By Kim Hart
Monday, February 9, 2009
As throngs of hockey fans made their way to the Verizon Center for the Capitals game Thursday night, another group of sports enthusiasts gathered in a spacious brick loft across the street.
Their goal was to kick off SportsBlog Nation, or SB Nation, a network of more than 185 blogs and Web sites that cover just about any sport, league, team or player, from mixed martial arts to the Baltimore Ravens.
"The purpose is to connect fans of teams from all over the country," said Jim Bankoff, a former AOL executive who recently took over as chief executive of the Washington-based SB Nation. Bankoff is also a senior adviser with venture capital firm Providence Equity Partners and he helped raise funding in the "mid-seven figures" for the company. He declined to give a specific amount.
The round of financing was led by Accel Partners, a Silicon Valley firm that backed Facebook, and was led in part by Boston Celtics minority owner Jim Breyer. Additional funding came from AOL vice chairman emeritus and Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis and Brent Jones, the former San Francisco 49ers player who is now managing director of private equity firm Northgate Capital. Chris Schroeder, chief executive of Arlington-based HealthCentral Network, a collection of health-related Web sites, is also an investor.
Founded six years ago with one blog about the Oakland A's, the site didn't want to replicate other online sports portals, such as Yahoo Sports or ESPN.com, which feature mainstream sports news. "There's plenty of those out there," Bankoff said. "Instead, we focused on going team by team."
Instead, SB Nation set about to serve as a gathering place for some of the Web's most popular sports blogs, such as Hog Heaven, chronicling everything Redskins, and the Testudo Times, covering the Maryland Terrapins. At least one blog is added to the list every week, but the standards for admission are high. SB Nation blogs are serious about covering the nitty-gritty details about a team that hard-core fans want to know -- like locker room scuffles and players' favorite movies -- that local news outlets don't always cover, said Jerome Armstrong, partner with the WebStrong Group in Alexandria who serves as an adviser to SB Nation.
"Local media is on the decline, but fandom is not," Bankoff said, with no offense meant to The Post reporters in the audience, of course.
The bloggers featured on SB Nation are scattered across the country; about 15 are in the Washington area covering local and faraway teams.
Jeffrey Clark, a financial analyst from Springfield, started blogging about the Boston Celtics 10 years ago as a way to meet other fans. One of the reasons he joined SB Nation in October was to take advantage of the advertising infrastructure and technical expertise offered by the site, which takes care of administrative maintenance that most bloggers would rather not deal with.
"I had my own ad revenue and dabbled in HTML, but it was too hard to manage all of that," he said. "I wanted to get back to writing."
Even less-followed teams with less-than-stellar records are represented on the site. Iowa native Will McDonald recently moved to the District but still keeps up his blog following the Kansas City Royals. To strike a common chord with fans, he writes short profiles of towns that have Royals contingencies. He's finishing his dissertation on 18th-century poetry but finds time to write two or three posts a day.
"There's this weird diaspora of people from the Midwest," he said. "They can relate."
In the crowd were representatives from marketing agencies and a few potential advertisers.
"We're increasingly a very attractive place to advertise" to reach sports fans, Bankoff said. Instead of paying a few thousand dollars to advertise on a radio station's sports talk show, Bankoff is trying to get sports bars, car dealerships and beer companies to try SB Nation. "They want to go where there are authentic fans."
The company shares office space with LaunchBox Digital, the start-up incubator that recently announced it was going to invest in another round of entrepreneurs this summer. Many local technology executives, including Hugh Panero, Sean Greene and Leonsis, were there to show support for the venture.
As owner of the Washington Capitals and the Washington Mystics, and part owner of the Washington Wizards, Leonsis, who blogs daily, has a special interest in how bloggers generate interest for local teams.
"I felt alone in D.C. for a long time," he told the group of bloggers. "Now there are 30 to 40 really mature, active bloggers following the Caps. It's helped give the fan base permission to think the Caps are cool."
And he expressed hope that the site would find a viable business model, which now relies mainly on advertising, "because you all deserve to be rewarded for what you're doing."
Also making an appearance was a member of the tech community with growing clout: Julius Genachowski, a LaunchBox founder who is expected to be named chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.
After exchanging handshakes and friendly smiles with friends, Genachowski was introduced to the reporter standing nearby -- me -- who he has not been allowed to talk to since joining President Obama's transition team. And despite numerous attempts on my part, he has stayed true to his vow of silence.
We shook hands and I let him get back to socializing. But I felt better about my lack of communication with him when Leonsis, a close friend of Genachowski's, accused him of not returning his calls.
At least I'm not the only one.
Kim Hart writes about the Washington technology scene every Monday. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.