SportsBusiness Journal starters
Veteran newsman John Genzale was publisher of the Jacksonville (Fla.) Business Journal, a weekly newspaper owned by American City Business Journals, when the company’s chairman, Ray Shaw, called and asked him to fly to company headquarters in Charlotte the next day. “Whitney has an idea he wants to talk to you about,” said Shaw, referring to company president and now CEO Whitney Shaw. Here’s the rest of the story:
Gathering the team: The biggest challenge was finding the people who could write at a higher level about business. But also people who were journalists at heart, who could learn something right away. I’ve always thought that the best reporters were those who knew very little about their beat at the start, but who wanted to go in and learn.
Key to survival: It had to be credible beyond any publication I’ve ever worked on. I worked for a lot of daily papers, and their life and death was their credibility. The reason I felt like we had to be more credible was that we were in a business that we didn’t know, and we were a new publication, and if we looked amateurish, if we looked less than credible from day one, we couldn’t have survived.
Because we say so: At one meeting, we had the whole editorial staff in one room, and I had said something like, ‘You guys are the experts in the field.’ And they asked me why they were the experts, and I said, ‘Solely because SportsBusiness Journal says you are.’ [Senior Writer] Bill King was the only one who had the guts to come up to me afterwards and say something like, ‘Enough of the bullshit. You can proclaim that I’m an expert, but I’m covering baseball, and I’m no expert on the business side.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but here’s the thing: I don’t think anyone else is covering it, and you’re going to do it eight hours a day for the foreseeable future. So how long do you think it’s going to take you to really know your beat? Within three months, you will be the expert, and I’m saying you are today.’
First hints of success: In January of 1998, a few months before we launched, Publisher Richard Weiss and I showed up at Sports Summit in New York with a 16-page prototype. Richard got a suite so that we could invite people in and show them the idea and announce that we’re doing this. I remember a Canadian national news company wanted to do an interview with me. Naturally, I said OK, because we were trying to promote our launch. But the interview wasn’t about that. They regarded me as an authority on sports business. This was four months before our first publication, and I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ I thought it was going to be an interview on how the idea was great, what was the market like, what’s our potential for the magazine. Right about that time, the NFL was doing a new television contract that doubled the revenue for every team, and The Wall Street Journal wanted to interview me on that. Months before we put out our first publication, people were already talking to us like we were a credible source in the sports industry.
Biggest reason for success: The most important thing was getting the right team into place. The people we got, it was part luck, part serendipity. It was more luck than any skill. We just put together people who were committed and made the publication what it was just on their sweat and intelligence and guts and willingness to try something new. If there’s anything I want to emphasize, it’s my honor and my pride in working with that group of people.
Biggest regret: I always wished that it was my idea.
Genzale lives in Como, Italy. He is a professor at the American University of Rome, is on the faculty at Columbia University in New York and is a professor in the FIFA Master program (Milan).
Ernie Torres was the copy chief when SportsBusiness Journal was founded in 1998. He was a well-traveled newsman at the time, having worked in Philadelphia, Washington, Atlanta and Los Angeles. It was in Philadelphia that he worked with SportsBusiness Journal founding editor John Genzale, and where John decided he would look for the opportunity to work with Ernie again some time. That time came when John started assembling the editorial team for SportsBusiness Journal.
I was relaxing at home one winter evening when John called and said that Ernie was in the hospital. He had had a heart attack. Weeks later, he died. He did not live to see the first anniversary of SBJ, let alone the 15th, but one hopes that his commitment to quality journalism and to clear communication are still present.
— Dewey Knudson was a copy editor for SportsBusiness Journal from its launch in 1998 to 2005. He is now a copy editor for The Virginian-Pilot in Portsmouth, Va.
CURRENT JOB: Assistant Managing Editor
CURRENT RESIDENCE: Charlotte
AGE WHEN JOINED SBJ: 31
WHY I JOINED SBJ: I’d always had a fascination about the merger of sports and business going back to college when the University of Kansas journalism school library received copies of the biweekly Sports Inc. magazine, the first effort to cover our industry. That magazine died around 1989 after only about a year and a half, but I always kept that in the back of my mind as something I’d like to cover if a similar publication ever popped up. Then, in the fall of 1997 while I was working for an ACBJ-owned publication called Winston Cup Scene, Whitney Shaw, who is now CEO of the company, pulled me aside and said, “We’ve got something cooking that I think you might be interested in.” He was right.
FIRST JOB AT SBJ: Special Reports Editor
HOW LONG AT SBJ: 16 years
STORY THAT STANDS OUT: There are so many … the first time we attacked diversity in the industry, the first time we looked at gambling, the two centuries of sports business timeline that we did in 1999. The Beijing Olympics, the rise and fall of Boots del Biaggio, the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing. These are just a few of the many that stand out.
FONDEST MEMORY: Putting together the original staff and getting everything off the ground was so much fun. We didn’t really know what we were doing, but everyone had gone all-in and we knew we were creating something special throughout that first year in 1998. We weren’t certain how many people were seeing it, but we knew we were doing good work.
THERE WERE DAYS WHEN I WASN’T SURE SBJ WAS GOING TO BE VIABLE BECAUSE … : I remember an early phone call with my dad, who devours dozens of newspapers and magazines every week, when he said, “There sure aren’t many ads in this thing.” It’s not like we didn’t know that, but we were so focused on producing a solid product and learning a complex industry that it was easy not to look up and get scared about the actual business prospects of the publication.
I KNEW SBJ WAS GOING TO BE VIABLE AND HAVE AN IMPACT ON THE INDUSTRY WHEN … : The first Forty Under 40 dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria in November 2000. Seeing the great Mark McCormack — who, to be honest, hadn’t really given SBJ the time of day when we launched — working the room and very obviously finding value in the level of executive the magazine could attract, that was a real turning point for me. That was kind of our coming-out party.
OPEN MIC MEMORIES AND RANDOM THOUGHTS ON THE MAGAZINE: The weekend after our debut issue went to press, downtown Charlotte had a music festival that was literally right outside our office. That became sort of home base for our launch party, or partying. At one point, about half of our Charlotte-based staff, publisher and all, was in a parking deck taking swigs off a bottle of champagne as it got passed around. I remember thinking, boy, if a police officer were to walk by now, we’d have a hard time getting out issue No. 2. Needless to say, in the early days, we went at things hard, both in terms of work and play.
Past that, the best parts have been so many of the people and so many of the firsts. We’ve developed our own little niche here, and it’s truly been special to be a part of that.
CURRENT JOB: Senior Writer
CURRENT RESIDENCE: Charlotte
AGE WHEN JOINED SBJ: 33
WHY I JOINED SBJ: The rare opportunity to cover the business side of baseball from a national platform, and to be part of a startup.
HOW LONG AT SBJ:15 years
STORY THAT STANDS OUT: Too hard to pick one. I’ve gotten to tell the stories of Marvin Miller, Lamar Hunt, Steve Sabol, Bob DuPuy, Ron Labinski, Mark Cuban, Jerry Reinsdorf and Ron Shapiro, among others. I not only learned about them, I learned from them.
FONDEST MEMORY: My wife had our first issue framed and gave it to me on my birthday that year. I’ll always treasure it.
THERE WERE DAYS WHEN I WASN’T SURE SBJ WAS GOING TO BE VIABLE BECAUSE … : Most startups fail — even the good ones.
I KNEW SBJ WAS GOING TO BE VIABLE AND HAVE AN IMPACT ON THE INDUSTRY WHEN … : People went from asking what SBJ was to saying they’d been subscribers for years. And we’d only been around a few months.
OPEN MIC MEMORIES AND RANDOM THOUGHTS ON THE MAGAZINE: I’ll always cherish the firsts. I remember the first news meeting. And clinking glasses with Managing Editor Phil Harper, who hired me, after putting the first issue to bed. I remember disagreeing with our founding editor, John Genzale, on so many things, and yet always going home knowing that he had my back. I remember the excitement of the unknown, and how it brought us all together. I like that so many of us have been together for so long.
CURRENT JOB: Assistant Managing Editor
CURRENT RESIDENCE: Matthews, N.C.
AGE WHEN JOINED SBJ: 25
WHY I JOINED SBJ: It was a chance to combine my interests in sports and in business journalism.
HOW LONG AT SBJ: Since day one; 15+ years.
I KNEW SBJ WAS GOING TO BE VIABLE WHEN …: TBD. It’s flattering, humbling and always appreciated to hear others talk positively about our role and what we offer. But internally, those ideas of viability and impact — they’re hard to consider, because the work continues. The goals since day one have been to tell good stories, lend some perspective, and be out front. The industry has gotten bigger and media has become more diverse, so the challenges have become greater, but those goals are the same. Do those things, and the rest will take care of itself.
OPEN MIC MEMORIES: There are 11 people at SBJ now who were also listed in the staff box for Issue No. 1 back in 1998. That says something for the product and for the company, to have that many colleagues still here. … Seeing kids grow up and families develop for staff over the years is as telling as anything about the journey we’ve all had. … Nothing ages you, and brings perspective, like interviewing interns and realizing that when we were starting SBJ, that person now being interviewed was just 7 or 8 years old.
What the hell was I thinking?
I had been trying to leave my job covering Los Angeles for a San Diego-based daily for years, and all of a sudden I had three offers. The Los Angeles Times wanted me as a copy editor for its news service, the Long Beach Press Telegram needed a night city editor, and Sports Business Journal, or SportsBusiness Journal — I don’t think they knew which yet — offered work as a West Coast correspondent.
Saying no to Long Beach was easy, even though I lived there. I didn’t want to work at night. But was I really going to turn down the Los Angeles Times, then the largest U.S. daily, for a startup covering something I knew as a pastime, not an industry? I remember thinking about jobs I had refused before — researcher for the muckraker Jack Anderson, New York City high school social studies teacher, spokesman for the U.S. Nordic ski team — and wondered whether blowing off the LAT would be another of those paths not taken that I would regret.
I was torn. When John Genzale, SBJ’s first editor, interviewed me, I told him that he should consider another candidate, a close friend who I told him was every bit the reporter I was. Genzale was puzzled. Did I really want this gig?
In the end, I did. When I told Mike Kaeser, the man who offered me the job at the Times, that I wouldn’t be accepting, he said, “Well, if the tide ever goes out on that one, let me know.”
Fifteen years later, it’s the Times that has the less clear path to survival. Its news service died in 2009. Me, I lasted five years at SBJ, which is still going strong.
No regrets here.
CURRENT JOB: SBJ NFL/Finance Reporter
CURRENT RESIDENCE: New York City
AGE WHEN JOINED SBJ: 29
WHY I JOINED SBJ: Love of sports and journalism
HOW LONG AT SBJ: 15 years, since day one
STORY THAT STANDS OUT: Fraudulent buyer of Minnesota Vikings
FONDEST MEMORY: Covering the insane buildup to the NFL lockout, and the lockout itself
THERE WERE DAYS WHEN I WASN’T SURE SBJ WAS GOING TO BE VIABLE BECAUSE … : Whether SBJ would survive was a subject of frequent discussion in those early years among reporters and editors, often leading to gallows humor. We often did not get attention, like we weren’t there. Case in point: I broke the story in 2000 on Venus Williams inking a historic $40 million deal with Reebok, far and away the most at that point for a female athlete. It was a story that transcended sports and got into society and culture. We splashed it across the front page. No one followed our story. Two weeks later it was announced and then it was everywhere, even the nightly news. I recall getting an email from Brad Ruskin of Proskauer Rose telling me we needed better PR, which might have been true. But the incident was also reflective of the uncertainty we all had as to whether there was a market for us.
I KNEW SBJ WAS GOING TO BE VIABLE AND HAVE AN IMPACT ON THE INDUSTRY WHEN … : More people started returning my calls a few years in.
OPEN MIC MEMORIES: Few gave us a chance to survive. I remember a story that Mark McCormack told us we should be honored to take IMG advertising, obviously at no cost to IMG. We declined, of course. One of the first meetings I took was with Randy Vataha and Bob Caporale of Game Plan. Something that was said in that meeting always has stood out, that sports is the only business with its own section in the newspaper. Very true. While many do not read newspapers, they read sports websites.
CURRENT JOB: SBJ Staff Writer
CURRENT RESIDENCE: Winnetka, Ill.
AGE WHEN JOINED SBJ: 36
WHY I JOINED SBJ: It was a chance to combine my career interests in journalism and sports business to create a new product. It also didn’t hurt that SBJ was moving me back to Chicago, my hometown.
HOW LONG AT SBJ: From day one, 15 years.
FONDEST MEMORY: Seeing my byline in the first issue.
I KNEW SBJ WAS GOING TO BE VIABLE WHEN … : NBA Commissioner David Stern returned my calls.
CURRENT JOB: Executive Director, HeadCount.org
CURRENT RESIDENCE: New York City
AGE WHEN JOINED SBJ: 27
WHY I JOINED SBJ: It was an incredible opportunity to get in on the ground floor and write about the most interesting topic in the world.
JOB AT SBJ: Marketing Editor/Media Editor
HOW LONG AT SBJ: 8 years
LEFT SBJ TO: Become vice president of the U.S. market for Kangaroo.TV.
FONDEST MEMORY: Launching the World Congress of Sports; covering the Olympics in Salt Lake City.
FAVORITE STORY: In the first couple years, SBJ had legendary boxing writer and TV personality Bert Sugar as a columnist, and he joined us at a couple of our staff meetings in Charlotte. Bert was always in character. A curmudgeon who was shameless and hysterical. We all went to a bar and Bert picked up a gaggle of young women and started introducing them to the male reporters. We had a dinner at [founding editor John] Genzale’s house and Bert led up a game of poker — muttering about his cards, telling stories about sharing a backyard in Westchester with the Clintons and their secret service — and then beat us all. It was sad to hear that Bert passed away last year. Getting to know him just a little was a real treat.
THERE WERE DAYS WHEN I WASN’T SURE SBJ WAS GOING TO BE VIABLE BECAUSE … : We had almost no advertising in the beginning, and everyone thought the SportsBusiness Daily already served the industry sufficiently. Of course, our company ended up acquiring The Daily, and SBJ got a lot more advertising.
I KNEW SBJ WAS GOING TO BE VIABLE AND HAVE AN IMPACT ON THE INDUSTRY WHEN … : Forty Under 40 and getting into the conference business made us more than a magazine and solidified the role we had in the industry. I remember that first Forty Under 40 at the Waldorf Astoria in New York — and how good the production was — and I realized this was going to be around for a long time.
OPEN MIC MEMORIES AND RANDOM THOUGHTS ON THE MAGAZINE: It’s amazing how the team has stayed together. I feel really lucky to have been a part of it, and very grateful to everyone I worked with and for. You guys let me be me. Sometimes I can’t believe the latitude you gave me. I think that everyone on the staff was encouraged to find their niche and build from that. [SBJ’s executive editors, first John Genzale and then Abe Madkour], are very different but they had some fundamental things in common — they believed in their staff and cared about us personally as well as professionally. Everyone on the team shared those values.
FIRST JOB AT SBJ: National Editor
CURRENT JOB AT SBJ: Managing Editor
YEARS AT SBJ: 15
Joining the startup team for SportsBusiness Journal in early 1998 felt a little like coming full circle in my journalism career.
The first newspaper stories that I got paid for were reports on high school football games in Hemphill, Texas, in the early ’80s. (That I might have a conflict of interest because I was also playing in those games never occurred to me. Besides, I unfortunately rarely had a need to mention myself in the stories.)
But after high school I drifted away from covering sports. Instead, it was schools, city council meetings, cops and courts, and, eventually, business. When I hesitated at taking the plunge full time into business coverage, an editor argued to me that covering business was just like covering sports. There are winners and losers, heroes and jerks, grand plans and agonizing defeats. In other words, terrific stories to tell.
It was all true, and after a while I grew comfortable with the notion that business journalism would be my long-term home. Then along came SportsBusiness Journal. Not only was it a rare chance to help create a publication from scratch, but it offered the chance to combine the world of sports, which brought me into journalism in the first place, with the fun and challenge of covering business.
The road from then to now has had its share of bumps and curves. We’ve gone from looking for ways to survive as a unknown startup to looking for ways to continue to grow as a maturing publication. We’ve seen dramatic changes in the industry we cover (sports) and the industry that we’re a part of (publishing).
Along the way, we’ve become an important part of the sports business world and built an impressive body of work.
In the world of journalism, what more could anyone ask?