In 2006, sports blogging was just starting to take off. There were plenty of independent sites in existence, but large media outlets were hesitant to embrace the medium and culture of sports blogging. Meanwhile, AOL was undergoing significant change and trying to create revenue streams aside from those infamous dial-up CDs. Content was suddenly a new frontier for AOL, with sports a key focus where the company was struggling to define a strategy.
Jim Bankoff, executive vice president (programming and products), AOL: To map it into the overall arc of AOL, for a very long time, AOL’s primary business was selling shipping discs, which I think they are famous for.
Neal Scarbrough, general manager/editor-in-chief, AOL Sports: AOL had millions of users, but very little traction in sports.
Scott Ridge, executive editor, AOL Sports: We (AOL Sports) were doing sort of more traditional content, and believe it or not, in 2006 when I first got there, we were still behind a paywall as far as content goes.
As AOL began to realize a new content strategy was needed, specifically for sports, a sign of the corporate dysfunction at AOL-Time Warner could be found as one of the most viewed websites on the internet (AOL.com) and the leading sports print brand (Sports Illustrated) were unable to find a way to work together.
Jeff Price, President of Sports Illustrated Digital: AOL was a part of Time Warner, and I think I was probably involved in three core discussions within Time Warner, and probably a fourth if you counted over the space of time where there were discussions about what SI and AOL could do together.
Jim Bankoff: I think AOL finally realized that broadband was its future and to compete as a media company… you look at AOL today and it’s doing that. Attempting to do that. Back around that period, there became more of an emphasis on content and services because there was an advertising business model and AOL realized that the ISP money was going to start to slide and they needed to find other ways to compete.
Jeff Price: There were numerous discussions within Time Warner about what could have been done to create a digital sports enterprise within and nothing ever materialized out of it. But there were at least three distinct efforts made to try and combine resources, traffic allocations, content development, video involvement… but ultimately the way that Time Warner worked, was each business within Time Warner, whether it was AOL or Turner, was ultimately driven by their own division. Getting cross-functional work done was not the Disney approach, where you put everything together… inevitably the sports brand goes away in favor of everyone uniting behind ESPN. Those types of decisions were not made at Time Warner, but there were, as I said, multiple efforts made to try and to do things. Whether it was Jim Bankoff, or Carlos Silva, or with Ted [Leonsis]. Through the years we talked about what could be, but we could never get a business agreement in place.
Andrew Johnson, MLB editor/writer, AOL Sports: There was always a sense that it was sort of the future of what we were. Of course, it was AOL, and it was the mid-2000s, so plans changed constantly and people were getting laid off all the time. It seemed to me that was the future of what we were going to do. I do remember there were discussions at some point of even ending our AP Wire service that we had because we had this legion of bloggers who could basically churn that out, and we were spending a lot of money just for the AP Wire stuff.
Jeff Price: Nothing really materialized out of that. One of the failed efforts to combine resources was really the impetus when FanHouse was created.
Jim Bankoff: I was working in a division of AOL called “The Greenhouse.” That division was with the internet taking off, so we were in charge of helping it create new content properties for AOL.
Jamie Mottram, senior producer, AOL: I was at AOL for probably four, almost five years before FanHouse launched, and the last thing I was doing before FanHouse was a podcast called SportsBloggers Live. SportsBloggers Live was the first podcast AOL had ever done, and it was a direct response to the launch of the iPod. So the iPod came out, and it was a new behavior. And we were digital content creators, and we were kind of scrambling to figure out how to fill it up with our stuff. But it was painfully before its time. Podcasting is just now a mainstream thing. We were ahead of our time because it was a commercial failure. There wasn’t a huge audience that was listening; it was hard then to listen to a podcast. You had to download an mp3 and put it on your iPod or burn it onto a CD, which I actually did, and then listen to it in your car. But it was really fun and exciting, and we had a lot of great guests. The guests were all different types of people. We had guests like Roger Clemens, Will Leitch, Bob Costas, JE Skeets, and whatever. It was new, fun, and exciting. Around the same time, there were sports blogs that were blooming.
Jim Bankoff: We were encouraging really good content ideas and this was certainly one. One thing I did do was acquire a company called Weblogs Inc and they had brands like Engadget and Joystiq and some other things. And we started TMZ, so we were investing in all these content initiatives. But they didn’t have a sports brand so they had this technology platform called Blogsmith, which was basically a blogging platform. So we did say we needed something in sports.
Jamie Mottram: The idea was a direct response to Jim asking for a network of college — this is strangely specific, I don’t know if it was exactly what he was asking for, but this is how it came down the corporate ladder — AOL wants to launch a network of college football team sites. Because AOL Sports at the time was just a general sports site. It wasn’t like it had a network of NFL sites or a network of baseball sites, so this was a new thing. A network of college football team sites. Okay, so, how would we do that? And in response to that coming down the ladder to me, I came up with the idea for, it wasn’t called FanHouse at the time, but it was a college football blog network.
Jim Bankoff: I really think of it as Jamie Mottram’s brainchild.
Jamie Mottram: Once it got approved, then it was up to me to figure it out. The way it evolved was a little bit away from the team sites and more to the blog concept. And that’s where it started to go from a network of team sites to one big site that needed a brand. And away from just college football to everything in sports that’s interesting. I remember a specific argument being made for “Fan Stand,” being a combination of FanHouse and the term “Grandstand,” because Grandstand was a legacy brand that AOL owned that was presented as a series of message board and chat room-based sports communities. So “Grandstand” was in the running, as was “FanStand.” But I remember these being the finalists: FanStand, Grandstand, FanDome. I think SportsShark was in there and again, it would be like an NFL setting. But yeah, FanHouse ended up winning in the end and I never thought it was a great name. I never loved it, but it always seemed at least serviceable.
Mike Diamond, AOL Sports intern: I think the biggest concern was “How is this going to fit with the AOL Sports brand?” How the narrative voice of these bloggers was going to be perceived with what would be packaged like wire content, as it was all AOL Sports really was. This was a very strong differentiated narrative. I think what evolved became very clear that there was an epic amount of content being created that could drive an immense amount of traffic. There were a lot of debates about the traditional journalist background that Neal was coming from. There were certainly arguments.
Neal Scarbrough: Our SVP of News was not really a guy who was easily convinced normally, but he was behind this idea. We owe him a lot of credit, because he kind of saw the vision and helped us execute within AOL, which is not the easiest place to navigate. So we had plenty of support that we would get it right, and that we also would go down a road that was really hardcore sports plus one. We needed the fan voice, moving past the headlines and getting into the stories behind the stories. Sometimes it’s whose girlfriend looks great, but you are really going more hardcore sports than AOL was prepared to do or had established.
Mike Diamond: It’s funny because I remember things evolved very quickly. We had this daily staff meeting where every decision was made with the head of AOL Sports, Neal Scarbrough, the former head of ESPN.com. We had a bunch of different designers, project managers. We did everything like strategic things, where are we at from a team coverage standpoint? What was the design going to look like? How would we advertise? How would it be commercialized? How would it interact with the rest of AOL Sports, in terms of driving traffic? In order to keep us on task, the goal was to launch for college football and the NFL. A September launch. I remember they brought in this professional project manager from another company, I think he came from NASCAR actually, and I remember it was the first time I was exposed to a project manager. I remember just making fun of this guy with Jamie every day.
Jamie Mottram: The site ended up launching around September 1st, 2006; the overall site was FanHouse.com. But it really only covered two sports: NFL and college football. And it was NFL FanHouse and College Football FanHouse.
Jim Bankoff: In the beginning, it was a great grassroots idea to bring in people who were passionate and authentic and knew how to work the internet. They were original blogger talent.
Neal Scarbrough: People that were there at the beginning remember that we had a little bit of corporate nervousness from above, and so we actually spelled out some very specific guidelines that we printed out for folks, and it was about journalism and libel and about more of the higher- rather than the lower-hanging fruit. How to credit photos, how to add a credit to other organizations if you are just picking up something and repeating it. And then we had a real helping hand from the folks at Getty who believed in FanHouse and actually let FanHouse bloggers use Getty art without actually charging us every time they used a photo. So we were able to have more than a guy sitting on a couch in his underwear saying “I’m writing about the Vikings right now.” Let’s give them photos, let’s set them up for success, let’s pay them for frequency and per post, so guys were motivated to do more posts and do more robust posts.
Jamie Mottram: AOL used to be a closed-off thing, you had to be an AOL subscriber to access AOL Sports or anything AOL. So AOL didn’t even have original web content until about 2004. So inherently AOL, even though it was a digital property, it had this legacy of being a closed-wall guarded digital property. For FanHouse, it didn’t have that legacy; it just was created and was attracting a lot of people to AOL that weren’t already using it. And that got people excited.
Neal Scarbrough: We tried to get some sports traction. We were looking at a way to make news. If you remember, AOL kind of went to this vertical delivery of news at that point… To say we changed the way AOL looked would probably be an overstatement, but to say we had no part in that new look would be a gross understatement because we had a little success and it got noticed based on what we were doing.
John Ness, senior producer, AOL, then executive producer, FanHouse: I was actually at AOL and had come back from reporting abroad. I was reporting in East and West Africa and came back to get married and was reporting locally in New York. Basically, I needed a job with benefits to subsidize my local reporting. So I got a job at AOL at a brand called Citiguide. It was a guide to things going on in the city and it was something good to do while I was reporting on the side. And then I became aware of FanHouse as I was trying to get stuff picked up at Citiguide and noticing FanHouse was the first thing while working at AOL that I would find myself consuming in my own spare time. Sometime in 2007, they posted a position to be a producer or something like that, to be the second person working on the site and I kind of jumped at the chance. It was a lateral move, but as far as being able to work and actually report stuff, it was a huge step up.
Jim Bankoff: The people who were running it, they were smart, and clever, and we trusted them and they had good ideas.
Jamie Mottram: It was strong from the start, and it was mostly positive because the entire staff came from the blog world. It was at that point from my recollection ESPN, Yahoo, Fox, NBC, CBS, they didn’t have blogs. You know Bleacher Report didn’t exist. SB Nation was a tiny little thing. So this was really new, kind of like underground artists going mainstream. I think at that point, there was a big mainstream vs. blogger narrative, and this was more like a mainstream entity legitimizing what bloggers were doing. It was Deadspin and TrueHoop, and Basketball Jones, and Awful Announcing, and Every Day Should Be Saturday before it was on SB Nation, and Sports by Brooks. It was like everybody kind of knew everybody else, and it was kind of like a new scene that had arrived.
Scott Ridge: It was a once-in-a-career opportunity at the time, I felt like. I always considered blogging more of a platform than anything, but ultimately it was going to be the consumers and users that decided whether this thing had legs or not. The content was the key piece of the puzzle, but I also really enjoyed the community aspect of it.
John Ness: [Jamie] brought together all these people who built these on their own and were really gung-ho to try something new and they all had their own interesting voices. And there is really no reason this should have worked, but we ended up recruiting 50 people who actually wanted to build something and had the chops to do it. So it was just fantastic from day one. The whole time I was there just felt like a blessing.
Will Leitch, founding editor, Deadspin (2005-08): I did know it was coming. I knew that they went after all my people. There was a time where… one of the things I did while I was doing Deadspin was The Daily Closer. It was a recap of everything that had come up the day before that had different writers doing it. There was a time where my NBA writer was JE Skeets, my hockey writer was Greg Wyshynski, and my college basketball writer was Jonah Keri. That is a freakin’ All-Star lineup. My college football writer was Dan Shanoff. Look at Keri, he’s on my TV every time I look now, and he was writing me 2,000 words every morning on the Idaho State basketball game from the night before. I knew eventually that I wasn’t paying these people enough for them to stick doing this with me. Someone was going to try to weaponize it. By weaponize it, I mean make it corporate. I knew that was going to happen. For me, it was exciting to see, because I knew Jamie and I knew his heart was in the right place. I knew that he was going to try to find a way to take this thing that I think Deadspin had opened people’s eyes to and bring it into more of a corporate structure. And he did that with FanHouse, and he picked the right people. He took all my writers!
I had my doubts about AOL just like everybody else did, but I trusted Jamie. I knew he was a smart guy and understood what was happening. Inevitably, it was gonna turn lousy later because it’s corporate. Eventually someone is going to be like, “Let’s bring in Mariotti,” or something like that. It’s hard to remember the early excitement of FanHouse because of how it all ended.
[Ed note: Wyshynski actually went from FanHouse to Deadspin near the end of 2007, not the reverse.]
Mike Diamond got to AOL through a friendship with then-AOL president Ted Leonsis’ son, which led to him selling advertising space to Leonsis’ Washington Capitals in a high school paper and then later pitching Leonsis on an internship when he was in college. That led to him running an AOL blog (draft.net) about the 2006 NHL draft, and to him connecting with Jamie Mottram. During the initial FanHouse discussions that summer, Diamond decided to turn down an internship at a D.C. PR firm to stay at AOL, work with Mottram for eight more weeks, and particularly focus on recruiting bloggers for the new FanHouse. Mottram started a list of top bloggers to target, Diamond added to it, ranked and prioritized it, and then sent out ghost e-mails under Mottram’s name to try and recruit many of those people.
Tom Mantzouranis, Saints blogger, FanHouse, then editor, FanHouse: At first, I thought it was spam because the blog I had been doing had no readership. So I was a little taken aback that I was actually being offered a paying job to write about my favorite football team.
MJD, NFL blogger, FanHouse: From the beginning, it always seemed like Jamie had an interest in being the great “blog organizer.” He was the one that wanted to get everyone together and do something bigger. Which looking back, I mean, yeah, why wouldn’t you? At the time, if you had, say, me and Skeets and Shoals, and like a few of the KSK guys… the guys that were really finding their voice and an audience back then. If we all wrote on the same site, an independent site… how much would that be worth now, or like five years ago? That would be huge. That was the kind of vision he had and what he was interested in.
Some bloggers turned Diamond and Mottram down, concerned about potential corporate censorship and interference, but many more signed on. By the end of the summer, the football side was ready to go. Meanwhile, there were the aforementioned daily meetings between Diamond, Mottram, Scarbrough and others about how this site would actually work and discussions about how to create guidelines for the bloggers. These were somewhat looser at the start, but by the time they were rolling out other sports coverage such as NHL FanHouse (February 2007), there was a more formal blogger sign-on process including mandatory instructional videos. Those videos wound up making a big change in NHL FanHouse’s personnel…
Eric McErlain, Ravens blogger, FanHouse, then head of NHL FanHouse: AOL made us take that video copyright training. At the beginning, you had to watch a set of videos on copyrights because they didn’t want FanHouse bloggers to be swiping photos online. The general counsel office of AOL was afraid we would rip off photos from anywhere and they would get sued… It was just kind of a grind because you would have to spend a lot of time watching videos, and it wasn’t enough to watch the videos, you had to take and pass a test, and then you were approved to be a blogger. So I was getting the guys spun up on all that and then Tyler [Dellow] started expressing doubts, which got back to me through a third party that he felt like he was selling himself short and it was just too little money for the time he was going to have to spend on getting spun up and so forth. About two days before we were set to launch, he said “No, I am sorry, but I have to pull out.” I had plenty of backups and the backup was Greg Wyshynski. So the takeaway here is because Tyler said no, Greg got into FanHouse. Greg took that opportunity and just ran with it. He pumped out content all day long. He quickly became the engine.
Alana Nguyen, NBA blogger, FanHouse, then executive producer: I had no idea what FanHouse was, to be honest, so I kind of asked around and asked if this was a real thing. I wasn’t sure if this guy Jamie was real and he’s offering to pay me to blog? It seemed strange, but Nate Jones, who I was friendly with, had already signed on to be one of the NBA bloggers. So with him saying he was on board, I decided to give it a shot.
Will Brinson, NFL fantasy blogger, FanHouse: Well, I was getting paid to write about sports for the first time in my life. Like, reasonably paid. Matt Berry’s running his own site, so I mean, we were finally getting paid by a big internet company. AOL.com. Who didn’t grow up with 50 CDs sitting in their inbox and “You’ve Got Mail”? To be getting paid what felt like pretty good money to write about sports at the time was pretty incredible.
Matt Ufford, NFL blogger, FanHouse: I was starving and the pay was shit, but it was pay, you know? There was one sports blogging job and Will Leitch had it. So if someone was like “We’ll give you money to write,” I was like “Yeah, sure!”
Jim Bankoff: I think it took a little bit of time, but it was never about being, at least at first, the biggest thing in the world. It was really more about getting the right people and the right voice and kind of building up from the ground. It’s another situation where I can’t really even recall how the numbers were, but it worked because at the time, no one messed with it and we didn’t tinker with it. We empowered them to do their own thing and they did it really well.
Neal Scarbrough: AOL is a huge traffic generator so you have to throw new stuff into the AOL jetstream to get traffic to what you are doing. Folks coming for local recipes and to see what’s on TV tonight, and when we started throwing the FanHouse content up into that jetstream, people came and people followed it. We basically leveraged the audience that we had and kept them around and kept them clicking.
Jamie Mottram: We didn’t really have any traffic targets that we had to hit because it wasn’t a huge investment and we also had backing from people like Bankoff. It was more like a low-risk experiment and from the start, it was doing really good traffic. And it was doing really good traffic from organic sources beyond AOL. That first year, which was pretty much all I was involved with, it just kept growing.
John Ness: We wanted to see traffic growing overall, and I remember people being very happy when we could show them that, unlike a lot of the other AOL properties, half our traffic was not coming in from the mothership, but the rest of the web. We weren’t dependent on that thing that pops up and says “You’ve Got Mail” that you know back in the day could send millions of pageviews to you.
Jeff Price: Obviously, they grew an audience and quickly brought on some talent. Eventually, from an SI perspective, we did a few things together where we would share traffic around big events. But in many ways, they were a competitor to us and what we were doing. Obviously, we were grounded in the voices and talent that was part of the SI family and tried to leverage that in a meaningful way. But ultimately, when the FanHouse platform was launched, in many ways it became a competitor to SI.com.