The most popular D.C. sports media parlor game finally has an answer.
For months, as regional subscription sites have attempted to reconfigure the national sports media landscape, fans and journalists asked who would first attempt that concept in Washington. Turns out it won’t be venture capitalists — as with the Athletic — nor will it be a brand-name media star, as in Pittsburgh and Boston. Instead, three veteran Washington sports reporters will team together this week to launch the Sports Capitol, a text- and podcast-focused subscription site that will primarily cover the Caps, Nats, Redskins and Wizards.
The three men — former Washington Times enterprise writer Todd Dybas and longtime local sports reporters Brian McNally and Ben Standig — described a mission familiar to anyone who’s followed the Athletic’s rapid expansion. They want to present online Washington sports coverage without clunky ads, autoplay videos or print deadlines. They want to provide a heavy dose of analysis and explanation, and to avoid outlandish headlines and bluster. And they want to do it by charging readers $5.99 a month, hoping that enough subscriptions will turn this into a viable full-time enterprise.
“To me, we’re at a point with sports media in this city where it’s worth a shot,” said McNally, who has covered just about every Washington team in just about every medium during this century’s sports media transformation. “And we’re in a position in our lives where we can take that shot and see what happens. And if we do a good enough job, I’m confident we’ll build an audience.”
They’ll try to do so with an approach they believe will distinguish them from any existing local outlet. NBC Sports Washington focuses on teams with which it has a financial arrangement; that means no coverage of the Nationals, and an emphasis on video. Most local sports blogs focus exclusively on one team. The Washington Times sports coverage? Have fun fighting through its website to find it.
Then there’s The Washington Post, which clearly does cover every local team, and with robust enough resources to staff every road game and practice. The new site’s travel budget isn’t yet clear: Dybas traveled to Florida for Nats spring training, Standig plans on attending this month’s NFL combine, and they say they’ll “selectively” cover regular season road games.
But the Sports Capitol folks think there’s still an opening because The Post’s focus is increasingly national; because Post beat writers still wrestle with print deadlines and game stories; because The Post doesn’t offer any locally focused sports podcasts; and because thriving sports towns should foster thriving sports media competition.
(Disclosure: I’m friends with all three men, and hope their site succeeds because I think it would be good for the city, good for journalism and good for fans. I also love The Washington Post and hope we crush them into dust on every important news story.)
Their mission is both clear and delineated — “Sticking to D.C. Sports” is the site’s slogan — and they’ve already passed one potential hurdle. The Caps, Nats, Redskins and Wizards have already agreed to credential the site. They will also provide weekly guests for NewsChannel 8’s evening sports programming.
When the site is in full swing, they’re hoping to generate five to seven pieces of content a day, from postgame analysis to feature stories to podcasts. (The site will have five podcasts, one for each team plus a college basketball entry; episodes will start behind the paywall but could eventually be released for free days later.) They’re promoting their launch with an exclusive interview and podcast with John Thompson III, and a sit-down with Nats Manager Dave Martinez.
All three men have covered all four local pro teams, but they’ll have beats with the new site. McNally — who will continue writing about the Capitals for NHL.com — will stay with the Caps. Dybas will cover the Nats, and Standig the Wizards. All three men will contribute to Redskins coverage. There will also be occasional coverage of local colleges and other local sports.
Standig — who’s been freelancing for a laundry list of outfits — had considered launching a similar site on his own last summer before deciding a group effort would be more viable and more fun. And that concept was appealing enough for Dybas to leave a full-time job at the Times.
It comes at a time when most big league cities have hosted some sort of similar endeavor: DK Pittsburgh Sports, Boston Sports Journal, PaulKuharsky.com (in Nashville) and especially the Athletic, a well-publicized investor-backed effort that is now in 21 North American cities and has hired many well-known national voices.
“Certainly the Athletic launching made me hopeful,” Dybas said in a recent group discussion with his new colleagues. “I was surprised that someone would pay for a subscription. I still think, obviously, it’s going to be a very tough road to hoe, but I think there’s a spot digitally for us, I think there’s a spot in this market for us, and I definitely think it’s worth a shot. That’s why I would step away from a full-time job to give it a go and see what happens.”
“In a big sports town like this, you should be able to have that level of engagement,” said McNally, like Standig a D.C. area native. “It’s not Boston. We can’t pretend it’s Boston. We can’t pretend it’s Philly or Detroit. But I still think that demand will be there.”
The Athletic has yet to specifically target Washington sports but, in a Feb. 1 tweet, it called D.C. a “high priority” and said it hopes “to expand coverage there soon.”
Dybas, who has a design background, created most of the site himself, which means the operation has virtually no overhead. They will use freelance photographers, are hoping to hire interns and have already lined up two sponsors. They won’t put a number on how many subscriptions they need to become viable, but it sure isn’t in the hundreds of thousands.
“There’s a small slice of people that we are trying to address — not an enormous number — that want to kind of come along with us as we really [intently] cover their teams on a daily basis,” Dybas said.
And “do it without the sugar high of it all,” Standig said. “I think one of the issues with the media as a whole is it’s all about that moment. I’ve got to get those page views, that minute, that day. And that, I think, skews over time how people are covering the teams.”
The trio will email subscribers with their daily itineraries, and use Periscope to bring subscribers with them. They will avoid stories about LeBron James taking on Fox News hosts, and will dispense with newspaper niceties like describing “Washington Wizards point guard John Wall” on first reference. They’re already among the longest-tenured reporters covering some of these teams, and they think their relationships will matter more than the outlet on their credentials. Standig, in particular, has wondered for months whether D.C. sports fans would pay to read nitty-gritty coverage of their teams, in a forum free of click counts. He’ll finally find out.
“There’s no complaining about the boss anymore,” he said. “Yes, certainly there’s some scary stuff involved, because we don’t know [if it will work]. But I’m excited for the chance to see. Now it’s on us.”
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