While those July 2008 leadership changes were going on, something else was in the works that would have substantial effects on FanHouse. In 2007, film producers Michael and Neil Mandt were looking for other ways to use their Orange County studio and came up with Fantasy Sports Girls, scantily-clad women discussing fantasy sports news and tips from scripts written by Michael Mandt. The show became popular on its own site, and that paved the way for a deal with AOL, unbeknownst to most of the FanHouse staff. A Fantasy Sports Girls intro video was posted on the site on July 28, 2008.
Shiloh Carder, blogger, FanHouse (as The Sportz Assassin): It really was the first real time it felt like AOL interfered with FanHouse. Because FanHouse was kind of like Jamie and John and Alana’s thing. They ran it and they understood what the direction was and what it should be, and AOL for the most part stayed out of it. It didn’t matter if we didn’t want it or not, they knew better and this was gonna be good.
Michael Mandt, partner, Mandt Brothers Production: My brother and I have our own production company, which we formed in 2001. I had worked at ESPN starting as a production assistant back in 1993, I worked in Bristol in a SportsCenter PA program, which I like to call the Harvard MBA of Sports. My brother was in LA directing some small films and we came together in 2001 and sold a show called Beg, Borrow & Deal to ESPN. They asked us if we were interested in creating a show for Jim Rome, who was returning to the network. So we created Rome is Burning which turned into Jim Rome is Burning.
We were in the middle of a contract with ESPN and Jim had given us two months notice. Our option was to build our own studio, so we had to find a warehouse that was big enough and then we had to find a place where we could have fiber connectivity and that is not easy. It was very difficult and very challenging, and we had to take an enormous risk because our contract at the time was only guaranteed for a few more months. As two brothers running a small business, we had to risk putting out millions of dollars to build a TV studio that was only guaranteed for a few months.
Derrick Heggans, general manager, AOL Sports: Just like with the ESPN and EA Sports content relationships, we were open to trying new things. Every new trial is not going to be a hit either internally or externally. Fantasy sports was growing. Use of short-form video was growing. Consumer adoption of both was massive. So, cost-effective ways to give our consumers fresh video content related to what was of interest to them was top of mind for me. If you looked at Fox Sports at the time or ESPN then or today, you would find what many would consider visually pleasing women delivering news. ESPN today has the same, specifically for their current Fantasy Football show today. But, whether it was the title or the perception, it struck a chord with the FanHouse team and they did not feel that the content offering was consistent with what they wanted the brand to represent.
Kate Scott, FanHouse Minute vlogger: Growing up watching these great female reporters like Robin Roberts, Linda Cohn, Bonnie Bernstein, all these women who I really followed as a young woman who really loved sports and knew sports, but maybe weren’t the “supermodel on the block.” I felt during the time after I graduated from college that there had kind of been a switch back to putting the prettiest girl in the role and maybe she can talk about sports. So I was really frustrated at that time, but FanHouse felt like the first place that I was really respected for my knowledge of sports. In addition to that, there were three other girls who were doing FanHouse Minute with me and it was really nice to feel that we weren’t in competition with each other, which is another thing you often feel as a woman in this industry, that you are all competing for one job.
Michael Mandt: My thought was “OK, why not deliver the same content but a little more just different way of delivering it.” We’re in LA, which is a home where you have a lot of attractive girls who can read a teleprompter. Although there were plenty of girls I had that weren’t good at it, no question about that. But the thought was that we have the facility, we have a location, we have an infrastructure where we can produce daily fantasy sports video content. To me the key was, as long as the information is legit and quality and good, it could have potential. I knew right away that there would be plenty of people that would say ‘This is ridiculous, why do you have these girls, they look like bimbos…” I’m not even listening to what they say. Again, this is entertainment. Simple as that.
Kate Scott: To my memory, I did the FanHouse Minute the entire time we were doing them, and I want to say we did them for about a year, and then the Fantasy Sports Girls…. yeah. So, when that happened, it’s when it all came to a screeching halt because the four of us who were so excited to show off our knowledge and seemingly get respected for our knowledge and opinion… all of a sudden now, there were girls on the site posting their own videos with not very much clothing on. So we were all taken aback, and things quickly stopped.
Michael Mandt: The FanHouse thing was pretty cool because I was like great, this is AOL, a stepping stone. I make my living reading a lot of different sites and I wasn’t a huge AOL fan. I had no issue with it, but I knew it existed, but it wasn’t like I was living and breathing by it every day.
Alana Nguyen, executive producer, FanHouse: What I can tell you about FSG is somebody at AOL management, for some reason, was high on this content and I somehow found out about it. It wasn’t really run by me, but at this time I was officially executive producer at FanHouse. I raised my hand to say this content is not very good and doesn’t fit the brand of FanHouse. For the record, I have no problems at all with pretty ladies doing videos. I don’t judge the outfits they were wearing, I don’t care about that. I think galleries of bikini girls is great content sometimes. I just thought this particular video content was not well-executed. It’s not a knock on the ladies themselves; the fantasy content they were doing did not make sense to me in the format they were doing it in.
Michael Mandt: Someone made us an introduction [to Derrick Heggans] in May of 2008. He said “We took a look and we are interested in seeing how we can do some test runs of these clips. How often are you producing? Daily? What can we expect? Let me know and we can hop on the phone to discuss.” He said he would follow up with his VP Scott Ridge at the end of May, so we can move on this ASAP. Basically, no money was exchanged. It was just that they wanted the content and I was willing to deliver the content, since I was already doing it. At the beginning of June, [Heggans] said he would send paperwork and whatever, and we got to the end of June, I would send him an email every two weeks basically asking “What’s the story?” The contract said this should continue for one year, and AOL has the right to renew this agreement for three successive one-year periods at the same terms and conditions. This was not a cash deal, I don’t remember it being a cash deal. I don’t remember getting any money. I think in my mind, I was looking at this as a big picture long-term play. I thought “I’ll do this and if it does break, I’ll make money on it.” Simple as that.
Randy Kim, senior editor, AOL Sports, then managing editor, FanHouse: It was admittedly a little bit tricky for me because what I walked into was “Hey, here’s the new era and the first thing you have to deal with.” I mean, it is what it is and if you work in this industry long enough, there are decisions made that you don’t always have control over and they are not always decisions you would make.
Michael Mandt: I had been doing it a year, so it didn’t really cost me that much since I already had the infrastructure set up. I come from the philosophy that you have to spend money to make money in business. So this was a deal where in my mind, this will be on the front page of AOL for all NFL season, so then brands will see it. If it does well, brands are going to want to pay for this. As long as I still own the rights to everything, which I did, then I don’t care. I’ll do it for a season for AOL. Whatever.
Tom Mantzouranis, Saints blogger, FanHouse, then editor, FanHouse: The FSG thing was a pretty bad move on AOL’s part. It was pretty tone-deaf and I remember a lot of the bloggers who had been there at the time were offended. Not only because it was misogynistic but because it was shitty content, to be perfectly honest with you. There was some very loud vocalization against it and I remember AOL, or the people representing AOL at the time, were kind of surprised that the reaction was that negative.
Alana Nguyen: AOL pushed back and said they were going to run this content on FanHouse anyways. I reiterated that this content is not good and is not going to fit with our FanHouse brand and FanHouse bloggers are going to freak out if you just put this content up on their blogs. And then behind my back, somebody from AOL put the content up and as I predicted, the FanHouse bloggers freaked out about it.
They certainly did. Only one Fantasy Sports Girls video was ever posted on FanHouse, one intended as an introduction to the series. That went up Monday evening, July 28, 2008, and caused quite the reaction. There was external reaction panning the move within a day, including a blast from Jamie Mottram, but the internal reaction happened even faster. At 9:20 p.m. Monday night, FanHouse blogger Adam Jacobi (who didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story) sent an e-mail to the Google Group that included all bloggers and management staff, expressing “horror and disappointment” at the decision. Others quickly joined in, and the backlash grew. Here are the key emails in that thread, from a 2011 Deadspin article.
Tom Mantzouranis: I remember it caused a shitstorm. Thinking about it now, it was kind of like the beginning of the transition of FanHouse and kind of led to what killed it.
Will Leitch, founding editor, Deadspin (2005-08): I’m glad for the people that stood up against that. You know, it made me feel good that the people that were a part of this community, and it was a community in the early days of this, were the right-minded, like-minded people that I thought they were. When you go through that email chain and you go “Yep, that’s one of the good guys, yep, she’s one of the good women,” and you see the people responding to it in a negative way and you are glad. It reminds you about why you read these people in the first place.
Pat Lackey, MLB blogger, FanHouse: As soon as that was happening and it was apparent that this post, this video had come from somewhere above, what the idea of FanHouse was, then we pretty quickly… everybody just kind of shut it down for the day until we got word… Just the idea that stuff like that was being put on the page from above our heads was something that I was not a big fan of right off the bat. When people said “Hey, we’re not writing until somebody addresses this thing,” that wasn’t something I had to think a whole lot about.
Michael Mandt: Really the problem was, and I don’t want this to sound arrogant in any way, but the problem was the idea was ahead of its time. I’m pretty sure we started this in 2007. Our focus was for digital and mobile, really mobile content. Mobile content at that time was just nowhere near ready when we wanted to do this. My feeling was from a video content standpoint, there was only one guy consistently putting out video. It was Matthew Berry.
Steph Stradley, NFL blogger, FanHouse: Even if people wanted to get their fantasy news from scantily-clad women folk, the production value of it was complete amateur hour and it was embarrassing. Over the years, there were all sorts of places that I was offered to write at, and some of them I didn’t want to write at, because I didn’t feel comfortable with that using women in objectifying ways thing. That’s hard to avoid if you are writing about sports anywhere. But usually it’s not as blatant as the whole FSG thing was, which was ridiculously blatant.
Matt Ufford, NFL blogger, FanHouse: We had these smart and capable bloggers who were looking into the camera and talking intelligently. The FanHouse Minute, just an update of what’s going on in the sports world. If they wanted to do FSG in an intelligent way, they already had people that could have done it, but what they wanted was Hooters waitresses who were going to read scripts written by other people. I don’t know if there was a right way to do it, but they definitely did it the wrong way.
Kate Scott: There were a number of emails also just between the [FanHouse Minute] girls and John and trying to figure out what was going on, and obviously expressing anger and confusion. I’m not sure exactly how other people did it, but to my memory we kind of heard that the FSG were going to continue, and I personally said I’m going to step away. And I’m pretty sure we all stepped away and that’s how it ended.
Will Brinson, NFL fantasy blogger, FanHouse: I think that what I wrote was ultimately self-serving… in terms of the emails you know, it was “Look, hey, if they are going to do something to promote fantasy, which I was writing for, then I was all for it.” Given the hindsight of a decade… I mean, I wouldn’t have written what I did in an email. So I don’t really care that Deadspin ripped me. I mean, I looked like a D-bag in it. You can use that.
Michael Mandt: There was so much hostility towards FSG and I was sitting on the side thinking “Man, this work I created is just taking a BEATING.” It was hard to watch a little bit, but I didn’t take it too personally because no one really knew who was doing it, people didn’t have a clue. July 28th, I sent an email that the first video will be sent in a few hours. … On July 29th I sent an email to Derrick and said we sent the two videos but I’m only seeing one of them posted in the fantasy section and none of them posted in the video section and just want to make sure we’re doing everything properly on our end and that you are happy with what you are getting. At this point, there was a major shitstorm going on and I never got a response to that email. No response to that. Then another day or two passes and on the 30th, “Haven’t seen any of our stuff posted since the first intro video, is there a problem?” And then on the 30th, he sends an email, “Yes, there were some issues, and I will call you later today to discuss more fully. Suffice to say, it had largely not been well-received. The main issue is the objectification of women, and others feel the content is weak so I want to come back to you with thoughts on what we can do… I’ll say the extreme reaction is surprising to us.”
Derrick Heggans: FSG was not intended to be an anchor piece of content, but a test of short-form video produced by a third party, delivering content that our audience was interested in hearing. It was not something that neither Scott nor I felt it was worth fighting to keep.
Michael Mandt: The blowback clearly was immediate and overwhelming. I said “The video has been pulled, so should I assume our partnership is over?” “No, we’re going to have a call in a couple of days with FanHouse bloggers to discuss this.”… My problem with it was, oh, by the way, five months later, the fantasy sports writers’ trade association gave us the best podcast award, beating out ESPN, CBS and Yahoo. This had nothing to do with credibility or what the information was. People just didn’t like it. I get that, that’s okay.
Scott Ridge: If I had known it was coming, obviously we wouldn’t have posted the video that we did. Some of it I thought was, we were getting called out by some folks, they were more or less doing the same thing elsewhere on the web. So I thought some of it was a little hypocritical. We certainly responded to the feedback that we got from it and quickly disassociated with it.
Michael Mandt: I even sent an email to [Heggans], “I can see you are in a bind, and I’m sorry about that. But I do have a problem that FanHouse bloggers are judging FSG based on the one intro video we posted.” That intro was not content-driven. That’s the thing, now that I’m remembering this. That was not content at all. They wanted an introduction and it was a very lighthearted introduction. “Bloggers and comments I’m reading are pretty scathing and pretty unfair. If our content is to be judged by your bloggers, they really need to go to our site and watch the videos. Go to the video archives. I think the accusation that our content is weak or we are not credible… I don’t want to sound offensive but this is legitimate solid content.”
Kate Scott: All of a sudden, it just felt like the platform was just kind of stolen from us without any warning. And it was really sad, I was really disappointed. At the same time, it was really fulfilling to read all the emails as shown on Deadspin. It was really wonderful to see all the support we were getting from all the guys and other women who were writing for the site, and to see how upset they were about it. Because I was never quite sure how the other writers felt about us on the site, so it was really wonderful to hear the support and hear that they were upset and to hear that one of the reasons they enjoyed working for FanHouse was because there seemed to be this equality that none of us had really experienced before. We were all looked at as just a voice on sports, all in one place. So yeah, it was sad. It took me a while to get over it.
Michael Mandt: If they are offended by the objectification of women, I’m sorry. Even those girls couldn’t be more excited to have the opportunity… I’ve paid them all. None of them were doing it for free. They each got paid, I think it was $150, to spend maybe an hour. I paid them better. Any girl you would interview for this would tell you it was awesome and they loved the opportunity to further practice reading a teleprompter. We were professional and efficient. It’s easy to criticize from afar, but this is a town where a lot of girls are trying to do on-camera work and they do not get the opportunity to go in front of the lights, in a studio, in this environment and read in front of a camera like that. So that was another thing that bothered me. I’m not gonna sit here and say I was giving them a career, but I was doing more for a lot of these girls than a lot of other people would be.
Matt Ufford: When these people just dumped this on our website, it just was a big message like “Oh, we don’t care what you do.” It was an obvious message that what the writers did didn’t matter. Or how we felt didn’t matter. We were clearly replaceable in their eyes, and that’s not an organization I want to be a part of.
Spencer Hall, college football blogger, FanHouse, now editorial director of SB Nation: There’s the rage with a company embracing that chauvinism and objectification of women, etc. so people are like “Oh, that’s what this is.” The big rage was suddenly realizing the jig was up and realizing you are working for a big stupid blunt company.
Steph Stradley: It was around the time FSG happened that a lot of people said “I’m done with this place. You keep on telling us to be patient with the direction, but this is not very good.”
Alana Nguyen: I was already sort of on my way out. I can’t remember if I was already on my way out when I first raised my hand that this was not good content. The night when they actually posted the first video, I had already given my notice. I was trying to take the high road by not doing anything unless the FanHouse bloggers freak out amongst themselves on their big Google group emails that have all FanHouse bloggers from all sports, and I did chime in eventually at one point. But I basically was letting AOL management deal with the fallout. Or rather, I was letting AOL management mishandle dealing with the fallout. They just did not know what to do. I think they yanked that first feed, which as you know in the blog world is a no-no. You don’t just post a feeds content and then delete it. It was just very messy and a lot of the bloggers were upset. And I think that combined with me leaving, a lot of them saw the writing on the wall. As I remember, I think at least eight bloggers quit during that week when all that happened.
Matt Ufford: As soon as the people that I admired running FanHouse, that triumvirate of Jamie, Alana, and John left, and it became clear that these people we had never met before were bringing a new regime of boobery, and I mean that in every way, I was like “Fuck this, I want nothing to do with it.” I had zero tolerance for that kind of mishandling of a workplace scenario.
Alana Nguyen: [It was] the worst moment in my entire professional career. I felt extremely disappointed and disrespected by AOL. At that time, even though I cared about FanHouse the product and I cared about all the bloggers who I worked with and had grown to be friendly with, I didn’t care enough to disregard my own dignity and my own career goals. AOL just completely messed that up with regards to me,. And so, like I said, it was the lowest point of my career to date.
Michael Mandt: I don’t think I made any mistakes. I think clearly, there was a culture issue. YouTube jumped on it right away after that and we got a ton of views and made some money. The problem was we had multiple deals that were coming into play with a couple different brands in 2008 and in September of 2008, the markets crashed. All the money dried up. The brands that were thinking about it… everyone backed off and no one was doing anything. And that’s what really sealed us because if that didn’t happen FSG would have, I believe, survived and thrived.
Alana Nguyen: A lot of bloggers quit that same week that I did. Everybody was feeling very disgruntled about the FSG thing and people were starting to realize that maybe there’s even more behind the scenes that doesn’t bode well for FanHouse.