrontational, I've always just had this bizarre talent of having that stuff coming to me. I'm going to keep being me because, over the years, I've been me and the traffic has come.
Ad Age: In your opening post, you said it's difficult to make money off digital content. How will you do things differently?
Mr. Mariotti: A lot of sports sites are seeing traffic success but not really getting any ads. I rarely look at Deadspin because it's kind of a trashy thing, but when I do, I don't see the ads. They had a big splash with the Manti Te'o story but not the resulting advertising because they have a renegade reputation. When I meet with advertisers and a lot of them know me already from my time at ESPN, I think the revenue will come in a hurry.
Ad Age: What about a subscription model, Andrew Sullivan style?
Mr. Mariotti: I would rather not charge for anything but these are new decisions for a guy like me. You're taking a sports writer, a guy who has done nothing but write and talk sports for thirty years, and you're turning him into businessman. I need to take some business classes.
Ad Age: You also said your plan is to hire more writers.
Mr. Mariotti: When people like (Boston Red Sox owner) John Henry buy the Boston Globe, I'm petrified for every writer on that staff. What happens when Dan Shaughnessy covers another story about a Red Sox clubhouse scandal. Is it going to make the paper? No. Shaughnessy has made a living on criticizing owners including Henry. Is he going to have a job in a year? These are the sort of people I have in mind down the road for this.
Ad Age: How big do you think you can grow this site?
Mr. Mariotti: What I'm envisioning is this thing either grows on its own and becomes real big or we sell it not to ESPN or Fox but the tier right beneath them. In the sports media world, there are several sites which have the traffic but are dying for content. Those are the sort of places that are going to look at a model like this and say, "Wow, that might be good for us." Places like Bleacher Report and SB Nation. These sites are poised to make big plunges into being very credible sites instead of just hiring people to do a story for five cents a paragraph.
Ad Age: You're already thinking about an exit?
Mr. Mariotti: I think everybody in this business is keeping their eyes wide open. We're all entrepreneurs now. You'd be foolish not to be.