Norb Garrett discusses the TransWorld acquisition and the future of its and GrindMedia’s titles, action sports media, and the industry as a whole
Yesterday the action sports industry was rocked by news of the acquisition of one of its oldest and most influential media groups, TransWorld Media, by another titan of the industry, GrindMedia, a division of Source Interlink. The deal left many questions about the future of the individual titles in each sport, strategies going forward, and the overall health of the action sports industry, whose news has been dominated by acquisitions and bankruptcies since the great recession struck.
According to GrindMedia SVP and Group Publisher Norb Garrett, the acquisition was made with the goal of creating better content across all of the platforms that exist to reach its audience. It’s no secret that the media landscape is changing at a blurring pace and a new strategy and paradigm to create and deliver compelling content is paramount to survival. Garrett says that digital and video content is GrindMedia’s future and the addition of the TransWorld brands puts the company in a unique position in action and adventure sports with its ability to tell amazing stories through the lenses of each of its titles across all mediums. Garrett also believes the move puts GrindMedia in a place to achieve media’s new holy grail—leveraging quality content into a sustainable revenue model.
Over the last several weeks, TransWorld’s previous parent company, Bonnier Media sold off its Mountain Group, which includes Ski, Skiing, and Warren Miller, and its Parenting Group, and the next shoe fell yesterday with this announcement as Bonnier becomes the latest media group to retool under market pressures.
We caught up with Garrett as the dust settled on the first day of the acquisition, which was announced and finalized yesterday, to learn more about what the future holds. (Interview conducted by Mike Lewis and Kailee Bradstreet)
What’s the history on the deal and why was TransWorld an attractive acquisition for GrindMedia?
I can’t speak specifically to deal terms or the evolution of the deal, but what I can tell you is, three years ago when I took over the Action Sports Group and recast it as GrindMedia the view was a re-creation of our action, adventure, sports media company that provided solutions for advertising partners while putting out the world’s greatest action and adventure sports content. The evolution of this partnership, and I really think it’s important that we make that clear—there are no conquering Romans running up and down the streets with hammers cheering the death of something. This is two like-minded businesses with fantastic brand assets and amazing teams of individuals, coming together for the greater good of the collective business, which literally is a combination of fantastic media assets, fantastic intellectual properties through personnel, and also a best-in-class understanding of each of these vertical sports communities, a love for those communities, a passion for them, and a relationship with our consumers. It’s something that we feel very strongly about as a corporate identity. We see that the collection of the two businesses together strengthens our position rather than keeping two different businesses that are battling against each other. That is at odds with what our focus really should be—how do we grow these sports, how do we get more people involved in each of these activities, how do we make our brands even more accessible to reach more people and sell even more product within our endemic communities? How do we take the aggregate of that consumer base and make it interesting to Madison Avenue and non-endemic partners and advertisers who see how fantastic and how cool these influencers are, how incredibly engaging these sports are, and how cool the people are that are participating in them—the athletes, the stories, the destinations? If we do that, we are taking a much more strategic view around the action, adventure sports world, rather than just media companies battling it out for $20,000 ad buys. At the end of the day that is the strength of the combined businesses.
The surf, skate, and snow market has been shrinking over the past few years. What’s your vision for the separate sports’ titles? Do you think surfing can support three separate magazines at this point?
It’s supporting three now. Our view as we did the acquisition is that we do believe that each of these markets right now can support multiple media properties within them. I have no doubt in my mind as business operators we are capable of running multiple media in the same sports category. We have every desire to continue doing that moving forward with every one of these acquisitions. That said, it’s incumbent on us to make sure our messaging is proper, that the positioning of the books is proper, that we are actually serving different consumers, growing different consumer bases, providing different marketing solutions for our brands so they can better market to different age groups, different demographics, different parts of the United States, and different parts of the globe. What we will be doing—and what I’ll be doing— is spending a lot of time making sure we are strategically positioned in each one of the verticals. There may be slight tweaks and modifications as we go along but that’s strategic and no different than what you do as an operator everyday anyway.
Coming in, is it your plan to keep the titles the same?
Absolutely. If it wasn’t we would have let them go today. Why else would we keep them? It would be easier to cut them today and say “sorry we don’t want it.” That’s not what we did.
What about the Skateboarder/SKATEboarding titles with the recent changes to Skateboarder’s distribution platform?
I don’t even see a real challenge in the ownership of those two brands under the same sport vertical. Skateboarder has changed its focus to be a free digital magazine and the first issue is doing really well. Today I found out we crossed over 100,000 free downloads and over two million views—we got 40,000 over the weekend. We did a full site takeover on Grind TV. That’s the power of Grind TV and the aggregation of all our brands and putting them on a platform that has on average 17 million unique visits a month. Skateboarder is actually going down a road of real creative change. The magazine really acts like a marketing tool—it’s only available at skate shops, you can’t buy it by subscription or online. If you want to buy it, you gotta get it at a skate shop. Why? Because that’s the heart of skateboarding—we want you to get back to skateboarding. TransWorld SKATE is a fantastic brand, has been battling it out with Thrasher for years as a circulation leader, as a thought leader, and quite frankly I look at those two as really complimentary in the skate space. Thrasher and TransWorld are the two big players in the skate space. Skateboarder is a great magazine, but because it went away and came back, then went away and came back, it’s been a little staccato. What we’ve committed to is a really great strategy and it’s going to work.
Skateboarder seems like a great case study that could potentially be leveraged across other titles as well.
No question about it. Really what we set out to do was build audience. One of the arguments for that strategy was, ” hey, we’ve got four main skate media brands with Skateboarder Mag—if you add all those guys up they barely get to a quarter of a million paid subscriptions.” We have 20 million skateboarders in the US alone. So we need to do something different to reach a larger audience. So we said, “we are the third book in the space, maybe the fourth if you want to have a battle with Skateboard Mag on who’s third and fourth, we’ve got nothing to lose. We know all the athletes say they dig the mag, the brands all dig it, let’s put it out there for free and see if we can make it more about audience grab and reaching more skateboarders and turning more people on.” That’s a good thing for the skate industry—that’s actually a good thing for TransWorld SKATE, that’s a good thing for Thrasher. I see those being two brands [TWS and Skateboarder] that are going to work alongside each other very well.
What do you think the move says about the health of the industry at this point? You talked about leveraging it to get more people on board and increasing the appeal in the non-endemic world. It seems like there’s a lot of consolidation right now and people having a hard time. Do you see this as an opportunity coming out of the chaos?
I really do see it as a move of strength. I see it as a pairing of assets of like-minded people who speak to different audiences and we’ve spent a lot of time doing that. Quite frankly, the evolution and distribution of media is what has forged this opportunity. Eight years ago we were making magazines and putting them on newsstands and people were buying them. Now we are making content and that content is being distributed on nine, ten, twelve different platforms. It’s getting more and more costly to do those things, and it’s more and more time consuming to make sure we do really great content on all those platforms. We need to join forces to do that and be more effective. It’s really not productive if our two media companies sat twenty miles apart and continued to battle rather than work together for A) the better of the brands and communities we serve, B) the brands and advertisers that want to reach these audiences, and C) an effective way to expand our collective capabilities to distribute content across platforms, with a keen focus on digital and video. I really see it as a move of strength.
I like your vision. What will this look like for TransWorld and Grind and their partners? Will you be integrating all the sales efforts under one team? How will you keep the voices of the magazines separate and avoid homogeny?
No, not initially. Right now it’s truly business as usual. What I think is really important is the brands and our sellers understand that what we sell the brands on is the value of the position and the editorial of each of our different brands. More than ever we want to focus on selling the value of that story. It’s important that brands know that for us we see this as an opportunity for us to help them grow and reach more consumers. In the interim, we really do need to act as if business as usual. There will be no forced sales integration for the remainder of this year and as we look towards next year we are going to look toward ways to be more effective and more efficient.
There are no plans right now to change anything. You bought TransWorld SNOWboarding because you thought it was a great magazine and they offered you great opportunities to reach a consumer—continue to do that. You bought Snowboarder because of whatever they did differently and you liked that, you’ll continue to buy that. I don’t want there to be any concerns about titles changing directions or changing teams. It’s business as usual.
I saw an article in Ad Age about GrindMedia giving Bonnier several titles as basically a trade for the TransWorld Group. Is that true?
No, that was a separate acquisition. Bonnier did acquire motorcycle titles from us to support Cycle World, but to be honest I’m not entirely familiar with the motorcycle side. There was a separate acquisition for the motorcycle properties and we made the acquisition for the action adventure sports titles.
Do you know what this means for TransWorld Wakeboarding?
TransWorld Wake stays with Bonnier.
Who was let go? Were there any cuts on your end?
No, there were no cuts out of San Clemente. There were a handful of senior executives here that were let go and I would prefer not to get into names and titles out of respect to timing and the whole process. But suffice to say I consider those that I know friends, and I’m bummed that any change has to happen, but there are tough business decisions that have to be made sometimes and obviously I wish all the best for everybody involved.
It seems like Grind Media as a whole is very forward thinking with the whole case study we discussed earlier with Skateboarder. Moving forward, do your plans include weighing any one element more heavily than the other when it comes to digital and/or print, and where will you put your focus moving forward over the next few months?
Our business is based on five basic principles. Number 1 is defend and grow our endemic communities, which is primarily our communities. Number 2 is continue to make print a viable alternative for consumers who want it. Three is grow digital, both endemically and monetize digital scale, so that’s where the Grind TV partnership with Yahoo comes in and plays a big role in our evolution and our transformation as a business from a bunch of vertical print magazines to a dynamic multi-platform sports media company. Four is grow and expand video—video is a huge, huge driver of stickiness online and is also an important and successful way to tell our stories. We’ve spent over seven figures on investing in our video platform and, to be completely honest, TransWorld has done a much better job over the past eight-to-ten years than our group has in developing videos so there’s some lessons that we can take from the shared businesses that we put together. And the last is mobile. Mobile is so critically important as a connectivity tool to our consumers, because as Mike Yapp at Google so appropriately said at Surf Summit down in Cabo: The mobile user has really changed the game on media- they are in fact users of media and it’s critical that we as a media company are providing resources, tools, and most importantly content for consumers to digest wherever and however they want it. Our primary focus is to be great at print, which we have been. Grow and expand our digital, which we have been doing, and really focus on our mobile platform. Events obviously are a critical component—the cool thing about events is that they bring all that together. It’s experiential, it’s content, it’s storytelling, and it’s a great chance for brands to get involved in lots of layers. Those are the key parts of our business moving forward.