When it comes to being passionate and engaged, nothing (with the possible exception of some religious cults) matches the kind of devotion that sports fans have to their local teams. Those fans are the heart and soul of sports-based media company SB Nation, which just closed a $10.5-million round of funding led by Khosla Ventures, along with Accel Partners and Comcast Interactive. The company says it plans to use the money to expand its network and build out its mobile strategy. In a sense, SB Nation has created a hyper-local news operation — much like what Aol is trying to create with its Patch project — except it’s all about sports.
The SB Nation network encompasses blogs focused on almost 300 separate brands, including those devoted to individual teams, leagues and sports coverage in a number of cities and major regions — blogs like Twinkie Town (about the Minnesota Twins) and Bleed Cubbie Blue (about the Chicago Cubs). The company has more than 400 writers under contract, and a proprietary content-management platform that Bankoff said provides bloggers with real-time analytics but also the “deep community and social interaction” that the network sees as a core value for its readers — an approach that any locally-focused media venture would be wise to emulate.
What eventually became SB Nation grew out of a sports-themed blog called Athletics Nation in Oakland, started by Tyler Bleszinski — who is now the company’s editorial director — and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, better known as the founder of the political commentary blog network Daily Kos, in 2003. The two developed a broader network of fan-based blogs called SportsBlogs Nation and in 2008 got a round of financing from Accel Partners, Allen & Co. and a number of angel investors, and Bankoff joined as chief executive. “Spectator sports provide a common cultural touchstone,” Bankoff says. “Digital media allows us to capture that conversation and make it valuable.”
The idea of topic-focused blogs with real-time content and a passionate readership was a natural for Bankoff — he is a former senior executive at Aol, where he was in charge of developing the blog strategy that led to the creation of the massively successful entertainment blog TMZ, as well as the acquisition of Weblogs Inc., which brought to Aol such leading blogs as Engadget. “I have always believed that online publishing is getting more targeted, more social and more real-time,” Bankoff said. The CEO said that SB Nation’s traffic and readership numbers have tripled in the past year, and that the network now gets about 17 million unique visitors a month.
Is there anything that broader news-oriented sites like Patch — or the hyper-local offerings that the Washington Post is reportedly planning to launch — can learn from SB Nation? Bankoff says one of the important features of the network is that hyper-focused, topic-specific blogs don’t just appeal to readers, they appeal to advertisers as well. “You can have a much deeper and more focused conversation as a member of these communities,” the SB Nation CEO said, “and that’s what advertisers care about.” The important thing is that the writers are a part of that community and engage with it on a deep level, he said.
Both Yahoo and Bankoff’s former employer seem to have come to a similar realization, that what works in sports and technology-focused blogging might be applicable to general news and other topics: Yahoo has built up its own sports-oriented media-blogging strategy over the past year or so, and is now trying to extend that strategy to news and politics by building up its blogging ranks. And after building out its FanHouse network by hiring a number of prominent sports journalists, Aol seems to be pursing the same topic-focused approach with its acquisition of TechCrunch. Game on.
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