FanHouse continued on for a while under the columnist model, but things had changed heavily at AOL by the start of 2011. Former Google and Patch executive Tim Armstrong was appointed as CEO in March 2009, and he began winding down and selling off some of AOL’s properties. Social network Bebo was sold in 2010, and FanHouse seemed like another possible cut given the expenses it was running up and the lack of progress it had made with these new hires; AOL Sports cited 9.1 million monthly unique users in December 2007 and 11 million in January 2009 when the columnists were hired, making it one of the five-most visited sports sites on the web at that point, but its traffic had fallen to 9.7 million unique users in December 2010. With AOL going in a different direction on the journalism front, picking up Patch and heading towards the acquisition of the Huffington Post (which eventually happened in February 2011), FanHouse’s days seemed numbered.
That was still a substantial amount of traffic, though, and there were other sites interested in it. One was The Sporting News, which under new president/publisher Jeff Price (the former president of SI Digital) was moving away from its print magazine (which it would eventually end altogether in December 2012) to a digital-only strategy. TSN had only 2.9 million monthly uniques in December 2010, but a merger with AOL Sports would give it the chance to jump into the top 10 sites.
Jamie Mottram, senior producer, AOL: I think FanHouse lost its way and became something completely different from what it started off as, and not in a good way. It went from being something that was very different and new and very efficient from a traffic and business standpoint to something that was a little more skewed towards traditional sports journalism. It seems to have gotten bloated and when something stops performing and gets expensive, it makes less sense.
Shiloh Carder, blogger, FanHouse (as The Sportz Assassin): They thinned the bloggers down. With me personally, stuff was taken away. It was more focused on the syndicated columnists and the main bigger bloggers.
Scott Ridge, executive editor, AOL Sports: We aspired to be the best. To do that, we had to be there. I think AOL, it’s not the first time they’ve had a shift in direction. It’s just kind of the nature of that company that content plays a funny role in their outlook sometimes on the future of the company. I don’t have any regrets at all about the traveling. We needed to be there. I thought it offered good value to AOL, considering the mission was to become the best sports site we possibly could.
Tom Mantzouranis, Saints blogger, FanHouse, then editor, FanHouse: It began clarifying in my mind, towards the last year of FanHouse, that the business model wasn’t sustainable. When you are on the outside or you’re a little bit more inexperienced or more naive, you see them spending money and you think this is great. Again, obviously we are doing something right. But the more I begin to learn, the more I begin to see what really was the downfall of FanHouse was the fact they were spending money that wasn’t making it back. Hiring all the big-name columnists was just part of it, but it was also spending a lot of money on travel, covering games, on stories that just did not pan out. Either the stories themselves never materialized or they didn’t succeed, so the revenue wasn’t coming in and a lot of big-money hires weren’t bringing the traffic we thought they would.
I remember we talked often and asked about budget, like “OK, how much do I have to spend on NHL playoff coverage?” because one of my roles was as an NHL producer. It was kind of just like “Don’t worry about it, just go ahead and spend.” Obviously in hindsight, that’s a really bad business strategy.
Randy Kim, senior editor, AOL Sports, then managing editor, FanHouse: I think it was something that the play overall, in terms of what sports was doing and being this one-stop shop for all things editorial, was ambitious. If you are going to do that and invest the money in it, which, money was invested, you’ll probably need a pretty decent run-up, a guaranteed window of at least two to three years to show a return on that. That was not given.
Will Leitch, founding editor, Deadspin (2005-08): If you are hiring Jon Bois and Free Darko and you have Spencer Hall writing for you, you’re doing something right. You are absolutely doing something right. So I don’t think there’s any question. I’ve written for more corporate-type places so I know how screwed up that stuff gets. Ask anyone at Yahoo how online corporations work and how many fingers can get in the pot and screw things up. One of the reasons that I think a place like SB Nation has succeeded is because they have learned the lessons of FanHouse. They’ve learned “get the hell out of their way.”
Spencer Hall, college football blogger, FanHouse, now editorial director of SB Nation: I think they were incapable of making anything interesting or lasting. They never thought to do anything new. Again, which I think is a problem because the entire company was hooked on this sweet pipeline of existing revenue. Again, that’s an interesting parallel to me with ESPN because they are an older company that is going to have to figure out how to make stuff while maintaining the cable subscriptions. I don’t think that’s the right company’s function. I feel sometimes, and this is not me speaking for Jim Bankoff, I feel like a lot of decisions we sometimes make at SB Nation are played against what would AOL not do?
Will Brinson, NFL fantasy blogger, FanHouse: I don’t think it’s any different. I want to say that if FanHouse started in 2015, it would just be another sports blog site owned by a large conglomerate. The difference was that this was entirely new ground. Nobody knew what to do with it when it was started. I think most companies would have struggled to handle something innovative at that time in the corporate structure because it didn’t fit with the understanding of what was supposed to happen.
Tom Mantzouranis: I think the last year or year-and-a-half, I began to realize this isn’t sustainable and then the last three to six months, it was like the bottom is going to drop out any day now. We kind of knew. I would have conversations with the FanHouse crew that worked in the New York office. It was really small, there was only like four or five of us. We were really close and are still really close to this day, but we would have conversations like “you know, let’s enjoy this while it lasts” kind of thing.
Jay Mariotti, columnist, FanHouse: I sensed a tug-of-war on high. The site had hired dozens of writers and whatever AOL was dealing with at the time as a company, the sports commitment was a culture shock. One day, I was ordered to fly from L.A. to Virginia to visit with a security guy — a former FBI guy, I think — who wanted me to rat out Scott Ridge because someone hadn’t filled out an AOL form for international travel… months earlier, for the Olympics in Vancouver. I told the security guy that Ridge had done nothing wrong, and I wondered why I was flown 3,000 miles for this. We ended up talking much of the time about Alex Rodriguez and PEDs, and I excused myself so I could go write about it for the company paying me a salary to write. I didn’t feel good about the company that day. For the first time, I thought I was stuck in Washington bureaucracy.
Steph Stradley, NFL blogger, FanHouse: We had a sense for a long time that the direction was not very good. They were just preparing this platform to be something that could be sold off down the road. We knew that was part of the deal because early on they had AOL as part of the URL and they got that out of there.
Randy Kim: With a new CEO, Tim Armstrong, coming in, he just made the decision that this was just not the way that he wanted to structure this side of things, and took it in a very different direction very quickly. I think it was a victim of that as much as anything else.
Jay Mariotti: I was getting wind that they were eliminating the site, though I’d been told our traffic — and mine in particular — was doing quite well with the likes of Kevin, David Whitley, Lisa Olson, Greg Couch, Sam Amick, Dan Graziano, Terence Moore, etc. Then, I was wrongly accused in a legal case — which ended years ago in a “not guilty”’ expungement and a failed civil suit attempt. I was told by an immediate supervisor that I’d likely be returning to my job. Days later, I was offered a sizable settlement and soon after that, they laid off just about everyone. (Ed Note: Mariotti left FanHouse in early October 2010.) The company executives knew all along they were downsizing — and ultimately dumping — the site, and they settled with me for far less than the contractual terms. A lawyer suggested I sue, on the grounds of being intentionally deceived. I preferred to invest their money and travel the world.
Tom Mantzouranis: FanHouse was the first, but it wasn’t the only niche micro site focused on a specific vertical. AOL launched a TON of them around that time. Tim Armstrong, who was the current CEO, he was the one on the eventual sale of FanHouse to The Sporting News, he shot a lot of them down. A lot of micro sites that had been launched were very quickly boarded up. Anecdotally, without having concrete evidence, I would guess that FanHouse was probably the biggest spender out of all of them. Maybe news might have spent more. We were certainly one of the biggest liabilities as far as expenditures were concerned.
Spencer Hall: I think if you see a company like AOL doing good things, you can be sure it’s a short-term investment they will shortly ruin.
On January 13, 2011, AOL announced that they were outsourcing content in health, real estate and sports. On the sports side, they were licensing the FanHouse brand and, most crucially, its domain, to The Sporting News. FanHouse was down to about 40 employees at this point. AOL CEO Tim Armstrong initially said “there could be a ‘partial impact‘ resulting in job cuts of up to a couple of dozen.” In the end, though, only five writers made the move. The deal took effect as of March 1, 2011.
Jeff Price, now President/Publisher of Sporting News: To be fair, it was really less a deal about FanHouse… and more a deal about where was AOL’s traffic and sports content going to go? We really looked at it as an alignment with AOL as a digital traffic platform. We were fortunate really to bring over five writers, four of the FanHouse writers from a columnist perspective. To me, probably the most interesting thing that came out of FanHouse for TSN was the hiring of Brian Straus, who became the first soccer writer at TSN in the 125-year history of the brand. So for us, it was really a relationship and partnership that lasted for almost four years with AOL. It gave us immediate scale and gave us an opportunity to build a digital business that ultimately exists today. I would say it was not a deal to acquire FanHouse, as much as FanHouse was a part of the deal for a partnership and traffic relationship with AOL, if that makes sense.
Randy Kim: I think on the one hand you could see why [Armstrong] made that decision because it was a heavy spend and it was something that wasn’t seeing a return on investment at that point. At the same time, if you look at the promise that might have been there of what it could have become, even at that point when things had changed a little bit, it was probably frustrating for certain people. At least especially for a lot of the writers that were brought on not too long beforehand. To be perfectly honest, I think I would feel as badly for them as anyone else, because they entered into something thinking it was going to be one thing and then all of a sudden, it became something else entirely and I think that’s unfortunate.
Andrew Johnson, MLB editor/writer, AOL Sports: I guess we got the news in mid-January 2011 that the site was going to be shut down, and then we were going until like March 1st. We dialed it back, but I feel like we still sent a couple of guys down to spring training to do a few stories because it was like “screw it, let’s just let them have a last hurrah.” I know we still sent people to the Super Bowl for the NFL, even though the end was coming.
On February 7, 2011, after the announcement of the FanHouse sale to The Sporting News but before that deal actually began in March, AOL announced the acquisition of The Huffington Post and the centralization of most of its remaining media assets under Arianna Huffington and the new Huffington Post Media Group. For writers like Pat Lackey, that led to an awkward goodbye.
Pat Lackey, MLB blogger, FanHouse: They had a conference call where they told us that they would update all of us on our status and then they said check your inbox, and at that point I had sort of figured out what was happening and I knew at that point that I was almost certainly going to be one of the ones that would be let go. I think I got an email with two attachments. The first one was like “Welcome to the Huffington Post!” and the second one was like six paragraphs down and said “we will no longer need your services.” It was like the worst corporate bland boilerplate… I knew what was in the email when I got it. It wasn’t something that caught me off-guard or that I was incredibly brokenhearted about. It was so ridiculous in the way that happened, in the second email attachment like halfway down the first page. I got it and just started laughing. Here we go, I guess it figures.
Michael David Smith, NFL/MMA blogger, FanHouse: I stayed with FanHouse until the bitter end, when Sporting News took it over and essentially shut it down. I also stayed with MMAFighting.com, which had previously been MMA FanHouse, for even longer — I stayed with MMA Fighting after AOL got rid of FanHouse, then stayed even longer after AOL sold MMA Fighting to SB Nation. I finally left MMA Fighting and therefore severed my last FanHouse ties in March of 2012, when I decided to go full-time with Pro Football Talk and NBC Sports.
Jeff Price: Once you make the decision that you are not going to put the resources in the content and that content development, then it’s inevitable that it has to find a new home, it dies, or it ultimately will kind of die a slow death. I think at that point in time, it was absolutely the right deal for TSN to potentially become a player in the digital landscape and on the digital sports universe. So I think in that regard, and for the window of time that it was there, it took TSN and allowed TSN to transition from being a legacy print brand to a full-scale digital operation. So I think in that regard I would say that it was definitely a success in the fact that the business was ultimately sold to Perform and continues on today in a healthy fashion.