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Volume 21 No. 43
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The vision of SBJ

Whitney Shaw

President, CEO,
American City Business Journals

SportsBusiness Journal began as an idea casually presented over a bottle of wine on a family vacation as Whitney Shaw pitched the concept to his father, Ray, the former owner and chairman of American City Business Journals. Whitney Shaw spoke about the opportunity he and his late father saw in the marketplace and why they thought SBJ could succeed where others failed.

On seeing an opening in the marketplace for SportsBusiness Journal:

“I’d like to say that we knew we were going to be successful, but I don’t think we knew what was going to happen. You could see the success for years that Ad Age, Adweek and all of the trade publications were having. There wasn’t anything for sports business other than Sports Business Daily. The Daily preceded the Journal by four years. Twenty years ago, sports business was really a different thing.”

“There were two things within our company that made us think that there was an opportunity. One, at the time, we had probably 25 business journals. We have 40 today. But of those 25, I think virtually every one had somebody on their staff who was covering the business of sports because for us, it was a local story. We had a footprint that stretched from Boston to San Francisco, Miami to Seattle, of people who were already covering the business of sports. We also owned NASCAR Scene, which was the weekly newspaper for fans of NASCAR, but also people within the sport. If you were in the garage area at a track, you could hear and see the interest that team owners were having on the business side of sports.”

“I was in Duck, N.C., with my family on vacation. My dad and I ended up like we usually did sitting on the deck of the beach house in the late afternoon or early evening, and I said to him, ‘We really should start a business journal for sports. We got guys in the field who already work for us who are covering it. We can add a few more and we could really turn this into something.’ We talked about it a little bit. I specifically remember my dad saying, ‘Let’s talk about it tomorrow and if it still seems like a good idea, we’ll do it.’ The next day we got up, I don’t even think we made it through breakfast before we had decided to do it.”

On how quickly SportsBusiness Journal started following that conversation:

“One of the things my dad always said was one of the great things about running ACBJ was that he could make a decision to do something while he was shaving in the morning, and have the wheels turning by that afternoon. The time it took from saying, ‘Let’s do this,’ to actually rolling it out was a matter of months.”

On whether previous publications folding scared him off from doing SportsBusiness Journal:

“We were alert to it, but I don’t know that it really scared us, per se. We thought that what was going to be different for us was that we had a good bit of the infrastructure in place. We were really comfortable being a weekly. Some of the early discussions were if we should print on newsprint or use magazine type paper. The thought if we were going to charge a premium price, it needed to be more glossy. I remember the discussions about what we should charge for a subscription. At the same time we were getting ready to launch SBJ, we were selling the company to the Newhouse family. I remember S.I. Newhouse saying, ‘I think there will be an appetite for sports business news among both people who work in sports, but also passionate fans. You need to keep the price low.’ Our argument was that we need to keep the price high, so the audience is primarily those who work in sports because it would make it easier to sell advertising if we had a pure audience. It took us two or three years, maybe even a little bit longer, training the leagues and teams and sponsors about advertising to their customers because they never had a place to advertise. I think we underestimated the education process and also the length of time that it would take.”

On being patient:

“Whenever you start something, you end up spending multiples of what you thought you were going to spend and it takes longer. We believed in the idea. We had good, hard-working folks who were leading the charge. When it’s taking a while to get something to turn the corner, I think you’re willing to keep investing if you believe in the people who are doing it. I do remember some really tough conversations about how we had to get it going, but I don’t know that there was a do-or-die date. In some respects, the industry, if you will, had to catch up a little bit. The dollars just became bigger in the business and more and more teams, leagues and agencies realized that they had to spend on marketing.”

On what someone who is starting a new business needs to succeed:

“Passion. We were really passionate about the SportsBusiness Journal. There were a lot of off-hour conversations about how to make it successful. The other part, frankly, is whenever you start a business, you have to accept the fact that you may fail. I’m going to give it my all and if I fail, I’m going to learn something from it. You can’t be obsessed with, ‘Oh my God, this thing can fail.’ It’s important that you go into it from the standpoint that I’m going to do everything I can to make this work. If it doesn’t make it, hopefully I’m not broke, hopefully I can find a job, and I will have learned.”

On where he and his dad thought SportsBusiness Journal would be in 20 years:

“We would always measure it as, ‘Is it a good product?’ Is it a product that is serving the industry? Is it respected? I don’t know that we ever said, ‘Gosh, I hope it’s a $20 million-a-year property that makes $5 million a year.’ I don’t know that we ever looked at it like that. I think it was much more can we become a must-read for people in the business. Without overstating it, I think it has certainly taken a place as a very respected part of the sports business world.”