First Pitch: Subscribe to Pirates Prospects For Small Business Saturday

I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving, and didn’t take the news of Sean Rodriguez signing elsewhere too hard. Or didn’t celebrate it too much. Honestly, I’m not exactly sure where the bulk of Pirates fans stand on Rodriguez at this point, although I never really thought I’d see the day where it would be possible for Pirates fans to be upset to see Rodriguez leave.

We’ve got some articles lined up for this weekend, including a look at Eric Wood and the Rule 5 draft, a breakdown of how Jose Osuna is performing in winter ball so far, a preview of the upcoming roster decisions, and of course reactions and coverage to any news or rumors that come out.

Tonight I wanted to discuss a topic that isn’t relevant to the off-season, but is very relevant to me and to this site. It’s a long article, but I hope that you’ll read through it to get some background on the site, along with an important request at the end. It will get a bit sales pitchy, and if you want to skip all of that and just subscribe, or maybe buy a Prospect Guide or gift subscription, then that would be fine by me, and those links will lead you to where you want to be.

With Small Business Saturday coming up, I felt it was important to review our status as a small business trying to provide coverage of a niche subject, and what you can do to help support the site and keep it going.

Keep it going. I feel like that’s never a phrase that disappears. I don’t know any media outlet that is immune to uncertainty about the future. It’s an industry that gave a product away for free for years. By the time they realized that you can’t run a business with no income, it became the norm for people to expect all online news for free. If someone started charging, they could get the news elsewhere for free.

I made the decision to switch to a paid site two years ago, moving away from being a free site. I heard all of the traditional arguments. I was called greedy, disloyal, and many other things. People said their goodbyes to the site because they just don’t pay for online news out of principle. Some people felt that I should have handled it in a different way, asking for donations instead. That is translation for “I want everyone else to pay while I get the content for free”, and the reality is that no one pays because people rarely pay when they don’t have to.

The decision to switch was difficult, and it really sucked seeing a large chunk of readers just disappear. We were averaging over 40,000 visitors to the site per day during the busy parts of the year, and still 20,000 or more during the slow parts. But it was necessary. If we didn’t make the switch to being a subscription site, there would be no Pirates Prospects today.

Let me take you back to the 2013 season for a second. I took a bit of a gamble that season, hiring some talented writers to provide live coverage of the Pirates and their minor league system. I could have opted to not pay those writers, and just had them work for experience. That’s an industry trend, and I’ve never followed it, because it’s wrong. That puts me at a disadvantage in an industry where income can be tight, but I’d rather fail doing the right thing than succeed by taking advantage of people.

Prior to the season, my goal was to see over 10,000,000 page views during the year. I thought that if we expanded our MLB coverage and analysis, and expanded the minor league live coverage, we would reach that amount. If we reached that amount, then based on our ad revenue rates the year before, we would be able to afford the live coverage, and continue to grow the site.

Fast forward to August that year. We were on pace for our traffic goal with ease. We had great coverage throughout the system, and even had a SABR award-winning writer in James Santelli. And yet we took a massive hit in revenue from our ad networks.

If you’re unfamiliar with the way ad networks operate, they generally pay on net-30 or net-60 day schedules. This means your earnings from June are either going to be paid at the end of July or the end of August. And most of the time, you didn’t even know how much you were making until you got the check. They’d give an estimate, but the estimate was almost always off. Sometimes you’d get $100 extra. Sometimes you’d get $100 less. It was usually a small amount.

That summer, our biggest ad network not only had some horrible estimates, but also saw a big decline in revenue from the year before. I’d get an estimate in June, and when the official check arrived in July or August, it would sometimes be $500-1,000 lower. And that lower price was from an estimate that was already lower than the previous year. I’m not going to bore you with the math, but we ended up short $10,000 that year, just because the ad revenue was at a historic low.

I say “we”, but it was me taking that loss. I could have scaled back operations, and either told the writers I couldn’t pay them, or just cut out live coverage completely. Instead, I took $10,000 from my own savings account and took the loss, all to provide free live coverage the rest of the year, along with live playoff coverage, while honoring my commitments to our writers. I did this because I had been building the site for several years, and believed the investment in the site’s future was a good one.

Unfortunately, we faced a difficult decision two years later. Ad revenues continued to decline in 2014, and I responded that year by cutting back live coverage. We still had live coverage, but not to the standard we had before, simply because the declining ad revenues couldn’t support paying for writers all over the system. The more it declined, the more we had to increase traffic. The best way to increase traffic was more live coverage. But we would spend more on live coverage than we would make bringing in new readers with that coverage, which is a vicious spiral towards bankruptcy.

So in 2015, I had a decision. I could pay writers, and quickly go out of business. I could cut live coverage, become another blog talking about players based on a stat sheet, and then go out of business, while maybe buying myself a year. Or, I could try the subscription method, and see what happens when there’s an actual revenue stream to work with. Just to compare the two models, 20,000 daily readers under the free model leads to the same amount of revenue as 2,000 readers under the subscription model at our current prices.

I’ll be honest with you. There are times when I wish I would have walked away after the 2014 season. I don’t like running a subscription site. I want this site to be free. I want as many people as possible to read it. I hate having to sell the site, or thinking up ways to get people to subscribe. But that’s a fantasy. The reality is that a subscription site is the only way this works.

When I think about how much this has worked, I never regret it. We have more live coverage now than we’ve ever had. We have writers in every full-season city, and we get multiple looks at the short-season clubs. For two years in a row, I visited every team in the system at least once, with some of them twice. I’ve covered the Arizona Fall League live, which no other outlet in Pittsburgh did this year, and when they did it last year, they wrote articles that said the same thing about players that we said six months earlier. I’ve covered the Dominican academy live. We’ve had first looks at the new draft picks immediately, along with updates throughout the off-season on their progress.

My promise when we switched to a paid site was to bring coverage that we never had before as a free site. I could only dream about doing all of the above under the free system.

But unfortunately, there’s a big challenge with the subscription model: No one can see the improvements. Sure, the improvements are great for the people who subscribe, but for those on the other side of the paywall, there’s no good way to know about the quality on the site, or how much it’s improved over when they used to read the site when it was free.

I’ve tried different methods. The “X articles for free” doesn’t work, because no one has a system that can actually block people from reading after X amount of articles. Having a free article per day doesn’t work, because people usually just read the free article. I tried that with First Pitch this year, making the article free. There were a few people at first who subscribed because they realized they missed the site. But that stopped, and it ended up that we were giving free articles to people with no intention of subscribing. I did notice a wave of new subscriptions once the article went back to being behind the paywall.

It’s also tough getting word of mouth because no one really knows what to do with a subscription site. For example, there are many times where we break news a few days before anyone else, and it doesn’t get reported until free outlets report it, just because there are people who are unsure about sharing content from a paid site (My stance: Share away, with fair use practices of course).

Going back to that “keep it going” theory, I find myself often wondering how long a subscription model will last, or if it will last for the long-haul. So far, we’re looking good. But at the same time, we’ve reached a point where it’s difficult to introduce the site to new readers, or to show the quality of the site to former readers. We used to be a widely read outlet and the go-to source for Pirates minor league news. We still are the latter, but with the subscription model, it feels like we’ve gone from being widely read to the best kept secret in Pittsburgh.

I don’t want the site to be a secret though. I’m never satisfied with the growth of the site, and always want to do more. And the best way for that to happen is for the site to continue growing in subscribers, giving us more resources to provide live coverage and continue adding quality writers to the site. You know that I’ll do everything in my power to keep this site going, including investing a huge chunk of my savings in order to keep the site going at a high quality — and that was when no one was paying a single penny for access.

So here’s what I’m asking you to do: Spread the word.

This Saturday is Small Business Saturday, which is a day to focus on the little guys. That’s us. We’re not a big company. It’s just me — one guy with no one backing him, trying to deliver an entertaining and informative product. I’m the head writer, editor in chief, photographer, marketing department, HR department, customer service department, web division, and more. And I hire and pay writers who are doing this job to advance their career and/or earn additional income for their families. We’re not the New York Times or the Washington Post. We’re just people trying to provide you the best coverage of the system, and hoping you think all of the effort is worth less than a cup of coffee a month.

Most of the people initially reading this article are already subscribers, so you already think the site is worth it. So my request for Small Business Saturday and this whole weekend is to tell your friends about the site. Share this article (it’s free). Tell them to subscribe (piratesprospects.com/subscribe). Tell them why you subscribe and why you like the site. Tell your Twitter followers to #SubscribeToP2. Maybe buy a gift subscription for someone for Christmas, or purchase our Prospect Guide for yourself (speaking of Black Friday, we have Prospect Guide deals available for Annual and Top Prospect subscribers).

I’ve got some plans to expand our marketing in the next year, trying to bring in new and old readers. But the best approach is always word of mouth. You’re more likely to buy something if a friend tells you how good it is, compared to the company telling you how good it is. So help us by getting the word out about the site, and in exchange, we’ll use those new resources to continue expanding and improving the site and giving you the most information and the best coverage of the system that you can find.

  • Tim, your subscription fee is quite fair. Your coverage is outstanding. Keep doing what you do. I would love to take your writer in Charleston to dinner next year when I check out the team. I would love to see the subscribers support your team when we get a chance to see prospects live. #supporthewriters

  • This site is ridiculously inexpensive when you consider it is less than ten cents per day for the best Pirate coverage anywhere – cheaper than any newspaper or cup of coffee. I check the site every day and have never once regretted subscribing. Keep up the great work Tim and crew!

  • I am one who never pays for online content out of principle and initially balked when the Site became a pay one. However I made an exception for Tim and I’m glad that I did.

    Glad to support the Site and will Tweet and try to spread the word tomorrow.

  • Tim, whenever news breaks that every outlet has like say Sean Rodriguez signing or something that isn’t exclusive to only your site you tweet out links to this site. Is there anyway to make content that is free everywhere else free, free on here too? I understand sometimes you and your writers give personal thoughts about the moves that aren’t just straight news so maybe having access to things like that would get more people to subscribe.

    • Before and after making the switch, I talked with other writers in other cities who were independent (there aren’t many of us, and even fewer if you take out the former newspaper writers who went off on their own). The people who did this method, which is basically having a free site and premium content, didn’t see a big spike in the premium content subscriptions.

      This could be due to the perception that you’re paying for less. Instead of paying for the entire site, you’re getting some of the site for free, and then you have to decide whether to buy the rest, which most people don’t.

      This approach would work better if we ran ads on the site that were paid via cost per 1,000 views (which is what we had before), since we’d be getting revenue on the free visitors. And from my conversations, this approach doesn’t work as well as the full paywall approach, so we’d just be giving a lot more articles away for free.

  • Tim, do you have many local or national writers/analyst that subscribe? I have trouble coming up with family or friends to buy a gift subscription for, but if you think it would help get word out, I’d be willing to buy one or more gift subscriptions for local or national writers.

    • By the way, thank you for sharing the article. I enjoy getting updates on how the endeavor is going, what hurdles you are facing and what achievements you have.

    • I don’t really know our full list of subscribers. I do know that all of the local outlets subscribe. I’m not sure about the national ones.

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