Jim Bankoff has long believed that web-only programming and products were the future of the Internet, particularly those with extreme specificity. The longtime AOL executive helped launch AOL.com, AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) and plenty of other properties, in addition to overseeing successful sites like TMZ and Engadget.
But when he left AOL with an entrepreneurial itch, he gravitated to SBNation, the successful sports blogging network founded in 2003 by Tyler Bleszinski and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, frustrated sports fans who felt no media was covering their team from a fan perspective.
Bankoff took over as CEO in the fall of 2008, and the growth numbers since have been staggering. SBNation.com is now the hub of over 274 team and sport-specific sports sites run by fans, written by fans and engaging other fans. The site launched 20 region-specific sites in mid-2010, and according to various numbers, they're succeeding immensely. Their family of sites draws approximately 8 million unique visitors and 40 million page views each month, and in 2009 alone, the company's revenue increased fourfold. And they've done it all while operating at a relatively low cost. With only 31 full-time staff as of early July, most of SB Nation's contributors are paid a monthly stipend.
From their unique headquarters in a converted Washington, D.C. townhome off Dupont Circle, Bankoff (a self-professed Yankees, Jets, Capitals and Wizards fan) recently took a moment to speak with Inc.com reporter Lou Dubois about SB Nation's success, the unique business model, and their growth strategies for the future.
Can you explain the foundation of SB Nation?
When I was at AOL, I was always on the web media side while much of the company was focused on the ISP business. We focused on big categories like celebrities and sports, and we created brands around that category like AOL Celebrities, AOL Movies and Fanhouse. When I left, I wanted to do something more entrepreneurial and sports was a category that fit my theory of specificity and fragmentation on the web. When I got here, we wanted to create a media brand around topics and teams, if you think about it from a more micro perspective. Because if you think about it logically, when you go to Google you don't type in "sports," you search for a specific team or a player. As media consumers, we're not sports fans, but we're fans of a given team. That's our philosophy here, and our tagline fits it well when it says pro quality—in reference to the type of content and commentary, and fan perspective—as we speak from a fan voice, which can mean we're sometimes very critical.
What intrigued you about the entrepreneurial aspect of SB Nation?
They key to me from an entrepreneurial level was to have extreme focus, because the bigger brands just can't give that individualized attention to each team and city. Tyler and the rest of the people involved here had great momentum, but it was still more of a good idea than it was a business. So when I came on, we managed to get some top-tier investors who really believed in us early on, which allowed us to invest in technologies, workflow and process. And that's really where you need to invest in a company like this, in addition to employing great talent.
How has the company been so successful and continued to grow?
When Tyler started Athletics Nation in 2003, there were just no good fan environments for congregation and comments. There were message boards and forums, but they were rather caustic or intimidating. Looking back on his ideas now with some perspective, it has succeeded because fans of teams are like tribes and they just need a place to gather. Tribes like to flock together, and that simply enables a community. For a larger sports site, it's really difficult for them to tap into that community element, because their brand might be synonymous with sports but they're not synonymous with a team or local market.
How would you describe your role as a leader at SB Nation?
Well it's funny because I'm a little older than most of the people that work here, which they remind me of almost everyday. But to me, this company is all about the talent. I'm trying to create the right environment for our employees to flourish, whether that's our bloggers, editors, technologists or salespeople. I've always said that if you can get the best people who are good at what they do, but more importantly are passionate about what they do, you'll succeed. You need to be passionate about sports in this company, but you also need to love the community aspect. Other than that, because this is still a relatively new company, I'm out evangelizing as much as I can to talk about our proposition and growth.
My role as a leader is just to make sure that we can as productive as possible and to make sure we're giving our employees not only the tools to grow, but a focus on which to grow with. Because our employees are spread out all over the country and many of them aren't even full-time sports writers, it requires leadership to keep everything focused on our goal, which is to appeal to every fan.
What has been your biggest challenge since joining the company?
I think because we've grown so quickly, there are natural questions that arise from my staff about what the priorities should be and how we should shift priorities based on market conditions. I've had to make quick decisions and communicate those to mitigate confusion internally. For me, in 2009, I had to educate the advertising marketplace on exactly who we were and what we were doing, because for marketers there was uncertainty in getting involved with blogs. This year, advertisers understand our business, and we've able to create some really compelling programs both for our users and for those brands.
We partnered with Electronic Arts earlier this summer to help them launch their new NCAA Football 2011 game. And basically what we did was have all of our college football sites run a program that had fans share stories about why they were so passionate about their team and their programs. The theme was "Where I Come From," and there were a lot of very emotional topics that talked about how fandom begins. What I think that showed was the passion and level of engagement in our communities, and with the way that these stories were distributed via social networks like Facebook and Twitter, the campaign had a big impact not only on our highly intelligent and influential sports fans, but with casual fans and gamers as well.
One of the biggest moves you've made in 2010 was launching regional sites in 20 different cities. This is also something that ESPN has done, so how would you assess your product?
Well it's a different product than ESPN because we're tapping into the regional fans, which goes back to the entire foundation of the company. And it's gotten off to a strong start not only because of the locality of the content, but the regional business model as well. We've talked with a lot of local businesses in those cities, from car dealerships to restaurants to golf courses, all looking to target that audience that we have in a unique manner. There aren't many sites that can say they truly tap into the social sports fan, which I'd say is predominantly males age 18-34, with a lot of disposable income and who are rather affluent for their age group. It's a very attractive demographic that we're trying to match local advertisers with.
You have distribution deals with Yahoo and NHL.com, among others. What have they meant, and what sort of partnerships and growth may be on the horizon?
We really value everyone we work with, whether they're advertisers or distribution partners. When we were a younger company, it was really great validation to have a league like the NHL put our content on the league homepage. For the largest web media company in Yahoo! to embrace the content, that means a lot too, because it again offers validation and credibility and raises our profile. What we really provide them is a level of comprehensiveness, with updates on every team several times a day, but from a fan perspective. Most national sports entities have a duty to remain unbiased and objective, while we actually promote that we're anything but that. We check our objectivity at the door, but at the end of the day we all want to see these teams do well.
Regarding the future, I think the best way to say it is that we just want to be everywhere that the sports fan is. For us, it's less about traffic generation than it is about creating brands. We're not looking to exploit search engines, and we're instead investing in better capabilities and metrics in reporting for our advertisers. We're always investing in better tools for our writers and content creators, as we just recently launched metrics dashboards for each of them to track real-time where their traffic is coming from.
You won't see us investing in offline businesses or partnering with great offline media companies, because the whole fabric of this company is around social content that can be distributed cross-platform. Our content is highly portable and syndicatable, if that's even a word, so we're just looking to be a valuable content source for partners.
What do you base your financial decisions on moving forward, assuming this company continues to grow quickly?
When you're talking about capital and financial things, which I certainly pay a lot of attention to, I base those decisions on one question that I typically ask myself, which is "Does it help us to build a better company?" We have no plans to sell this company, to go public, or to do anything like that. We honestly just want to do what's best to build a valuable company, and it's my opinion that the rest of it will take care of itself. There's so much real value in this business, and it's going to be exciting to see what we can do.