Web venture covering sports expands, and bias is welcome

Recently, Kobe Bryant tallied 30 points in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. That same night, Silver Screen and Roll, a blog dedicated to the Los Angeles Lakers, racked up more than 3,500 comments.

The popular site is just one of more than 250 unapologetically biased sports sites owned by SB Nation, most of them dedicated to a single team. The sites, written by fans for fans, do not claim to break news or have an inside scoop, but they often serve as a digital water cooler for the like-minded.

So far, that service has been enough to draw eyeballs. According to comScore, in April the network drew 3.6 million unique visitors to its 21 most popular sites, the only ones tracked by the market research firm.

Now the company is getting into the regional sports business, introducing 20 new sites in the next several weeks that are dedicated to all of the sports in a particular city, from New York to Kansas City.

The new sites add to a growing list of competitors to midsize daily newspapers, which once enjoyed a near-monopoly on local coverage. Many papers have been forced to cut staff in recent years, and sports sections are usually not spared.

“Newspaper sports sections are being squeezed from every conceivable angle,” said Timothy A. Franklin, the director of the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University and a former editor of The Baltimore Sun.

“There’s less of an emphasis being dedicated to regional sports coverage, and we think we’re filling an important need and doing it in a different way – ground up, grassroots, instead of top-down,” said Jim Bankoff, the company’s chairman and a former executive at AOL.

The company, now based in Washington, D.C., has come a long way since its first site, AthleticsNation.com, went live in 2003. Tyler Bleszinski and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga (the creator of Daily Kos, the popular liberal blog) founded the company, expanding it slowly at first. Investors include Accel Partners, Comcast Interactive Capital and Allen & Co.

The pace has picked up in recent years. Last year, revenue increased fourfold, Bankoff said. Oddly, having the writers keep some distance from the team – they rarely interview the players, for example – is one of the keys to their success, Bankoff said.

That distance allows sports to be less “of a profession than a passion,” he said. “We want to stay on the fan side of things.”

They are doing that at a relatively low cost. The company has 29 full-time employees, including people on the advertising and technology side, while most of the contributors to SB Nation’s sites are paid a monthly stipend.

Each of the new regional sites will have its own editor. Al Yellon, for example, who has run Bleed Cubbie Blue, a site devoted to the Chicago Cubs, will oversee the Chicago site.

Sports sections historically have been loss leaders for newspapers, often with sporadic advertisements for tires, cars and niche products. Large retailers usually prefer to be in the paper’s main section and feature sections. But the coverage is a lure for readers, both in print and online. When a local team is doing well, readership often increases.

Bankoff said that newspapers do not have to fear their work and that they would be happy to partner with any newspaper.

“We are actually complementary from what newspapers do. We embrace fan bias,” he said. “Newspapers focus on objective coverage – and when you combine the two, you get both perspectives.”