On Ad-Driven Revenue and Tools of the Sports Fan

Apple’s release of iOS 9 and its ability to allow content blocking on Safari has once again sparked conversation about blocking online advertising. Every now and again, the topic of ad blocker use crops up in the tech news circles. There are arguments made, grandiose solutions proposed, and villains identified. It’s the sites’ fault for allowing such terrible ads. It’s the ad networks’ fault for presenting such hideous and annoying material. It’s Google’s fault, it’s Apple’s fault, it’s Facebook’s fault. There are a lot of reasonable solutions out there — a switch back to native advertising, a rise in reader contributions, more reliance on direct partnerships — and what eventually shakes out will be some combination of those and some other things and it will only work for a little while. It’s a war of attrition between ad networks, content producers, and readers. But while we all contemplate the Future Of Online Publishing, let us not forget the actions we take today and how they affect the sites we use on a regular basis.

In fairness to the reader, it should be noted that these words will be a little biased. It’s always sticky for writers to opine on the mechanisms that directly affect their pocketbooks. Also, many of the sites I mention are staffed by acquaintances of mine, have paid me money to do things for them, or are just places I respect. Considering the audience, most of this is probably understood, but it should be mentioned.

The ad blockers you install on your browser are both simple and complex. The idea is simple. The blocker scans the code being loaded into the browser, identifies code (usually JavaScript or Flash) that has previously been identified as advertising, and disallows it from loading. The back end — the expanding database of advertising code — can be more complex, but the mechanism is fairly straight forward. These tools stop advertising code from loading. Advertising code can greatly increase the amount of tiem it takes a page to load. It can royally screw up readability and navigation of web pages. It can even install malicious code on your machine. It’s nasty and silly and annoying and nobody likes it. But, to overuse a common trope, it’s the cost of doing business.

Any “free” web site — a web site that does not charge a subscription fee to view its content — needs to make money to run. Bandwidth and server fees need to be covered. Writers have to (hopefully) be paid. Administrative fees have to be taken care of. It’s a business. In lieu of charging you directly, they allow advertisers to display content on their sites. The advertisers pay the web site for the right to do so.

Way back when, advertisers would make direct deals with web sites. Company X would call up Site Y and strike up a deal to advertise their products on the site. This took time and energy, and as the web became exponentially bigger and creating content became easier, this model became quite inefficient. This is where ad networks stepped in. Instead of Site Y working with Company X, Site Y did deals with Network A. Network A did tons of deals with all kinds of companies, and gave Site Y some JavaScript to insert into their code so that Network A could take care of all the rest. Network A would charge the companies, take a little off the top, and pay out Site Y. That’s pretty much where we stand now.

And as the web grew and grew, content expanded rapidly. This created more platforms for ad networks, and drove down the prices that those networks paid to content creators. These days, most sites get about $0.002 per impression or thereabouts. There are certainly other ways for sites to create revenue, but ads don’t pay as much as they used to, and they never paid a whole lot to begin with.

The rise in online advertising also meant that sellers had to do more to get their ads noticed. Ads got goofier, videos began auto-playing, cookies started tracking visitors’ traffic to help in delivering content the robots thought the reader would be interested in. It all culminated in the hot mess we know online advertising to be now. It’s no good, and it bothers almost everyone. And, at the time of this writing, we all need it.

Somewhere down the line — maybe it was the Napster craze, maybe it was the price of so many things getting driven down that the line between paid and free began to disappear — we all decided that it was OK for us to take things from sites and give them nothing in return. The old adage was that if you weren’t paying for a product, you were the product. Your Gmail address isn’t free. Your Facebook account certainly isn’t free. By joining these services, you were entering into a complicit agreement that these services could poke and prod your behavior and use that behavior for their own personal gain. But it’s all in the background. Perhaps this is what conditioned us to think that everything should be free. Online advertising was supposed to follow this model, too. You read something free of charge, and in return you had to see some junky ads. That is, until some smart people created tools that allowed readers to take away those ads, and money started leaking out of creators’ pockets.

When an ad blocker is used, the necessary script isn’t loaded. On the ad networks side, they never see the transaction, so it never gets logged. The site never gets credit for your eyes seeing its content. Bigger companies are affected slightly less. Views of articles on CNN.com, in theory, create brand recognition and increase the likelihood of you watching CNN on TV, where TV ads can be presented to you. For smaller (read: most) sites, this isn’t applicable. They need your eyes, and they need the advertisers to know that your eyes saw the content. Ad blockers stop this from happening.

Your favorite writers (sports or otherwise) need the advertisers to know this. Your favorite spots for opinions, statistics, or humor need this, as well. As someone who expects to consume content for no monetary cost, you agree to allow this. Or, you should. Many don’t. And if you allow ad blockers to prevent these sites from making money, you are, in affect, taking money away from them.

The nice thing about ad-supported content is that it democratizes the Internet. Beyond the cost to acquire Internet access, these sites can be viewed by anyone for free. There is no barrier to entry. Subscription sites aren’t a bad idea at all, but as soon as you do implement that model, you remove the right for some (i.e. lower-income or financially-strapped) readers from seeing your stuff. It’s a choice every creator has to make. But for those that choose to stay free, a horde of challenges await them.

Some of our favorite sites, like Sports Reference, offer ad-free subscriptions that charge a small fee to allow you to browse ad-free. It’s a great solution to the problem, and if you use Sports Reference even more than a little bit, you should consider it. It’s a way to keep ads out of your browser while simultaneously supporting the sites you like.

This site does not offer such subscriptions, nor does its parent site. There are content agreements in place, but ad money still makes up a big chunk of the [x]Graphs family’s revenue. It is a terrible contract that both sides have to enter, but it is necessary.

All of this, and I realize it had been a lot so far, is to say that if you enjoy a site’s content, white-list it from your ad blocker. Are ads annoying? You bet. Do we all wish there was a better way? Certainly. Have we come up with a better idea? Nope. And, until you yourself do, disable that ad blocker. This isn’t a “save our site” plea. This is a call to action to put your money where your mouth is. If you want to read something, suck it up and allow those sites to make money. It’s not pretty, it’s not fun, but it’s only fair.

Think about where we would be without Baseball Reference or Baseball Savant or VICE Sports or Deadspin or SB Nation. Your personal thoughts about these places aside, they helped and continue to help shape the landscape of the business. They aren’t needed on a purely utilitarian scale, but they help us research, enjoy, learn, and appreciate our favorite sports better than most sites can. A world without these sites is a world run solely by Disney, News Corp, and Viacom. Independent sites are good for everyone, regardless of subject matter.

Most independent and/or freelance sports writers on Twitter are pretty approachable. Ask them about the lavish lifestyle they lead as writers. It’s hard. Revenues are falling and therefor pay is falling. And never forget that the marketplace of writers is also growing. It sucks out there. Look at what happened to Sports on Earth. It was a pie in the sky idea that promoted quality writing over everything else and it failed. Money is hard to come by.

Will this ever be fixed? Who knows. Maybe the Golden Age of Internet Writing (if there ever was one) is dead. But until the bouncer kicks us out, let’s all work to make sure the people we like and and admire get as much as they can for all their work. If you use an ad blocker, white-list your go-to sites. If you don’t know how to, Google it. Google will gladly take your query and enter it into the ever-growing list of queries that you allowed it to capture by agreeing to use their service. The Internet is a grimy place full of trade offs. It’s not changing any time soon. Let’s at least support those crazy enough to try and make a living off of it.

David G. Temple is the Managing Editor of TechGraphs and a contributor to FanGraphs, NotGraphs and The Hardball Times. He hosts the award-eligible podcast Stealing Home. Dayn Perry once called him a "Bible Made of Lasers." Follow him on Twitter @davidgtemple.

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8 years ago

Perhaps fangraphs writer brad Johnson should not openly admit he blocks ads.

8 years ago

not sure about others, but i installed an adblocker specifically because fangraphs was unusable with the ads they were serving. It wouldnt load or redirected to skeezy freemium app download, etc.

So I make it a point to pay the $6 for FG+ and keep the adblocker installed.

8 years ago
Reply to  bill

Tell you what: figure out how much adblock costs you, and post it. I will happily donate that amount. Hell, I will happily donate three times that amount in appreciation for the content I’ve gotten over the years. But, ads have become so intrusive that I will not disable adblock.

8 years ago

Is there any way to make the FG+ into an add-free subscription. I don’t currently use ad-blockers for the reasons you state, but I do subscribe to FG+ also to support the Site, and it would be nice if FG+ users got an ad-fee experience.

Mark L
8 years ago

The comment about advertising democratising the internet is absolute garbage. It’s poisoning it. The internet’s not a democracy, and if you seriously think so, that’s because you’re one of the people benefiting from it. For the vast majority of internet users, people who are solely consumers, they’re awful (for the reasons mentioned by the comments above).

What you’re asking us to do is treat the internet differently to how we’d treat TV, radio or newspapers. I mute adverts on TV, flick between stations when ads come on the station I’m listening to, and my eyes just don’t register newspaper advertising. But for some reason, I have to let advertisers throw their garbage at me because they pay you $0.002 a page-hit.

The other problem, of course, with websites and podcasts, is the adverts literally don’t apply to me. I’m British, and every single comedy podcast I listen to has adverts solely directed at American audiences – same with most websites. I couldn’t use Legalzoom or whatever clothing site is paying for ads today even if I wanted to; and the sport betting websites who are becoming increasingly ubiquitous are irrelevant in the UK because we allow betting on sport anyway.

In fact, I have a different solution to all this. There’s too much “entertainment” – too many websites doing the same thing, too many cable TV stations, whatever. If I had to pay specifically for the Cardinals blog I visit, I’d stop. If I was in the US, and my cable bill was broken down by individual station, I’d unsubscribe to 90% of them immediately. We’re being asked to maintain a system which shouldn’t be maintained – hell, there doesn’t need to be 5 different stats-rich baseball websites, if we’re getting down to it. Let’s thin out the herd a little.

Mark L
8 years ago

What we’re talking about is how I choose to ignore adverts – I barely watch live TV at all, but when I do I mute the adverts; same with radio, and I just flick past the ads with print. My method of choice for muting online adverts is an ad-blocker, but because websites like yours picked a bad system for implementing ads, I’m now being told it’s my fault for not wanting to look at them? I disagree.

The Cardinals blog I read is from SBNation, and most of the writers don’t get paid anyway (and the ones that do, it’s not the equivalent of a full-time job) – the only people making a profit are SBNation. I do a film review blog, have done for years, but have actually lost money on the deal as I pay for web hosting and get nothing in return.

What “you” (plural) want is for the things to stay the same as always, and I just don’t think it’s going to happen. What we’re discovering is this “free” model of websites making substantial profits from providing free content is coming to an end. Do we really need as many hardcore stats-filled baseball sites as we have? Do we really need hundreds of cookie-cutter cable TV channels? It was nice while it lasted, but (taking cable TV as an example) if we actually gave consumers the choice of what channels to pay for, the vast majority of them would be out of business within a year. That will result in fewer “entertainment” jobs, and speaking as someone who does a hard, boring, office job, and writes in his spare time for fun, you’ll forgive me if I’m not incredibly sympathetic to the end of well-paid jobs for below average writers (looking at Grantland, AV Club and Fangraphs as examples, all have great writers but a lot of pretty poor ones).

What ad-blockers do is give people the choice to avoid adverts, and they’re doing so. If Fangraphs wants to go to a BP-style pay-to-read model, fine: I’d probably do that to carry on reading the decent articles here. But if I had to pay to read every website that’s currently on my recently visited list…

8 years ago

The ads that annoy me are the ones that actually impact my ability to browse the site. It’s usually just mobile, but if the ad pushes part of the article off the page that I can’t scroll to, that’s kind of an issue. Otherwise, good points

8 years ago

I realize that we haven’t come up with a better idea for site revenue yet, but why should that responsibility lie on the end consumers? It’s not our duty to keep someone else’s business afloat. Everyone, including the ad networks, knows what people hate about ads. I disagree with the comment “suck it up and allow those sites to make money.” If users keep sucking it up, and sites keep allowing it, and networks keep profiting, there is no incentive for something better.

I will allow ads from sites I frequent, but only to an extent. As soon as the ads hamper my online experience, they are blocked. I believe from most internet comments on this topic, that I am far from the only one who browses this way. I’m fine with being tracked. In fact, I’d prefer that I was served ads relevant to me than some junk that isn’t relative such as the British commenter, or scammy eyesore ads that I would never click in a million years.

8 years ago

Good point. I guess since there is no monetary exchange from myself to the sites i view, I consider this to be “free”. I’ve never considered my payment to be enduring unwanted ads. It’s not a transaction replicated much in the real world. It’s like only being able to use a park for free if you let a pigeon crap on your head.
Sidenote: I’ve had Fangraphs whitelisted on adblock plus since day 1 of installing it, yet I still see no ads. Is there more that I should do, short of uninstalling the extension (some websites are unusable without it, especially on my slow work computer)?

8 years ago
Reply to  ben

Yeah, my first thought was “why should the consumers be responsible for it?” too. Some industries just need to learn to adapt. When I started listening to Pearl Jam in the 90’s, they were battling ticketmaster to keep tickets under $20. Last time I saw them, I think I paid over $80/ticket. I got an email from them recently about new merchandise they’re selling, including coffee mugs that cost over $20 shipped (and, sure enough, they’re sold out). Once consumers stopped paying money for albums, it was up to the band to find other ways to make money – and they’ve done it.

I have no problems with banners on the side of a webpage. Right now, I see a ‘MAX’ banner at the top of the page, and a ‘Kohls’ banner on the right side of the page. There’s also a Land Rover ad on the bottom of the page. On my open Fangraphs window, there’s an ad for American Express and another Kohls ad. I’m fine with that. If every site had ads like that, I think most users would deal with it.

However, I clicked the ‘avoid pop-ups’ thing in Firefox so I have no idea if anything would have popped up. I also block flash, so when I go to a flash-based site it has a box I need to click to allow flash. ESPN used to be horrendous before I blocked flash, because it would stall my browser and play videos as soon as I went to the site. Other sites would have a video-based ad that automatically plays. That’s a dealbreaker for me. It’s easy to say consumers should just suck it up and deal with it, but too many websites make that difficult.

Seth Keichline
8 years ago

We need to start selling $20 TechGraphs coffee cups.

8 years ago
Reply to  Seth Keichline

And $100 Notgraphs Not coffee cups

8 years ago
Reply to  McNulty

A $100 NotGraphs bottomless coffee mug that’s just a coffee mug with no bottom.