Earlier this year, three veteran Washington sportswriters launched a subscription-based website with no venture capital funding, no outside backing and no idea whether it would succeed. Eight months later, their project will end, for a reason they couldn’t have guessed in February. All three writers — Todd Dybas, Brian McNally and Ben Standig — were hired this week by NBC Sports Washington.
For the network, the move represents a notable commitment to serious editorial coverage of Washington sports, including a return to regular coverage of the Nationals. For the Sports Capitol, the move marks a perhaps premature end to what had been a novel experiment in this market. And for the three writers themselves, the move suggests that their bet — on in-depth local sports coverage from committed and passionate experts who aren’t interested in clickbait — paid off, although in an unexpected way.
“Let’s be honest: This is the only kind of offer that really gets us to abandon the project,” McNally said. “We gave it a great shot, and it led to a really good opportunity.”
“Our original mission was to do good work, and we thought people would pay for it and it would be well-received,” Dybas said. “And those things came true, and this was an outcome of that.”
(Disclosure: I have almost too many conflicts to mention here, including friendships with virtually everyone involved.)
That all three men will move to NBC Sports Washington at the same time is, to some extent, an accident of timing. The station hired a new general manager, Damon Phillips, in January, and Phillips “wanted to make sure that we had a high level of content across all the teams in the market,” he said in an interview. His network needed to replace its lead Capitals reporter, Tarik El-Bashir, when he moved to The Athletic before this hockey season, which led to conversations with McNally, a longtime hockey writer. The company also needed more editorial content to populate its new app, which launched this month.
Meanwhile, the three Sports Capitol writers were shepherding a digital-only site steeped in local sports, and when the Athletic launched its Washington site, it did so without any of the three. (“It seemed inevitable that the Athletic would come calling at the Sports Capitol,” Deadspin’s Laura Wagner wrote in August, although that never happened.) And so the conversations with NBC Sports Washington expanded from one Sports Capitol writer to all three.
“The content they’re generating is really, really good content, and people were paying for the content, so that tells you about the quality,” Phillips said. “I looked at their grit [in launching a new business], I looked at the passion they have and how well they know these teams, and it was a really good fit for us.”
Standig will join Chase Hughes on Wizards coverage; McNally will join JJ Regan on Capitals coverage; and Dybas will cover the Nats. That last move might be the most noteworthy; the network is partially owned by Monumental Sports and has a financial arrangement with the Redskins, and its lapsed Nats coverage was seen as a byproduct of those relationships.
“If we are NBC Sports Washington, then we need to cover all the teams in the marketplace,” Phillips said. “We look at what we’re doing with the Sports Capitol as a way to increase our coverage, and also increase the quality of our coverage.”
And if the network wanted writers with experience covering every local team, it went to the right spot. Since launching their site in February, the three writers have taken virtually no days off, jumping from one season straight into another, often ending their workdays after midnight before starting up a few hours later. They got a boost from the Capitals' Stanley Cup run and another from the start of the Redskins season. They ran a Redskins season promotion, offered a free newsletter, and saw steady growth in subscriptions, social media followers and positive feedback. They published more than a thousand pieces of content about the Caps, Nats, Redskins and Wizards. September was their best month for revenue.
“The key thing for us was exposure,” Dybas said. “When we got people to the site, we had a good result. So it was a matter of how many times could we repeat that.”
But they also didn’t have the massive venture capital backing of the Athletic, which launched its D.C. site this fall with a larger staff, a healthy travel budget and a lower price point. (Athletic subscriptions start at $3.99 a month for an annual membership; the Sports Capitol charged $5 a month for a semi-annual membership.) The trio thought there was a path to turn their site into a comfortable and sustainable profession, but that required patience, even while they logged incredible hours with virtually no outside help, much less paid vacation or an IT department. There were challenges they couldn’t have planned for, offset by support and kind words they didn’t expect.
“We may have lost to the Athletic anyways; they’ve got millions and millions of dollars, and we’ve got gumption,” Standig said. “I still believe the idea itself is good, and with a couple of twists and turns and tweaks, I think things could have worked out for the long haul. For me, this isn’t ending because it had to end; it’s ending because this opportunity came up and I did the math.”
They’ll now join a digital outlet with a different business model, one that views the Athletic not as competition so much as a boost to the local sports scene. NBC Sports Washington, after all, wants as many locals as possible to care about the Caps and Wizards and Redskins, to boost their game broadcast and pre- and postgame audiences.
(NBC Sports Washington isn’t buying the site; it’s merely hiring the three staffers, who will remain focused on writing and reporting and not television appearances. Their site won’t disappear, but it will be dormant. The future of the site’s social media accounts hasn’t been decided.)
And so Monday morning, the Sports Capitol emailed subscribers to let them know the news. Dybas, who provided much of the technical and design heavy lifting, has been tasked with one final bear of a project: refunding subscription money to prepaid customers, present company included.
The three men likely have varying levels of wistfulness over the end of their site. But they also have high-profile full-time jobs they might never have gotten without it.
“Part of the reason I did the site was I was tired of waiting for someone to give me a chance,” Standig said.
“I learned more in the last eight months than the previous I don’t know how many years in my journalism career,” Dybas said.
“I’ll never look back and say ‘Man, I wasted [eight] months.’ . . . I’ll always look back on that and be glad I was part of it,” McNally said. “If you had given me five different options of how this could end, I definitely couldn’t have come up with, ‘Oh, we’ll all wind up at NBC Sports Washington.’ That kind of shows you it was worth the shot."
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