Back in the game

The duo behind Rivals.com is quickly growing a new, competing sports journalism venture [From the July/August issue of Nashville Post magazine]

The Brentwood offices of 247Sports.com harken back to an earlier age of media. There are no cubicle walls separating the employees. A whiteboard details the daily and weekly story budget. The bosses’ offices are open — and as starkly decorated as the rest of the place.

In other words, it looks like the archetypical newsroom from a bygone era. And that’s an image the inside-baseball website venture’s chiefs are OK with projecting.

That’s because, they say, 247Sports’ work is, itself, a throwback. In an age where anyone with an interest and an Internet connection can create a blog in 30 seconds to spout opinions about their favorite team, the company is focused on providing first-hand, original reporting via its dozens of team-centric websites that cover recruiting, coaching changes, and all the off-the-field gasoline that powers the college sports engine.

It’s not that the company is opposed to witty opinion pieces. “It’s just not what we do,” said CEO Shannon Terry.

“First-hand reporting is different and people see the value in it when it occurs,” said company President Bobby Burton.

Terry and Burton should know. In the not-so-distant past, the two built, grew and sold a highly successful company with which 247Sports is now competing for readership.

New rivals

Both Terry and Burton are acknowledged leaders in the online college sports industry.

In 1996, four years after graduating from Lipscomb University, where he played basketball, Terry helped found AllianceSports, the first subscription-based network of college team and recruiting sites.

Alliance was eventually acquired by Rivals Networks. When the latter ceased operations in 2001, Terry led the effort to purchase and license its assets, re-launching it as Rivals.com, which, under his leadership, grew to 180,000 subscribers with more than 2.5 million unique visitors each month.

Burton’s history goes back even further. He remembers the days of 900-numbers and newsletters sent through — wait for it — the postal service. Regarded as one of the godfathers of the now enormous business of tracking college recruiting, Burton has collected stories from the road — like sitting next to Archie Manning in a Louisiana high-school stadium to watch Manning’s schoolboy quarterback son. (You know the one. He wears Colts’ blue and white now.)

Burton’s college football recruiting newsletter and magazine, National Recruiting Advisor, was bought by in 1999 by Rival Networks and Burton joined Terry at successor company Rivals.com in 2001.

Seven years later, Internet giant Yahoo purchased Rivals. Terry and Burton decided not to make the move with the site they fostered, and after waiting out the terms of non-compete clauses, the pair re-united to launch 247Sports in August of last year. The executives themselves provided the $6 million in start-up cash.

Operating from Rivals’ old offices — much of that site’s operations moved west after the Yahoo acquisition — Terry and Burton have set themselves up as a competitor to the company Terry launched and which is now the leader in the ever-growing niche dedicated to the off-the-field news of college sports.

Growing every day — Terry can quote, to the digit, the number of subscribers his sites have (it was 29,322 in mid-May) — 247Sports operates dozens of team-centric websites with its 15 employees and “40 or 50” subcontractors. The company’s model is focused on a mix of licensing top, existing sites (like the unassailable Internet leader in Ohio State web coverage, Bucknuts) to creating new sites for the major collegiate programs.

Like Rivals, the sites have a mix of free and premium coverage, but the onus of deciding whether a particular piece of content belongs behind the subscription pay-wall falls on its author, be it a 247Sports reporter or a fan posting on a message board.

“It could be one of our experts or it could be Joe Alabama Fan who doesn’t want an Auburn fan to see what he knows,” Burton explained.

That mix is one of the key differences between the start-up and its (forgive the pun) rivals.

“It creates that dialogue,” Terry said. Fans can share what they know, ask questions of the reporters, and not fear tipping their hand to an opponent in the ever-higher-stakes world of college sports recruiting.

Another differentiator is that Rivals.com and established competitor Scout.com both use a licensing model, wherein the companies act as umbrellas that grant the main sites’ names to content-producers for each school, which then manage their site’s day-to-day product. 247Sports, on the other hand, takes a more hands-on approach.

“Since we control and incubate each site, we can control the product,” Terry said. That makes it easier for the company to maintain high-quality content.

And that quality of content is something people are willing to pay for - providing an early, steady revenue stream for the firm. The nearly 30,000 subscribers pay $107.40 for an annual subscription — a cash influx of more than $3 million per year.

Going mobile

Both men have seen first-hand how the coverage of college sports has exploded in the last two decades. In part, that’s due to the proliferation of television coverage: It’s far easier to watch all of your favorite college football team’s games than it was 20 years ago (when, unless you were a Notre Dame fan, it was virtually impossible.)

But Terry said the passion for college athletics, especially in their target areas of the South and Midwest, has always existed. It’s just that now “it’s in their face,” he said.

Today, a college football team’s season doesn’t end with a bowl game in January. Recruiting and coaching rumors make for year-round reporting beats: Who is signing where? Who is close to making a decision? Is this stud high-schooler as good as every one says? And now, in a change from when Burton started covering recruiting, fans are more interested in how the blue-chipper can help their team than who the blue-chippers are.

That’s not to say that what 247Sports is doing is something new. Terry, in fact, emphasizes that 247Sports isn’t trying to “invent a new widget.” It’s simply trying to provide the best information in a market that’s been well established in recent years and has a hungry consumer base. And it’s going about that business with an eye toward the future.

“We have a vision or where this market is going,” Terry said. “We are enormously focused on the mobile, be it smart phones or tablets. Right now, 20 percent of our views are already mobile views. We simultaneously build those platforms when we build the main sites.”

Terry said the company plans to invest $6.2 million “over the next several years” in its technology platform in preparation for a time when a majority of users will come in through a handheld device.

The vision — that mix of old-school reporting and next-gen tech — so far is working. The site is nearing 500,000 page views per month, still far less then the well-established Rivals, but growing every month.

Terry and Burton said they started their new venture with plenty of confidence given how long they’ve been in the industry.

“It’s not scary, it’s what we do,” Terry said. “We’ve done things and lost, and we’ve made so many mistakes in our career.”

“Not much trips us up any more,” Burton followed.

Terry said the company already has made good market penetration in the 20 or 30 biggest college sports markets, so its only question now is, what’s next?

“Our question isn’t whether we’ll make it, it’s how big it will be,” Terry said. “That’s to-be-determined. But we’re swinging for the fences.”