By FanHouse’s one-year anniversary in September 2007, things seemed to be going well. Traffic was strong, and the site had expanded well beyond its football beginnings. However, there were already some big changes behind the scenes. AOL executive Jim Bankoff, who had played an important role in FanHouse’s early conception, left at the end of 2006. Original FanHouse executive producer Jamie Mottram left for Yahoo in September 2007. AOL Sports general manager/editor-in-chief Neal Scarbrough was part of a wave of layoffs in October 2007. John Ness had joined FanHouse as Mottram’s chief deputy from CitiGuide in early 2007 and took over as executive producer once Mottram left; he then picked Alana Nguyen for his old role. Scott Ridge, Scarbrough’s chief deputy, took over for him in October 2007. Randy Kim also joined AOL Sports in the summer of 2007 as an NBA editor. All the turnover led to the start of some big changes for FanHouse.
Jamie Mottram, senior producer, AOL: I wound up leaving because I think FanHouse had made enough of a splash, or at least a ripple, that people had started to notice it. Like I said, there weren’t too many people involved at the level of it being their career. So it wasn’t too hard to pinpoint that if I wanted to do something like FanHouse, who do I talk to? It was like that first year wasn’t even out yet before some people came asking around and one of those people was Dave Morgan at Yahoo Sports. He put together an opportunity that I was really excited about at the time. AOL was kind of a second- or third-tier player in sports and Yahoo was kind of number two behind ESPN, so it felt like going from the minor leagues to the major leagues with a bigger stage and more support and what I perceived to be a better opportunity. I should also say, I don’t know if anyone even cares about this, but I wanted to stay at AOL. I wanted to stay with FanHouse. I loved what we were doing, and kind of laid out a vision for how it could evolve. I just don’t think AOL was ready for that yet, and they kind of wanted to keep it where it was. It was reasonable, we were only about a year in and I think it was just a huge company with tons of conflicting priorities and issues. But I truly understand why they weren’t ready for it, but because I didn’t see them making it the biggest, best version of what it could be. That’s why I felt like Yahoo was a better place.
Neal Scarbrough, general manager/editor-in-chief, AOL Sports: Literally when I saw Jamie leaving to Yahoo, I didn’t just go “Oh man, poor FanHouse.” I thought Yahoo got smart and they are gonna copy FanHouse too. Then when I saw SB Nation launch, I thought “They got smart, this is a really good idea, it looks just like FanHouse.” When I look at NFL Nation on ESPN, granted they are a lot of reporters with real jobs and then ESPN jobs and vice-versa, you see that this is not an idea that was only for AOL. It was where sports was going.
John Ness, senior producer, AOL, then executive producer, FanHouse: I’d been there a little bit less than a year and Jamie got poached by Yahoo and my first goal was just to make sure that things kept running the way they were. I felt like we had something really precious and we were at a special moment in time where something like this was possible and I just wanted to keep the train running on time. I was trying to balance my time between developing those folks into writers where they could really build some kind of career and felt like they had some strong writing chops underneath their belt and they would kind of keep the blog community.
MJD, NFL blogger, FanHouse: John was a guy that I trusted with my work. If I turned something over to him, or something had to be edited, I always trusted that he would do right by me. He was just a really good, solid, honest guy it seemed like to me.
Alana Nguyen, NBA blogger, FanHouse, then executive producer: At that time, Jamie had left and John was executive producer. John and I worked great together. I love John to this day and he was a great executive producer to work with. So yeah, we were having a grand old time and FanHouse was doing great.
John Ness: My memory was just about as soon Jamie left and I was told I could backfill myself, I can’t remember if Miss Gossip raised her hand or if I thought she should do it. Alana never had terribly high production numbers, but she was the absolute heart and soul of the beat. Talking to people about what they were excited about, what form of writing or posts, or do one of her fun illustrations. But she was one of those people that already had to a certain degree been managing people and getting people on the same page. So it seemed like a no-brainer right away, so she probably talked me into it. I can’t remember how it happened. But if it turned out that I worked well for Jamie, Alana worked out even more perfectly for me. It was great to get someone that was a blogger, already knew the entire culture, and just bring her in and start tackling things as a full-timer.
Alana Nguyen: I think we were largely carrying on with what Jamie did. I think John was pushing certain initiatives like getting video started and things like that which Jamie hadn’t gotten a chance to start on yet. But certainly we didn’t want to change a lot of the magic that Jamie had set up.
Neal Scarbrough: I stayed until almost the end of 2007. I was part of a big layoff, I don’t know if I didn’t smell right or I made too much money, or something. But 2,500 people were laid off in October 2007 and I was one of them. It was one of the tragedies of my career because we went to AOL and we said we were going to do stuff and we did it. Everything we touched went up and to the right. And FanHouse obviously had a life well beyond Neal Scarbrough at AOL. Basically we said “Hey, we’ve got to do something to make AOL Sports relevant” and we did that… That day was probably the day that I had the most regrets ever in my life, other than leaving ESPN.
Andrew Johnson, MLB editor/writer, AOL Sports: When Jamie got it off the ground, the other person that was really integral, to me at least as I remember it, saying “Yes, this is a great thing” was Neal Scarbrough. I always feel like he should get some of the credit because he was a champion of it. We launched it, and then I feel like three or four months later, he was laid off. So you have one big executive sort of champion of it, and then he’s gone and it was a huge vacuum. So it was like, “What do we do?”
Scott Ridge, executive editor, AOL Sports: I was hired [in 2006] by a man named Neal Scarbrough who was my boss at ESPN. He and I were just trying to grow an audience and trying to make AOL Sports a stronger brand, and Neal initially was a little bit more involved in the FanHouse side of things than I was. We kind of worked together, we were all part of the same newsroom and tried to promote each other’s stuff the best we could. [When Neal left in October 2007] I became Executive Editor at AOL Sports and then there was another change in content strategy, where FanHouse really became more mainstream and I was named Editor in Chief at FanHouse. I worked with a newspaper for 13 years and had worked at ESPN for a number of years, so I was certainly more comfortable in that traditional old-school writer-editor, editor-writer dynamic.
Alana Nguyen: We were always sort of struggling to get FanHouse its place, so to speak. We always had, if we were pitching a FanHouse story to go on the AOL home page, there was always some resistance there. People didn’t quite get our content. We knew that we did content sometimes that sort of pushed the envelope and wasn’t embraced, even though it was successful content.
Shiloh Carder, blogger, FanHouse (as The Sportz Assassin): It was “People love sports” and “People want to talk about sports,” but now it seemed like it was more “We’re going to elevate it some more, getting it out there” and that kind of stuff. That’s where they kind of streamlined stuff and thinned everything out a little bit. We were doing how we were wanting to do it and now it was getting more that “We want it done like this” and “We want it more like everything to look the same,” with the same kind of things talked about and stuff like that.
John Ness: If you looked at the org chart where I was overall, in comparison to the folks on the sports desk, I was probably at least one level below the managing editor of AOL Sports, maybe two at that point. So it was not something that I had felt I was going to be able to push the direction I wanted to. I think one thing that was clear to me was I wasn’t going to be able to go to the bloggers and say this is going to happen or this isn’t going to happen. I wasn’t going to have control to protect them or tell them what was on the horizon. In hindsight, that’s pretty clear but looking back, it was something that was utterly foreign to me. That someone could come in and change what the website would look like without asking the people that were writing on it every day.
Scott Ridge: I thought there was maybe inconsistency with style. The writing style was a little bit more conversational, a little bit more casual, and you have got to remember that I had been in a newspaper newsroom for 13 years where I had a sports editor that just drilled these old-school principles. The inverted pyramid, grammar, all that kind of stuff. You have to remember that each piece of content went through five or six layers before it ever got to print. We had three editions and then would just go over the proofs so it was easy to fix errors, and we didn’t even fix all of them. But as you can imagine in a blog platform like the early FanHouse, it was hard to get your arms around the scale of it because we didn’t have a massive editorial desk at the time.
John Ness: I certainly wasn’t looking, but was wary about where it was going. An old co-worker came over from NBC and they had a really good opportunity to come in and re-launch their local news sites there. That was a really good opportunity and honestly it looked like trouble ahead, and I was happy with what I had done at Fanhouse, so it seemed like the right time to depart.
In July 2008, Ness officially left for a role as executive editor at NBC Universal. That led to uncertainty about what would come next. Alana Nguyen was picked to replace him, but not immediately. After she did get the executive producer role, more problems were ahead, and she would quickly resign. By the end of July, Randy Kim had been put in the executive producer role (later changed to managing editor), but AOL Sports editor-in-chief Scott Ridge and AOL Sports general manager Derrick Heggans were also working closely with FanHouse at this point.
Alana Nguyen: When John left, it was pretty obvious to all the bloggers and other producers that I was the de facto executive producer. I was running everything, I knew how everything worked. Everybody respected me and looked to me first. However, I had some problems with AOL management about that. There was a little bit of a lag time before they officially named me executive producer. In the interim, I had come to discover that AOL management was a lot different than what maybe I had expected, and I came to realize that John and Jamie had perhaps sheltered me from a lot of stuff I didn’t know. There was officially nobody leading FanHouse. But like I said, everybody that worked on FanHouse recognized me as the one leading FanHouse.
Randy Kim, senior editor, AOL Sports, then managing editor, FanHouse: For the most part, if I recall correctly, the FanHouse team really did their own thing. The AOL Sports team just kind of kept track of what they were doing and loaded it as they saw fit in those days when I first started. I was a fan. This was relatively early in terms of the whole sports blogging phenomenon, if you will. I had just come across some of their posts before I even was interviewing at AOL and started there. So I was aware of it, and with a lot of sites like that, the energy behind it, the story selection being a little bit different than traditional sports sites, really resonating more with the fans, as the name says.
Alana Nguyen: It definitely got worse. I think unrelated to me or John or Jamie being the executive producer, I think there were some changes in AOL management that were going to affect FanHouse regardless. Like I said, I think they had a lack of understanding of the FanHouse vision and what the opportunity could be, and once I got to see how the AOL sausage was made, I got much more frustrated than I was before about that lack of understanding. We knew there was a bit of a disconnect there, but I didn’t realize how much of a disconnect was not just over content-related issues, but how the whole organization was run.
Jim Bankoff: Given the trajectory of AOL, I think it would have been tough one way or another because of everything AOL was going through at the time. But I will say if anyone could pull it off, it was that team. They were really talented. And it really helped them to be able to fly under the radar, I think. Once they got too many people’s attention, it probably hurt them.
Will Leitch, founding editor, Deadspin (2005-08): FanHouse was first very exciting and then all of a sudden, listen, one of the reasons that Deadspin never had to go down the route of FanHouse was because I never looked at traffic! I didn’t have this constant urge to go, “What will make us splash?” Oh, there’s some guy in that dipshit corner office over there who needs my traffic production to go up 15% in the next quarter. I never had to go “well um, maybe we’ll bring in Mariotti and we’ll bring in the morons or something.” I never had to do that. FanHouse, I think, had to do that. I think that’s what ultimately killed it. I think SB Nation, now run by Spencer, is what FanHouse could have been if they hadn’t have had so many corporate weasels around.
Tom Mantzouranis, Saints blogger, FanHouse, then editor, FanHouse: It felt like Jamie had kind of fought against it being controlled by AOL. He fought for it as an independent voice that kind of existed outside the corporate sphere. As the time went on and FanHouse evolved, AOL began to exert more control over it, which was their right as they were paying for it.
Shiloh Carder: That was the time where it seemed like AOL had noticed “we’ve got something here.” If we cultivate it and work with this and fine-tune it, it could be bigger than it is right now. To be more corporate, because after that is when Randy Kim came along and he wasn’t as much a sports blogger or anything like that, as much as he was more someone that knew the promotion part of it and getting it out there no matter what it was and doing that stuff.
Andrew Johnson: I kind of feel like I just got added to a Google Group one day and it was like “Here, start working with these guys.” I think the critical switch was Jamie and John, and then you had Randy who became those leaders of FanHouse. Randy also was coming from the AOL Sports side, so he got what we were doing. I don’t want to give Randy all the credit for integrating it, but he at least got both sides of it so it..
Randy Kim: I was brought in at that point and seemed to have a good rapport with the team and also having worked on the AOL side as well, was seen as someone that knew the AOL side of things. Not to say that they were two different sides, but when you start up a site like this allowed to live on its own for a while, it doesn’t always exist within strictly the parameters of the mothership, if you will.
Tom Mantzouranis: I loved working with Randy. Randy was an amazing boss. He’s one of the people I’m still close to this day and we still check in with each other. It’s kind of like any middle management, you kind of have to eat some shit sometimes, and you have to go along with things you don’t want to, despite how much of a fight you put up. It’s a hard position to be in, but I think overall Randy did a great job.
Jim Bankoff: I think AOL was obviously going through a whole lot of stuff then. AOL’s culture was definitely to blame, but it could have also happened somewhere else, I suppose. But AOL was a particularly messed up place at the time.