Defector enters a crowded field at a confusing time

Changing the model from rooting for the jersey to rooting for the player comes with some questions

Deadspin was a good blog. But can it be a good media business?

Yesterday, Defector, the new media company built by 20 former Deadspin staffers, said that in the first day since it’s unveiling, it grabbed 10,000 subscribers.

Defector @DefectorMedia
Over 10,000 people subscribed to on Day One, but billions more have the opportunity to join on Day

Let’s assume that they mean “paying” subscribers, and not just people who gave them their email address. With the floor pricing of $69/year that’s at least a cool $690,000 on day one. Not too shabby.

That comes out to $34,500 per employee, each of whom entered this agreement with 5 percent stake in the company. 

Deadspin, the former Gawker sports site, died a slow, then fast death, as it fluttered like a wiffle ball from Gawker Media to Univision as part of the firesale resulting from the Hulk Hogan trial to Great Hill Partners, the private equity firm that bought the former Gawker properties, now known collectively as G/O Media. 

In 2019, after G/O Media CEO Jim Spanfeller publicly wrestled with Deadspin staff on what to cover (tl;dr: when Deadspin writers wanted to cover the new owners, Spanfeller and editorial director Paul Maidment said ‘stick to sports.’) editor in chief Barry Petchesky was fired and his staffed walked out. Under new editors, and moving to Chicago, G/O’s Zombie Deadspin arose in March 2020 as the pandemic was sweeping the nation, but hasn’t quite hit the digital zeitgeist in the way the original Deadspin did. 

Deadspin worked because at the time, there were fewer players and if you wanted smart writing and a good take, you’d head over to Deadspin. But now, takes are a dime a dozen, as writers are now blogging at newsletters (hello, dear people!). It will take a lot of hard work to recapture that magic, especially if it’s asking people to pay them directly. 

This brings us to Defector. 

Starting a media company is hard. Starting a media company with zero investors is hard. Starting a media company with no advertising, no revenue model other than relying on people to subscribe is hard. For starters, folks need to get paid. And maybe even health insurance and benefits. You also need to make sure back-end stuff works, like credit card purchasing. 

And Defector got a big assist from design shop Alley, which designed and developed the website in just four business days.

“We also advised on pricing tiers and strategy, along with Pico,” Gillian Zamora, Alley’s director of digital strategy, told me. “We're committed to helping them succeed in any way we can.”

Oh, and you might need lawyers, especially if you have a penchant for pissing people off. 

In an interview with Slate, one of the 20 Defector owners, Maitreyi Anantharaman, when asked about how many subscribers will be needed, said: 

I don’t know off the top of my head, but I will say that our goals aren’t VC-crazy, astronomical numbers. We’re interested in sustainable growth. We don’t need a million subscribers or anything to be successful.

In an interview with Luke O’Neil’s newsletter Hell World, Luis Paez-Pumar offered up Defector’s justification: 

Media consumers are becoming more accustomed to paying creators directly, and we think that we have something that no other Sports, Etc. website can offer right now. 

Though folks at The Athletic may disagree. 

And as Anantharaman said in the Slate interview, introducing a subscription-based media company during a pandemic is a risk. Many people don’t necessarily have the discretionary income to spend on yet another sports blog. 

Which makes this moment kind of interesting. Sports is a barometer of the health of a society, a high functioning civilization that has the luxury of time and wealth and health can afford to play sports. As we’re watching in real time, we are not a healthy society. 

And yet, this week alone, we saw three sports media entities step up into the batter’s box. 

Google and Local Media Consortium dropped The Matchup, which bills itself as 

the best sports content from local media outlets all over the U.S., covering professional and college sports with depth and hometown insight. The LMC will run the project, with support from the Google News Initiative.

Here’s a good write up of this from the newsletter A Media Operator

And, as the Wall Street Journal reports, 

Religion of Sports Media Inc., a media venture co-founded by NFL legends Tom Brady and Michael Strahan and filmmaker Gotham Chopra, has raised $10 million to produce more video and audio content, including content it plans to finance on its own.

Throw in the entrenched sports companies, like Sports Illustrated (nutrition-pills be damned, SI can still spit out good sports coverage) and ESPN and every news organization’s sports pages, as well as other new kids on the block, like The Athletic and The Players’ Tribune and Awful Announcing and SB Nation and Sportside and Sportico and Bleacher Report and The Ringer, we can see how quickly the field has expanded. 

As society crumbles, at least we have sports content. 

I’m rooting for Defector. We need more writer-owned publications, and outlets that aren’t controlled by executives who will sell out editorial integrity for a buck. The promise of Defector is that they won’t ink an $800,000 deal with a company and then write a 2,000 word glowing profile of its CEO.  Nor will they throw their brand behind nutrition bottles, a la Sports Illustrated.

And with a generation of loyal readers waiting to bite into the nostalgic apple, Defector can (as evidenced by the 10,000 people who signed up in one day) attract an audience. 

With good writing, a media company can be started. The question, of course, will be how sustainable can this be? Can they get enough subscribers to not only pay this year, but next year? Five years?

Or, maybe, a few millionaires will pony up for this level:

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Jimi Hendrix, “Star Spangled Banner”

Some interesting links:

  • The Gig Economy Is Failing. Say Hello to the Hustle Economy. (One Zero)

  • Henry Blodget Was Banned From the Financial Industry. So He Built a Financial Media Empire. (Institutional Investor)

  • An inside look at the Justice Department’s lawsuit against Google (Ad Age)

  • Amazon’s virus stumbles have been a boon for Walmart and Target (Washington Post)

  • An open letter to the new CEO of the New York Times (Nieman Lab)

  • John Lewis’s last words (New York Times)

  • Almost 30 million in the U.S. didn’t have enough to eat last week (Bloomberg)

  • Titans of tech testify in their trust-me suits (New York Times)