SI Ups Digital Effort With ‘All Access’ Subscription; TV May Be Next
Sports Illustrated’s introduction of an “All Access” digital subscription model last week marks the most aggressive step yet in the Time Inc. publication’s attempt to become a genuine multiplatform property. But this overarching print-Web-tablet-smartphone subscription may be a sign of even bigger things to come over the next year for SI, including more digital video content and an increased television presence.
The new All Access bundle allows subscribers to access each issue of Sports Illustrated via print, computer, and tablets and smartphones that run on Google’s Android operating system for $48 a year or $4.99 a month. A digital-only subscription is available for $3.99 per month. Current SI subscribers will have free access to the digital package through the remainder of their term.
“All this new technology has produced the ability to get SI content to new people and new markets,” says Mark Ford, EVP/president, Sports Group, at Time Inc. “And it allows our existing customers to access that content when, where, and how they want it.”
A Viable Subscription on Android
The All Access offering launches with apps for the Samsung Galaxy tablet and Android smartphones (OS 2.1 and higher) and will be available on the recently announced HP TouchPad (along with Time Inc. sibling pubs Time, Fortune, and People) when it is introduced later this year. The SI app has also been demonstrated on Motorola’s Xoom tablet, which is expected to launch in March and runs on Honeycomb, the latest version of the Android operating system.
Although SI was among the first to unveil digital versions of its magazine for tablets and smartphones, it had yet to institute a viable subscription model until now. Print subscribers voiced complaints regarding the need to pay twice in order to access SI magazine content on their various devices.
“The one crucial part of the plan that went with the [magazine app] we unveiled months ago was that we had a subscription model that allowed SI subscribers to subscribe to a digital edition of the magazine,” says Sports Group Editor Terry McDonnell. “We now have that. Subscribers can get an edition for print, tablet, smartphone, and Website — all at one price with one subscription, and you get it everywhere. I believe we’re the first [magazine] to do that, and I believe that will be the model going forward.”
Current and new subscribers can sign up for the digital subscription at www.si.com/magazine.
An iPad-less Launch
Noticeably absent from Sports Illustrated’s All Access-friendly devices is Apple’s iPad, which currently owns more than 75% of the highly coveted tablet market. Time Inc. has yet to engineer a deal with Apple that would allow the publisher to sell subscriptions through iTunes (although individual issues of SI are available for download on iTunes).
Apple demands a 30% share of all sales through iTunes, creating a business model that has been a tough sell for publishers like Time Inc., which rely heavily on subscription revenue. Although this leaves a gaping hole in SI’s digital strategy, Time Inc. executives continue to hold out hope that a deal will eventually get done.
“We love Apple, and we love the iPad. We were there at the very beginning at the launch of the iPad,” says Randall Rothenberg, EVP/chief digital officer at Time Inc. “We have a great desire to sell subscriptions in the iTunes store. We continue to have conversations with [Apple]. We’re confident that, at some point, we’ll be able to sell subscriptions appropriately at the iTunes store.”
Unable to land a deal with Apple as yet, Time Inc. has charted a different course, building the initial launch of its subscription model around Google’s Android operating system. Though acknowledging that there is a revenue-sharing agreement with Google regarding the All-Access subscription model, Rothenberg does not disclose any specifics. Google’s cut is assumed to be less than the 30% mandated by Apple.
Renewed Focus on Video
The new All Access model will also give SI the chance to dive further into an area where it has been sorely lacking: video. Sports Illustrated plans to leverage the rights it gained access to when it partnered with fellow Time Inc. outfit Turner Broadcasting System in July 2010.
“Turner is working with us to bring their rights to tablets and phones,” says Ford. “They have digital-video rights with leagues, but we don’t have free rein over those rights. They have individual deals with each league, and they have to adjust those deals to make sure that we have the rights for the iPad. Then, they bring us those highlights in whatever form that league will allow us to run them.”
Look for the initial fruits of this partnership to surface on SI’s digital platform during the 2011 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in March and April. As part of a 14-year, $10.8 billion deal with CBS, Turner Sports holds the digital rights to the tournament and will feed a “sizable” amount of video to SI All Access subscribers, according to Ford.
“We are working towards incorporating as much as possible by the time the tournament comes around],” he says, “and I believe that we will be ready and it will be done [by March]. We’ll take those [NCAA Tournament] rights and supply them across all our platforms: SI.com, tablets, and phones.”
SI Back on TV?
Sports Illustrated’s aspirations are hardly limited to streaming video, however. The Turner deal also presents SI with an opportunity to re-enter the television business, a realm it has shied away from since the now defunct CNN-SI network of the late 1990s.
“What I see next is opportunities in television,” says Ford. “We know we can do it well. We have great partners at Turner, and we’re working with various other media companies as well. We are looking at SI-branded [studio programming]. We will also continue to push our writers like Seth Davis, Tom Verducci, and Peter King on the television side.”