After Alana Nguyen’s exit, the changes at FanHouse continued with a particular focus on making it more of a mainstream site. Some nationally known reporters and columnists were hired, and things especially picked up in January 2009, when AOL announced the “launch of the new sports site, FanHouse.com,” which formally merged AOL Sports with FanHouse and focused around new columnists Jay Mariotti, Kevin Blackistone and Lisa Olson. Those moves rolled all of AOL Sports under one roof.
Scott Ridge, executive editor, AOL Sports: Jay and I shared a common friend in Kevin Blackistone, and Kevin had mentioned they were interested in what we were doing and wanted to talk, and I was happy to do it because I had followed Jay’s career as a columnist in Chicago. I talked to Jay and filled him in on what we had in mind, and he filled me in on his thoughts on where things were in covering sports. I liked Jay because one: The man worked his tail off. He really was one of the hardest workers I’ve ever been associated with. As one of your lead voices, he wanted to write on the big story of the day, every day. And whatever he wrote, he elicited the most reaction and those were the big three check boxes in my mind in hiring a lead voice, even though we had a lot of voices. Jay certainly moved the needle when it came to getting reactions from his columns. In fact, it helped that he was on TV quite a bit. That was a deliberate part of the brand build for FanHouse, that we had a heavy presence on ESPN. Not only on television, but when we hired a lot of great reporters that would break news, it was our aim to get FanHouse across the bottom line as much as we could.
Jay Mariotti, columnist, FanHouse: The site needed big names and accomplished professionals, and once a terrific pro such as Kevin Blackistone (my colleague on an ESPN TV show) signed on as a columnist and apprised me of AOL’s plans to ramp up the site quality, I was intrigued. Scott Ridge was a writer’s dream. The camaraderie on the staff — and the mission — was refreshing and fun. I think we both got wind of mutual interest, and we met in Georgetown and agreed to a deal a few days later.
Tom Mantzouranis, Saints blogger, FanHouse, then editor, FanHouse: The first three we hired were Mariotti, Kevin Blackistone, and Lisa Olson. Whereas Jay had his reputation, Kevin and Lisa both came in with really great reputations and really great careers, they had really been established as great writers and good people. Those reputations proved to be true too. It wasn’t all bad. More columnists came in later down the line and those were mixed bags as well.
Pat Lackey, MLB blogger, FanHouse: It was clear that it was changing, just with bringing on full-time writers and putting them on the beat and sending them into the ballparks. The whole idea at the beginning, not to take it too literally, but it was “FanHouse” and it was supposed to be all the fans and the unfiltered fan opinions. I think that a lot of us were capable of giving a pretty unique perspective than what you would find from a different sports site. Not necessarily better or worse, but I think that’s sort of how blogging about sports took off in the first place.
Randy Kim, senior editor, AOL Sports, then managing editor, FanHouse: I basically tried to retain a lot of the spirit that they started out with, but at the same time, all of a sudden, you’ve got a pretty large company saying “Well, we want to make this something big,” for lack of a better term. We want to make this something that is a real business, that operates in the same way that AOL News does. They basically saw these verticals, and I believe AOL News was just left to be AOL News. But FanHouse was seen to be, “Okay, you are going to step into AOL Sports.”
Tom Mantzouranis: There were columns that Jay would write that would take shots, not thinly veiled shots, but blatant shots at the cliche about bloggers in the basement wearing pajamas and living off mom still, and a lot of people were offended by that for obvious reasons.
Brian Cook, college football blogger, FanHouse: I think hiring Mariotti was the most tone-deaf ridiculous thing they could have possibly done. Because he was just a blowhard, right? One of the things Spencer Hall says about SB Nation is the internet is the only sports appreciation machine. We weren’t lecturing from the top of a mountain like a lot of newspaper people tend to do. We were just fans being fans. And when you bring in the guys that do talk at you from the top of the mountain, do the Mariotti stuff, it’s completely antithetical of what the whole point of the enterprise was.
Will Leitch, founding editor, Deadspin (2005-08): I think they were probably doomed before that, but if you are in a position where you are even considering that, you are doomed. I’ll say that it was certainly the moment where you were like “Oh, OK, I don’t need to read them anymore.” I had been holding out hope for those guys, because it was so likeable and so well done in the beginning that you wanted to see them get turned around. There were so many talented people, you knew there was junk involved, there was ugliness involved on a corporate level, but you hoped that they would be able to make it. And then when they brought in Mariotti you were like, “oh nope, never mind.” This is what this is now. It’s probably the reaction to it. I think that is a pretty good sign that you’ve fallen apart.
Scott Ridge: Look, I thoroughly enjoyed working with Jay, and I think his writing talent speaks for itself. He delivered in everything we asked from him.
Steph Stradley, NFL blogger, FanHouse: At some point, they decided that they needed to get more traditional journalistic hires. They put out a press release that we have this FanHouse and it’s like well wait, there are those of us that have been writing for FanHouse… it’s not new. They hired people like Mariotti and others that had come from a traditional journalistic background. …Sometimes it led to a clash of cultures where they thought we were a bunch of 20-year-old irresponsible people, and we thought that they were slow and wrote boring things. …They brought Mariotti into a place where he obviously didn’t respect the point of view that we had, which was kind of a response to Jay Mariotti’s writing.
Jay Mariotti: I remember only fun and symmetry. Writers are writers. There are good, professional writers and there are amateurs who think “blogging’” gives them license to be sloppy, throw lies against the wall and not corroborate. I was too busy writing, traveling and working to notice any “friction.”
Andrew Johnson, MLB editor/writer, AOL Sports: I think there was definitely a rivalry between the two groups. The other thing that was kind of weird is that you have on one side the bloggers, who aren’t getting paid very much. They are getting paid by the post, but they kind of built FanHouse into what it is. Then here come these guys who are getting paid full-time salaries, getting paid a lot of money, and aren’t always going to play nice or even “get” what FanHouse originally started as. So that was definitely weird.
Will Brinson, NFL/fantasy blogger, FanHouse: I think you would be hard-pressed to find someone that thinks that hiring Jay Mariotti made FanHouse better.
Scott Ridge: Jay was a great hire and did a lot of things on behalf of AOL that weren’t publicized. These requests came from top execs and Jay was always happy to help. His work ethic was beyond exemplary and he was a genuine pleasure to work with in my experience.
Spencer Hall, college football blogger, FanHouse, now editorial director of SB Nation: AOL Sports/FanHouse, they never really had a commitment to a theme. Ultimately, they would go on to hire on these extremely pricey newspaper journalists. I don’t want to denigrate what newspaper journalists have done, but online, that voice is not the same and it doesn’t work and the attitude is just not there.
Scott Ridge: I would say that FanHouse was sort of loosely modeled on what The National was way back when. I wanted an array of voices, opinions, thoughts, whatever. So my thinking was if Jay isn’t your cup of tea, then you might enjoy reading Lisa Olson. If Lisa wasn’t your favorite voice out there, then you might enjoy reading Kevin Blackistone. If they were maybe a little too old-school for you, well, we had Clay Travis writing columns for us. And we had Terence Moore writing columns for us. And we had David Steele writing columns for us. I wanted to build a collection of strong opinion writers in sports media and was very proud of the cast we had assembled just on the columnist side of things.
Tom Mantzouranis: The people who were hired with traditional experience were kind of favored over people that had busted their asses and worked long hours. The longstanding bloggers kind of got passed over by the fresh shiny thing, the new kids in town from the newspapers who had done some reporting. There were definitely growing pains getting that integrated and honestly, they were never fully resolved.
Scott Ridge: I used to say this all the time to [the newspaper hires] “You’re probably going to learn more from them than they will from you.” And I was referring to the new media. You know, the bloggers and some of the digital age editors that we had. It was probably the case, to be honest. But I can’t say that it was perfect; we had a few rough spots for sure.
Andrew Johnson: It seems quaint now but it was like oil and water and then the newspaper journalists, a very serious profession, and then what… The Choose Your Own Adventure A-Rod thing? It was just kind of a weird mix. We made it work, but it was again the strategy, what is the strategy here? I don’t know.
Steph Stradley: We got all these journalists and they would fly off to places and write like two stories, like AP reports. And they weren’t even good stories, they were boring. Good blogging is different than good journalism. The new hires, some of them barely knew how to use email. Some didn’t know how to use the blogging software so they would type their copy, give it to an editor and then the editor needed to do all the photos and things like that. They were getting paid more than us, even though we were doing more. And getting more traffic. WAY more traffic.
Tom Mantzouranis: We couldn’t drastically rework their columns. We couldn’t ask them to do it, we didn’t have that sort of power. We could edit blog posts and write headlines and package things, but when it came to it, none of us really had the authority to say to Jay Mariotti, “I think this is tasteless, you may want to rework it.” So we pleaded for a lot of columns to be edited or scrapped entirely and 99.9% of the time that fell on deaf ears. Those were the biggest flare-ups. And not to pile it on, but he kind of makes it so easy, he would pressure to get his columns up right away. If the column wasn’t up at the speed that he thought it should be, we would get follow-up emails asking about it. So it wasn’t like we could take two hours at 11 o’clock at night to wait for a managing editor to get back to us.
Pat Lackey: Things definitely changed. You know as time went on, we started adding reporters that were on the beat and would go to games. We had a West Coast reporter and an East Coast reporter; they were plugged in. We used to run live chats during the All-Star Game, the Home Run Derby, the playoff games. Me and a few other guys would run those live chats. It was essentially what baseball Twitter is now. Once we had regular reporters, we were told by MLB that we were broadcasting an account of the game without permission so the live chats had to stop or they would pull our press pass. It was little things like that.
Greg Wyshynski, NHL blogger, FanHouse: I felt it was insulting as hell. The bloggers that were there that were working their behinds off for substantially less than what the big names were getting, and had a much higher work rate as well, were getting the same number of clicks and in some cases, more clicks. I think in that instance, they thought that they were going to just put some big names on the blogs and then all of a sudden a whole new subsection of readers would come and find the site. It was a moment that I remember we all kind of just sort of looked at each other and didn’t quite know what the direction was, because we had all thought we were doing a good job and we all felt that there was a sort of momentum, and we didn’t quite understand why we weren’t given a chance to really continue to build the site, and grow the site, and why they felt they needed to bring in these ringers.
Andrew Johnson: I don’t know that either group really ever accepted the other group. The other thing was we never got together, like 10 of us in a room. I feel like if the 10 or 12 of us got together in a room and had a couple of beers together, that probably solved some of that stuff because then you see that there’s a human being on the other end of that email address.
Pat Lackey: Part of the problem is that eventually the writers were going to realize how underpaid we were. I don’t mean that as a complaint, but to get paid $7 a blog post or whatever it was at the beginning in 2006 was a crazy deal for something that I was doing for free. But then the longer you do it and the longer you think about how you are generating millions of pageviews for this massive corporation, you realize “Oh, this is not such a great deal for me.” In the end, I think it would have come to a head at some point over something. I don’t know that it was necessarily sustainable because it was basically cheap labor to get a unique voice and that couldn’t have lasted for forever.
Michael David Smith, NFL/MMA blogger, FanHouse: I could just see the direction that AOL was going in, and I knew it wasn’t sustainable. They were spending a lot of money to hire columnists away from newspapers, and spending a lot of money to send those columnists all over the world to cover events, and the columns weren’t generating the kind of traffic that you need to sustain that kind of spending. There would be times that FanHouse would spend probably thousands of dollars to send a columnist to cover an event, and then also pay $12 to a blogger who watched on TV to write a blog post about the event, and the blog post would generate more traffic than the column. And yet AOL continued to spend the money on the columnists. I could tell the whole thing was going to fall apart because the business model made no sense.