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SB Nation's sports blogger collective sees bias as a plus

By Steven Overly
Monday, December 20, 2010; 8

Most sports reporters cover games from the press box. The perch typically provides a view of the entire field of play and quick access to post-game press conferences with coaches and players.

SB Nation bloggers prefer the bleachers.

It's a fitting seat for the legion of team die-hards powered by a common blogging software. The writers have no qualms about marrying fandom with fact-finding as they report on their favorite professional and college teams.

"From an editorial perspective, we put all of our emphasis on being by, of and for the fan," said chief executive Jim Bankoff. "Unlike a lot of other outlets, we will embrace bias and check objectivity at the door. We believe that spectator sports are about being subjective, not objective."

The blogger collective has grown to just shy of 300 separate Web sites maintained primarily by part-time contract writers. They put together posts, facilitate dialogue and interact with commenters. At a kickoff event in February 2009, there were about 185 blogs.

"It's not just about writing an article for a few bucks, it's about managing a community and being responsible for that community," Bankoff said of the contributors.

ComScore, the Reston-based tracker of consumer Internet habits, tallied 5.8 million unique visitors to SB Nation Web sites during the month of November. That 208 percent increase over the 1.9 million unique visitors in November 2009 makes SB Nation the fastest growing sports Web site the company tracks.

However, its readership is still dwarfed by major national outlets, such as Yahoo Sports and ESPN.com. Most of the 135.4 million unique visitors to sports Web sites in November 2010 landed on one of those sites, according to comScore data.

D.C.-based SB Nation is just one of several new local media efforts that are largely driven by contributors rather than full-time journalists. It's a model that AOL's Patch.com and Allbritton Communications' TBD have also employed to capitalize on what they see as a need for community-based content.

The idea behind SB Nation mirrors Bankoff's previous work in digital media. A former AOL executive, Bankoff once pioneered the Internet company's command of Web properties such as tech blog Engadget and celebrity gossip site TMZ.

For SB Nation, Bankoff said the key to sustaining a local media model is to target national advertising. A small sales force can reach national brands, such as Comcast, Sprint or Absolut vodka, that may be interested in reaching niche audiences.

"I came in with a pretty strong opinion that you had to have an efficient business model, meaning you can't hire 500 local sales reps in this business," he said. "You start on a national level and then you earn the right to play more regionally.

"I think the [Web sites] that are exclusively local might be tougher or the ones that have to have a sales rep in every single market, that's probably a little tougher," Bankoff said, noting online discount purveyors LivingSocial and Groupon as exceptions. "They've proven that you can grow a local sales force, but they've done it with a really different kind of business model."

SB Nation is not yet profitable and announced its third round of venture capital last month. Menlo Park, Calif.-based Khosla Ventures was behind the $10.5 million in funding, which brings the company's total venture capital backing to about$23 million.

Bankoff said the blogs plan to continue to attract readers by tracking their interests and offering the exact content they want. It's indicative of media in the Internet age when audiences control what they read and when they read it, he said.

"Now we don't even really talk about news cycles, we talk about trends and trending topics, so online media is much more real-time," Bankoff said. "We focus on delivering that. Sports is a very real-time category."

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