USA Today Sports Rides Programmatic For Supply Surges

USA Today SportsSports content consumption fluctuates – down in the offseason, then surging around major sporting events. How can a publisher manage? Gannett-owned USA Today Sports Media Group uses programmatic to pick up the slack.

“Programmatic has allowed us to ride those ups and downs of premium sales,” explained Chris Pirrone, the general manager of Sports Digital Properties. Sales teams sell sponsorships around big events while programmatic picks up the slower periods or, conversely, unpredictable demand spikes.

USA Today Sports owns 11 sports-related websites and partners with 150 others with “highly engaged fan bases,” Pirrone said.

Besides USA Today’s sports section and content from Gannett’s local TV stations and newspapers, it also has niche sites like, For The Win and HoopsHype, all of which total 40 million monthly uniques.

A premium sales team sells display and video inventory, also available through programmatic direct, around tentpole events like the NFL draft and the Super Bowl. The team also sells based on sports leagues, like the NFL, college sports or MMA.

Video inventory almost completely sells through via direct and private marketplace deals. But when a video goes viral, that introduces not only a promising source of revenue, but also greater potential losses. Streaming and player costs add up if there’s no advertising to offset it. “What programmatic has allowed me to do is make sure it has a steady stream of revenue,” Pirrone said.

“The concept of programmatic video is great,” Pirrone said. “Because it’s inventory constrained, the publishers are in control of video. My inventory very rarely makes it to open exchange. It’s direct sold, then we have programmatic direct deals, then [private] programmatic auction deals, then there’s not much left to go into an open auction.”

Pirrone doesn’t like all the video vendors he has to work with, however.

“The marketplace is very fragmented,” he said. “We’re working with most of the players out there, because the demand side is working with a lot of different players. You have to work with Google, Tremor, Adapt, SpotXchange, BrightRoll, because that’s where the programmatic demand is.”

All these platforms make it difficult for publishers like USA Today Sports to track and target. Going forward, the group is taking steps to create more video content to meet demand from advertisers.

And “18- to 35-year-olds would rather consume video than text,” Pirrone observed. “We tend to be younger, more mobile and more social than competitors,” which he attributes to the sites’ engaged fan base.

But digital video rights to sports events are too expensive. “Frankly, leagues don’t understand digital syndication. They want billions of dollars for rights fees, and on digital, we know it doesn’t monetize that way,” Pirrone said.

Instead, USA Today Sports focuses on creating rich commentary around an event without relying on the highlight reels.

It might also live blog expensive pay-per-view events, like the MMA, which drives a lot of traffic, Pirrone said.

It’s through these workarounds that USA Today Sports plans to scale up supply in video as the publisher itself undergoes a transition.

“The biggest issue for us is how do we create interesting storytelling?” Pirrone said. “How do we transition from a newspaper company to a digital company to now a video company?”

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