SBJ/20081027/This Week's News

Tech leaders back sports blog network

Former AOL programming chief Jim Bankoff has secured a mid-seven-figure sum of venture capital for SB Nation, a startup network of sports blogs, from a group of digital media and technology luminaries.

The round of funding was led by Accel Partners, the Silicon Valley private equity firm best known for its backing of Facebook and led in part by Boston Celtics minority owner Jim Breyer. Additional funding came from Allen & Co.; AOL vice chairman emeritus and Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis; Brent Jones, former San Francisco 49ers player and now managing director of private equity firm Northgate Capital; former Yahoo! senior executives Dan Rosensweig and Jeff Weiner; and several executives from Providence Equity Partners, the venture capital shop where Bankoff remains a senior adviser.

In addition, SB Nation’s management team has added Mark Lazarus, president of media and marketing for Atlanta-based Career Sports & Entertainment, as a senior adviser.

Tyler Bleszinski, whose five-year-old Athletics Nation blog in Oakland was a building block for SB Nation, is president of the company. Bankoff will serve as chairman.

SB Nation comprises more than 150 sites.
STARTING LINEUP
Some of the blogs in SB Nation:
Athletics Nation (Oakland As)
McCovey Chronicles (San Francisco Giants)
The Good Phight (Philadelphia Phillies)
Gaslamp Ball (San Diego Padres)
Ridiculous Upside (NBA D-League)
Pounding The Rock (San Antonio Spurs)
Burnt Orange Nation (University of Texas)
Black Shoe Diaries (Penn State)
Gang Green Nation (New York Jets)
And The Valley Shook (LSU)
Source: SB Nation

Kyle Ragsdale, former associate athletics director at Georgetown, is SB Nation’s vice president for business affairs.

SB Nation has been quietly operating out of Washington, D.C., for the past year as it developed its site technology and arranged the funding. It now finds itself in an ultra-competitive sports blogging landscape that includes well-known entities such as Deadspin, Yardbarker, Sports by Brooks, Bleacher Report and The Big Lead.

Bankoff’s entry is working from a network model, though, in which more than 150 local, team-based sites are linked together with a common visual template but remain written and programmed by local writers.

“We see ours as a very different model,” said Bankoff, who left AOL in December 2006 as executive vice president of consumer and publisher services. “There’s no other network of sites out there as comprehensive as ours beyond the official team and league sites. But this isn’t just an ad network. These are sites of very high quality.”

The site network itself also differs somewhat from other Internet roll-ups in its core construction. Rather than strike affiliate relationships or simply represent sites for national ad sales, Bankoff has structured equity swaps for each of the sites in SB Nation in which the company acquires all the content, URLs and related assets, and the bloggers then share the ad revenue.

“[Bankoff] could have taken any big job in the market, and he’s instead chosen something entrepreneurial and thinks he can deliver a lot of value,” Leonsis said. “He’s got a really good approach on the advertisers, where he’ll be able to give them a good link to that fan passion and energy. We’ve seen in places like NASCAR, where fans have shown a tremendous amount of loyalty to brands, when they’ve been able to effectively tap into that passion, and I think that can happen here as well.”

The SB Nation sites are combining to generate more than 2 million unique visitors a month, according to internal metrics. On a local and regional level, some of the more popular team-based blogs in SB Nation generate traffic similar to, if not greater than, the established media outlets covering those teams, Bankoff said.

“Jim’s got a very strong product, and I also believe there’s some TV content that can be pulled out of this,” Lazarus said. “He definitely has a chance to monetize this really well. It’s real fanatic stuff [on the network]. There’s definitely a certain intelligence to the content.”

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