As soon as the Steelers failed to make the playoffs, Pittsburgh sports writers watched fans shift their attention to hockey — as web traffic jumped up by thousands of clicks on Penguins stories.
“Penguins fans are Pittsburghers,” Rob Rossi, senior writer for The Athletic, told me recently as he waited to board a flight back from watching the Pens lose in Boston. “They’re conditioned to pay more attention after Steelers season.”
The Steelers and Penguins drive a lot of traffic, subscriptions and revenues for Pittsburgh media. At the Post-Gazette, sources tell me that a single Steelers story can generate hundreds of thousands of clicks.
And while it would have been nice for the Steelers to make a deep run into the playoffs, it wouldn’t have necessarily translated into piles of money for media outlets. Yes, the playoffs generate lots of excitement and web clicks, but the newsrooms also spend more to send reporters at the last minute to cover those games — and no one can live on web clicks alone.
What really sells is hope, Dejan Kovacevic, founder of DK Pittsburgh Sports, says.
The Penguins’ recent hot streak, despite injuries, has fans believing in the team again and dreaming of another Stanley Cup playoff run into June.
“When people have hope in a team, they tend to feel more invested both intangibly and tangibly,” Kovacevic says. “They’re not afraid to put money in a team that they have hope in.”
Kovacevic and Rossi both worked at the Post-Gazette and the Tribune-Review before going to sports-only, subscription-based websites. They know just how much sports drives web traffic in Pittsburgh, even at media outlets that don’t like to admit it publicly.
“Newspapers’ reluctance to acknowledge that sports drives readership is complete denial,” Kovacevic says. “It’s as if these people had never been in a waiting room or a barbershop and didn’t notice that sports is the only section of the newspaper that is missing.”
I know about the importance of sports from my own experience, as a former news reporter at the Tribune-Review, and as someone who has written three Pittsburgh sports books. When we measured web clicks, stories about the sports teams typically drew thousands more than anything from the news desk.
And while I could spend weeks or even months working on a series of investigative articles that might draw modest interest, I could write a single short story about the Penguins and watch it light up sports talk shows and the internet.
Former Post-Gazette employees have said the same thing, noting that at times more than half of its website traffic comes from outside of Pittsburgh and that sports stories dominate. Steelers Nation is a real thing.
“At the newspapers where I worked, sports drove more than half of all the traffic,” Kovacevic says. “At one place that I worked, without giving anything away, the Steelers alone were worth 40 percent of not just the sports traffic, but the whole pie.”
As a sports-only website, The Athletic gives reporters more opportunities to go deep and to take risks, Rossi says. The company, which has more than 500 employees worldwide, announced this week that it has raised $139.5 million in investor support since launching in 2016, and it’s valued at $500 million.
Rather than covering Penguins practice sessions, a bread-and-butter routine for newspapers, Rossi recently traveled to Wilkes-Barre to see the Penguins’ minor league affiliate and to gain insight he would have missed.
Similarly, the website bet big on Rossi last summer when it gave him $3,000 to travel to Moscow and spend time with Penguins’ star Evgeni Malkin. Rossi has been covering Malkin for years, as a beat writer and as an author working on a book about the Russian-born player.
The resulting story, at more than 4,000 words, provides colorful insight and shows an introspective side of the player that fans have never seen. Malkin opened up about what he felt was his worst season ever.
Even before the piece ran, The Athletic’s top executives knew it would blow up online.
The public can see the first couple of paragraphs for free but must purchase a subscription to The Athletic — at $36 to $60 a year — to read the whole story. A subscription for DK Pittsburgh Sports costs $40 a year.
Insiders at The Athletic track to see what stories draw eyeballs and which ones sell subscriptions. Even now, six months after it was published, Rossi’s story about Malkin still sells subscriptions, he says. Rossi was not authorized to talk specifics about subscription numbers.