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Good Luck With That, ESPN

While going through my lineup of RSS feeds, I happened upon an interesting article from Darren Rovell, the sports business reporter for CNBC. He arranged an interview with ESPN the Magazine's general manager Gary Hoenig to talk about the questionable new promotion whereby current subscribers can get a full year for just $1. That's $1 total, meaning it's now 4 cents an issue.

The point is not to move glossified dead trees though. That was apparent:

Darren: What are you trying to do with this promotion?

Hoenig: What we’re trying to do is get people to experiment with our paid Web site, Insider, which magazine subscribers are entitled to but they’re not signing up for at the numbers we had hoped for in the past. So what we’re doing is giving them an opportunity for a year to experience both the magazine and the Web site for only $1 and obviously we hope to get them back to a decent price for the two of them.

...

Darren: Will the $1 offer help keep people who might consider leaving the magazine?

Hoenig: This is really not about retention of magazine subscribers. This is really about an aggressive attempt to get people to experience the Insider especially in the way we just upgraded it. We wanted them to experience it. We wanted them to get to know it so that within a year they’re saying to themselves "Wow, this is really worth more than $1." Obviously were hoping they think it’s worth a lot more than $1.

What's happening is that they're trying to get more magazine subscribers to sign up for ESPN Insider, which they're entitled to for free. Something doesn't add up though. If you subscribe to the magazine for $26, you get Insider for "free." If you buy Insider for $40, you get a digital copy the magazine for "free." Not only is that strange, but this promotion is for current subscribers. They're slashing the price for something people already subscribe to in order to draw attention to something they already subscribe to.

This can only make sense in one way.

ESPN wants to get people used to the idea of paying for general sports coverage. It wants to acclimate people to spending money to eliminate a pay wall.

It's not about making more money, because they're trying to get people who are currently paying for Insider but don't use it to actually use it. They gain nothing monetarily, and if anything, they marginally lose money from extra bandwidth for whatever traffic demands these new Insider users will make.

There aren't many corners of the Internet where pay walls still exist. The Wall Street Journal has succeeded with its pay wall where most other print outlets haven't because the information it provides can help people make money. In sports, things like fantasy information and especially college recruiting information work just are successful with pay walls because, again, the former can make people money (in theory, assuming the advice is good) and the latter has always had one. The only big challenger to pay sites Rivals and Scout to come along has been ESPN, and the WWL dutifully keeps its information locked away in Insider land.

Aside from specialty areas, you don't have to pay for much sports content out there. Basically every sports page in America is free now, and blogs are quickly filling in any other gaps that might exist in coverage. ESPN knows about this trend, and it doesn't like what it sees. More from Hoenig:

I think that’s been a problem all along – the overdependence on advertising is a real crutch for media and this is an opportunity for us to actually get to the consumer and say, "Hey, what are you willing to pay for?" I don’t think it’s a time to give up and say, "No we have to give everything away for free." I think the road to free is just the road to the bottom... It costs money to produce good media and people need to pay for a product that they want. It’s not something that they could just ask for for free.

Did you hear that? People need to pay for their sports media according to ESPN. It's expensive to keep the vast staff of writers that the WWL does, and ad revenue alone won't pay the bills. Therefore, people must pay.

There are a lot of competitors though, and they do give things away for free. SB Nation is one of them, as are outlets like Bleacher Report plus every independent blogger out there. They're all creating content and they're all giving it away. I think the early returns on the sports blogosphere show that while there are some that race towards the bottom, there's an awful lot of great stuff out there. Not only that but those that do well are rewarded.

There was once a time when I wanted to get ESPN Insider. It looked like a good way to get some great content. Then I discovered Saurian Sagacity, then EDSBS, then Sunday Morning Quarterback (now Dr. Saturday), and then a bevy of other good writers. I realized I didn't need to "become and Insider" to get great content. It's all out there already, and it's not been sanitized by overeager corporate overlords.

I don't pretend to know exactly where media is going. One thing I'm fairly sure of is that pay walls won't be a part of general sports coverage because of all the great free content there is out there. Consumers are being conditioned to expect to get their content free. I doubt an ESPN the Magazine promotion is going to turn the tides.