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SBJ/Dec. 9-15, 2013/Anniversary Special Issue
The Daily: How It Started and Why It Worked
How a group of coffee-fueled early-rising news junkies started the industry’s must-read daily
Published December 9, 2013, Pages 36-48
|Five of the early staffers of SportsBusiness Daily met in New York City earlier this year. Left to right: David Abrutyn, Jeffrey Pollack, Chuck Todd, Steve Bilafer and Abe Madkour.
Founder Jeffrey Pollack: My idea for The Daily came in 1992. I was doing political consulting work for a firm based in L.A. We did campaigns and crisis management. One of our clients in the early ’90s was one of the four major sports leagues and through working with them, I started to see that sports really was a business. And I hypothesized that it wasn’t just a business, but was really a subset of the entertainment industry. And, as such, there should be a daily trade publication, like Variety, for the sports industry. So I did a little research and saw that one didn’t exist. I started talking to some people in the sports industry and connected with a mentor of mine from politics, Doug Bailey, who was founder of the American Political Network and had been running The Hotline in Washington. Doug invented an entirely new way of thinking about news and packaging it in a daily publication that was not even in print. Before there was a commercial Internet, Doug was distributing The Hotline and other publications electronically.
Pollack: So, I am 28 years old, and Doug and I decided in 1993 that we would go and figure this out. People immediately started telling me it would never work, that there wasn’t enough news about the business of sports to fill a daily trade publication. If there was enough news to fill a daily publication, no more than 100 people would ever have an interest in reading it. And, of those 100, no one would ever pay for it. I just believed that was wrong.
In the spring of ’93, Doug suggested that I meet with Steve Bilafer, who had been working with him at The Hotline.
Founding editor-in-chief steve Bilafer: I was the No. 2 editor at The Hotline. We had gone through a presidential election and, at the time, I was trying to figure out what my path was. The editor-in-chief at The Hotline wasn’t going anywhere. So I was looking for other opportunities, and Doug said, “Why don’t we talk about this sports idea?” He knew I had an affinity for sports, but, obviously, I didn’t have any experience in sports business. He got me together with Jeffrey, and his idea seemed a natural to me.
Bilafer: At American Political Network, it was originally about politics, but we had started branching out into other issue areas: health care, environment, education. We had all this news coming in. We started wondering how many different ways we could cut it. Doug was saying, “OK, we’re throwing away a lot of business pages, we’re throwing away a lot of sports pages. How many ways can we cut this model of gathering, digesting, and presenting news to these audiences?” So I knew the sports idea was going to work because we had done it.
Pollack: Steve was my guy. There was no question. The way The Hotline looked at the world was perfect for the application to sports.
This couldn’t have happened without Doug. The Daily wouldn’t have been what it became, what it is, had we not launched this with American Political Network. Being with Doug and being with APN was absolutely critical to our initial success.
Pollack: The Daily was created as an executive briefing that covered the coverage. The intention was not to do a lot of original, or really any, reporting, but to sift through everything that was being written or being said each day about the business of sports and curate that for a business audience. And one hypothesis was that every major paper in the United States every day had at least one article in some section, whether it was business, sports, entertainment, lifestyle, that was related to the business of sports. And if we could just bring that together the way The Hotline was bringing together political news, that would be a great format.
Chuck Todd (who was the second editorial hire): There was a simple mission statement that I remember, and I keep coming back to. “Our aim is to provide the business angles on major sports stories and provide the sports angles on major business stories.” We taped it up on the wall. That’s how we all made sure we were combing through the news in the right way.
Pollack: I moved to Washington, D.C., in January of 1994. I showed up to work at 282 N. Washington St. in Falls Church, Va., on Feb. 14, 1994, as the first full-time employee of Digital Sports Network. I spent the next few months refining the business plan, continuing to talk to people in the industry, prototyping and putting the team together.
Bilafer: Early on, I would be working on The Hotline in the morning and coming down and doing prototypes for The Daily in the afternoon. Part of my deal with Doug was, if I was moving out of The Hotline, I’m taking Chuck [Todd] with me. We didn’t completely rob The Hotline. We pulled away in phases. Chuck and I had worked together for two years at that point, we knew how to put these publications together, so it was going to be a deal breaker for me if Doug didn’t give me Chuck.
Bilafer: We built a good edit staff. Obviously Abe [Madkour] … came from the political world. We didn’t look for traditional journalists or reporters. They wouldn’t have been comfortable without a byline and wouldn’t have wanted to cover other people’s material. I knew we needed someone who was from outside of journalism and wasn’t trained because we weren’t doing traditional journalism.
Pollack: We had office space — well I would say “office space” is a generous term. It looked like a fraternity house. It was an old Victorian house. It had two rooms, and a closet that happened to have some windows. My office was the closet. One room was editorial, one room was marketing. We were fortunate to have our own bathroom in that little suite …
Bilafer: Fortunate? I wouldn’t say fortunate.
|Pollack, Abrutyn and Bilafer talk about the early mornings and long days during the start of SBD. Pollack: “There was this mood, and it was fun.”
David Abrutyn [hired in September 1994 as director of marketing]: It was an old house, and this whole company was working off of residential bathrooms.
Abe Madkour [hired in August 1994 as staff writer]: Writers were on top of each other. You really had about a foot of desk space and an old black-and-white computer monitor.
Pollack: But it was this magical environment. It was part fraternity house, part political campaign, full of 20-somethings in backwards baseball hats and flannel shirts, and there was a lot of great energy in that building.
INSIDE THE BUSINESS PLAN
Pollack: My business plan’s focus initially was The Daily. That had to be the flagship. But we thought there would be an opportunity to do vertical publications by sport, a weekly injury and trade report, a stadium publication, women’s sports publication and one on the fitness industry. We thought there would be opportunity to do TV shows, a sports advertising film festival, conferences and database services. That plan, written in 1993, was a pretty broad vision.
Pollack: The inspiration for calling it The Daily came from Northwestern University, where I went to school. The student newspaper was called The Daily Northwestern. So when we had the SportsBusiness Daily, there was a tip to NU to abbreviate it as The Daily.
Abrutyn: The Daily drove everything. If you were going to be the voice for the industry, you had to be able to have a team of people that could speak — and think — critically about it and speak about it with intelligence, because it was the foundation piece for a business that was going to evolve way beyond The Daily. Once The Daily was successful, it was the set up piece for everything else that came after.
THE ‘PERFECT STORM’
Pollack: We decided to launch on Sept. 12 . That was a hard date. We prototyped for months before that and when we were prototyping, we wanted to limit the publication to 14 pages. One reason was to keep the fax costs down, but also to impose editorial discipline. With some of the early prototypes, the question of whether there would be enough news was answered, as we were running up to 20 pages or more. It was an effort to keep it to 14. So we filled out the edit staff, and launched that September with a full staff — edit, sales and marketing — of nine.
Pollack: At launch, the cost for one year was $600 to receive The Daily by modem, $600 by email and $1,000 by fax. We did a $400 surcharge for fax. There were half-year prices. The nonprofit rate was not much less. The renewal rate after one year was $950 by modem or email and $1,350 by fax. So we offered a two-year discount at $2,600.
Todd: When we launched, we hit the perfect storm of business and sports stories. Obviously, the labor strike in baseball, but you also had what Fox was doing to every TV and media market in the country. This massive reorganization of TV affiliates that the networks are still dealing with to this day. Fox was just getting involved in the NFL and NHL.
|Madkour was 25 was he started at SBD. He has relocated with it from Washington, D.C., to Connecticut to Charlotte.
Todd: But they were covered fairly poorly in the local press. You had some markets where they put the business reporter on it and it would be well-done, but in some places they would put the sports reporter on it, and, no offense to sports reporters, but they just never covered it that way. They missed some of the business angles.
Pollack: There weren’t really people focused on the sports business beat. There were sports writers who had to go cover these business issues that they really didn’t want to cover and they did it reluctantly.
Bilafer: Beat writers hated covering it. That’s where our editorial model really fit.
We were able to look across the markets every day, and were able to find out, “OK, which writers get it? Which men or women are really covering this story the right way?” And then we were able to highlight that coverage and lift that up and better inform our readership. We were looking at the whole picture and we’re serving this highly intelligent, highly professional readership with, “This is what you need to know today. This is what you need to be reading. Forget about these 10 people because they’re just pumping out nothing, but this guy is out ahead of it or this is an interesting angle,” and we were able to pull these things out for the readers. We were able to synthesize the news and give people, in one bite, “Here is what you need to know today on this big story or here is what we’re seeing across markets.”
Pollack: The political communications influence on The Daily can’t be stressed enough. You had this executive audience that we believed needed to know how the news was playing. It was about covering the coverage. It was about looking at how stories were spinning, for lack of a better term, and the theory was to package that up and put it in this must-read format that was delivered daily. Tell them what’s happening in the industry as it’s reported by others and that would be highly valued. Readers quickly viewed it as indispensable. It was really about bringing to sports this political perspective of needing to know how the news was playing.
WE KNOW WHAT WE DON’T KNOW AND EARLY-DAY JITTERS
Bilafer: The stress of the early days was not being steeped in the industry, and the editorial staff that had no one who had been out there covering these issues.
Todd: Can you imagine if people in the industry knew how little experience the people that were putting together the product had? All we had were smart fans.
Madkour: We did know sports. The first edit staff understood the ownership groups when it came to team sports. And Steve and Chuck understood the media space well.
Abrutyn: But you guys knew all you had to do was make the product. And you knew you could make the product.
Bilafer: We had to make it in a way that it was going to be indispensable, which meant that there couldn’t be a day that someone picked it up and said, “There’s nothing in here. This is crap.”
Bilafer: One of the things about these publications is that you’re covering your subscribers. So there is a different relationship with the readership, in that there is a lot of instant feedback. We would hear from people. We would reach out into the industry, and so it was an organic thing in the beginning, and there was an advisory group still advising us. The key is we didn’t come in this figuring, “We’re going to tell you guys what’s important.” We’re going to listen to the readership and we’re going to change and adapt because we want to make this product indispensable. The readers are going to tell us what they need. What they don’t like, we took out.
Pollack: We came into this with no real prior experience in the sports industry. I’d never run a business before. I knew nothing about publishing and hadn’t really worked in the sports industry. But it was about taking an abstraction and bringing it to life, but doing it in an environment that had already successfully launched these publications that essentially did the same thing, which was cover the coverage.
Abrutyn: You treated the launch of the publication and the ensuing months as a campaign. You were at industry conferences and going and meeting with sports industry executives from day one. There was the real coming out party in January  at the annual Sports Summit with Craig Tartasky in New York.
It wasn’t like you waited a year before talking to people. You got out, got on the phones and on the street almost right after the launch of the product.
Todd: I remember every day fearing the struggle was selling subscriptions. I remember hearing the stories — every team, the first thing they said was, “We can’t pay you, but we have tickets.” I remember the hardest part was getting a team to write a check because that’s never how they thought they had to operate. For them, their currency was tickets.
NEWSGATHERING IN THE EARLY-MORNING RAIN
|SBD occupied three small rooms on the first floor behind the front porch of this old Victorian house in Falls Church, Va., when it launched in 1994.
|From 1996 to 1998, it occupied the top floor of an open loft space in South Norwalk, Conn.
Todd: We’d record “Nightly Business Report,” “Lou Dobbs Show,” “Moneyline,” because we wanted all the business shows that were on television at the time. We did “SportsCenter,” of course. We always had “Nightline” going. We did the late-night shows and we had “Entertainment Tonight.”
Bilafer: We would crash through the VCR to find if there was any sports business covered on TV. We would write until 10 a.m., while editing on the fly.
Abrutyn: By 11 or 11:15 there was the excitement around putting it to bed and getting it out. By 11:30 on most days, the writers were at lunch.
Bilafer: We wanted the readership to be conditioned to be waiting for it. The goal was, and this wasn’t going to happen immediately, but you wanted this in their hands so that they could talk about it at lunch. You didn’t want it to fall too late in the day when it wasn’t relevant. So you needed to get it out sometime before noon. That was critical.
|SBD relocated to Charlotte in October 1998, where it is currently based at 120 West Morehead Street, just on the edge of Uptown.
Todd: There were certain publications we needed to monitor. There was Boston Globe, Dallas Morning News, Miami Herald, and a few others that were pretty impressive.
Madkour: There were some people we absolutely needed to see and some where we increased their awareness. We needed Peter Gammons’ notes column every Sunday, along with Will McDonough out of the Globe. We’d actually call up people in the Boston area and beg them to fax us those columns on Sundays. We made a talented business reporter at the Portland Oregonian, Jeff Manning, a household name on the East Coast because he was so good at covering Nike. Some reporters started to fax us their stories once they began reading us. I remember Terry Lefton faxing us his stories from BrandWeek because he wanted to get the stories in The Daily. He would fax them Sunday night so we would have them for Monday.
CHALLENGES OF A STARTUP
Pollack: The challenges of owning The Daily were like any other small business. You’re just trying to do what you can and make it happen. David Abrutyn’s marketing effort was brilliant. Just give the publication away and it was all about the free trial and getting it into the hands of people and letting the content sell itself, and it worked.
Abrutyn: In 1994, it was hard to find out what was happening in other places around the country. So when baseball went out on strike, we provided the service for free to baseball teams because for their business executives it was their way of finding out what was happening every single day of the labor dispute. And we did that same thing with the NHL during the lockout.
Pollack: We didn’t advertise. There was no advertising budget. The marketing effort consisted of calling people, asking and convincing them to take a free trial, word of mouth, and going out to key sports industry events and networking and getting the word of mouth out that way. We never advertised The Daily.
Pollack: Our goal was to hit 1,500 subscribers by 1998.
Abrutyn: In August 1995, the publication was less than a year old. We had estimated the universe to be 8,600 potential organizations. We had 3,000 trials and we had 353 subscribers in less than a year, and that’s a 10 percent conversion rate. Here is the amazing statistic: The sales period was eight to 10 weeks. So you gave them a free two-week trial and then you would extend it eight to 10 weeks, having them consistently reading it, and then you got buyers. So the sales effort became an exercise of how many people’s hands can you get it into. And that’s when we went from just me calling to hiring two more people, because it was a numbers game.
Pollack: Once people bought, from the beginning, the renewal rate was 94 to 95 percent. The leagues signing up early was obviously very important. Paul Brooks will tell you when he was at NASCAR that he was one of the first subscribers. David Stern and the NBA believed in it from the beginning, and, in fact, we did the NBA Daily for them for years. The NBA, NHL, MLB, NFL … they all bought it very early.
Pollack: By February ’96, we had 575 subscribers. It took us that long to get to 575. In March of ’96, 35 percent took it by broadcast fax, 38 percent took it by email, 23 percent took it by bulletin board system, 4 percent actually got it by mail. And if you were a SportsTicker subscriber, you could elect to have it delivered as part of your SportsTicker subscription. And the fax transmission took eight to 10 minutes, on average, and it initiated about 11:45 a.m. ET every morning.
Abrutyn: Pretty quickly, the phrase, “Did you see The Daily today?” started to bounce its way around the industry. At a certain point, the phone did start to ring — “Hey, I was just with so and so and they said I need to get a free trial.” At a certain point when you’re out there enough and you’re visible enough and you’re getting it to people, its reputation starts to get established as a must-read.
FUN IN THE MORNING, FUN IN THE EVENING
Todd: We weren’t always sober when the day began, and that felt like a fairly regular occasion. You certainly had your five or six hours of sleep, but it’s one of those if you had gotten pulled over that morning, you might have been in trouble.
Pollack: How many times did you roll in without having gone to sleep the night before?
Todd: Not often. It would only be Friday mornings, because it would be letting off some of that Thursday night pressure.
Madkour: Steve had a great line on Thursday after we published. “Don’t pull anything.” You never wanted to pull anything on Thursday afternoon, just get to Friday.
Todd: It was always just about getting to Friday. And, boy, that’s when we didn’t walk — writers ran — for the exit.
Madkour: You would have been up at 4 a.m., and you were exhausted by the end of the week. I remember going home on Friday afternoon and I would sleep from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. because you wanted to rest before going out. I’d wake up from this “nap” and be so disoriented, thinking it was Monday morning again, saying, “What the hell? What day is it?” I’d be so knocked out. That’s what that job did to you.
Bilafer: I woke up in my room one time and the clock said 6:30, and I panicked and called the office. I was supposed to be in at 5. I call up and [the office HR manager] Pat Miller is there and she answers. “Oh, my God, Pat, I’m so sorry. Tell everyone I’ll be right in. I’m leaving now,”I said. Then I paused, and asked, “Pat, what are you doing there at 6:30 in the morning?” She said, “Steve, it’s 6:30 at night.”
Madkour: We’d eat at the weirdest times. Every writer put on 10 pounds immediately. It was the “SBD 10.” Fast food at 6 a.m. would do that. There were stresses, too. One morning, Steve came in and asked where all the clips were regarding a certain story. None of us had clipped that story from the papers, and we had thrown all the discarded papers into our recycle bucket. Steve just walked over to the bucket, picked it up and dumped them all on the ground and said, “Clip them again.” We clipped them again.
Bilafer : (laughing) It took years of therapy and medication to get my temper down.
WHO ARE YOU, I REALLY WANT TO KNOW
Pollack: The thought was that sports didn’t have a way to talk to itself and didn’t have much of an identity as an industry. So from my communications consulting background, the thought was that there was this void in the communication infrastructure in the sports industry because there was no forum to exchange news and information and that was what we were really looking to fill.
Abrutyn: The Daily really helped give the industry an identity. Look at some of the things you did on the editorial side. From making a guy like Jeff Manning in Portland a name that people in the business needed to know, to the executives you’ve recognized over the years from Executive of the Year, to SBJ starting the Forty Under 40, which evolved to include Champions, which evolved to include Women Game Changers. The publication, over time, has done what industry publications should do. It covers the industry critically, which you do today, but it also recognizes and rewards people who are contributing meaningfully to the business that you are covering day in and day out. And none of that existed until The Daily came about. It just wasn’t there.
Todd: I left The Daily because I chased a woman to Colorado.
Pollack: I remember you coming in and telling me you were doing that.
Bilafer: One of the things about that type of life and running it like a campaign is that you start to get tired. Campaigns end and this campaign didn’t end. By ’96, we were actually running pretty hot.
Todd: But we were starting to run on fumes. Steve, you were running on fumes.
Bilafer: I had been doing it at that pace for six years. I was thinking about leaving. I had applied to law school and had gotten into a couple law schools in Boston but my heart wasn’t in that. The regret, as I sit around this table, is that this team, we weren’t able, because of external business forces, to be able to push forward together.
Todd: I would have loved to see what would have happened if we had stuck around for two or three or four more years.
Bilafer: You’re in your 20s and you’re trying to figure out your career and making all sorts of crazy decisions on the fly and family and everything else. I feel very proud of my time there.
I wish I had a longer term, but that was my decision. One thing I noticed while I was working in “the industry” was when we went to events, and we would be at a game, everyone had their back to the game and were talking business. And I wanted to watch the game. And that’s when I realized maybe I wasn’t cut out for this business.
Todd: But this job at The Daily is the coolest thing on my résumé now. I can’t tell you how many times it serves as a conversation starter. “You did this?” And people automatically think, “Oh, you’re not as weird as I thought you might be.”
Pollack: I decided to leave around March 1998. InterZine sold itself to Times Mirror and I just felt it was time to go. The campaign was over and the mission was accomplished. David Stern encouraged me to come spend some time with him, Russ [Granik] and Adam [Silver] at the NBA and put to use my political consulting skills and some of the lessons I had learned at The Daily. I wanted to experience the sports industry from a different vantage point and working at the NBA seemed like a unique opportunity to start to do so.
‘THERE WAS THIS MOOD, AND IT WAS FUN’
Pollack: The relationship changed with American Political Network when it decided to sell itself to National Journal in March of ’96. That’s when we started looking for a new home, a new partner. National Journal didn’t have any interest in being in the sports industry. So we ended up selling to InterZine later that year, and they were one of the first companies to come out of the AOL Greenhouse project. They were ahead of their time, as well, producing websites about specific sports — iBike, iSki, iGolf. It was a very forward-thinking company. So we aligned with them and moved to South Norwalk, Conn., in late 1996. But not too long after that, we found out that InterZine needed to do a transaction and ended up selling to Times Mirror and they ended up selling it to American City [Business Journals, parent company of SportsBusiness Daily].
Pollack: From September of ’94 going forward, I’d say we did a pretty good job day-to-day starting to convince the industry — letting the industry convince itself — that they really needed something like this.
Abrutyn: It’s a legacy. I tell people all the time who ask me when they’re looking for jobs and they’re trying to work in sports, you want to point to something that you can be a part of. And for a small group of people who were involved at the outset or creation of something like The Daily, that’s special. You read the overview of what this was supposed to be and it’s as true today as it was 20 years ago.
Bilafer: How many times do you have an opportunity to have a great idea and then be able and get the people around you who work together to bring it to fruition and have it work? This was a great idea and we were able to pull it off. There is this great line at the end of the movie “Say Anything” where John Cusack and Ione Skye are sitting in a plane and about to take off and she says, “You know, no one thinks this is going to work.” And he says, “Well, you just described every great success story.’”The more Jeffrey said, “Everyone’s telling us it’s not going to work,” the more we were determined to get it to them because we knew it was going to work.
Pollack: It was an incredibly remarkable time. And it was a perfect storm. Everyone was really young. There was no one over the age of 30 when we launched The Daily. There was this incredible campaign mentality. There was this sort of no fail attitude, which frankly might have been more out of youthful naivete than anything else. There was a lot of skepticism in the industry, which made the challenge even more compelling, and it was just a remarkable group of people.
Pollack: There was this mood, and it was fun. There was an incredible sense of possibility. Everyone was motivated for all the right reasons to do what they did. And there was just a great group of people to be with every day. I am honored and glad that I was a part of the effort, and I believe we made a modest contribution to an important industry. I wouldn’t have done anything differently and I am just proud to have worked with these folks.