At its core, hyper-local journalism is what BSN Denver has been built around since its founding in 2015, according to Chief Executive Officer Brandon Spano. It’s what the company founder is placing his bets on as the traditional sports media world — both around monetization and distribution — is continuously being flipped on its head.
“We’re really creating sports coverage on steroids,” Spano told Sports Business Chronicle last week following the transition to a hybrid subscription-based model, which still includes some corporate advertising across video and podcast along with geo-targeted Facebook sponsorship initiatives.
BSN Denver is currently one of three independent local sports media outlets now operating around a subscription model. The others include DK Pittsburgh Sports and Boston Sports Journal.
Spano — who previously owned commercial inventory on eight different platforms, which included radio, linear, podcast and digital in the Denver market — explained that prior to the site’s launch, he had envisioned creating a sports media network. The “sports media solopreneur,” as he called himself over the past decade, further added that between 2012 and 2014, sports blogs had taken off on the Internet. That was especially the case for team-specific sites that had developed a community of die-hard fans.
Added Spano: “I saw this, and said, ‘Man, the next major sports network is one that’s like this, but it’ll be run by real journalists who cover the team every single day’. So, we started putting together the skeleton for BSN.”
At the time, he owned BSN Live, LLC for his business and commercial ventures and decided to roll ‘Brandon Spano Network’ into the fold. Little did he know that BSN Denver would take off. In 2015, Spano pumped $60,000 of his own money into BSN Denver and hired one writer for each local beat, with there currently being two for every team and nearly a dozen full-time staffers.
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“Digital franchises” for the major sports teams, BSN Avalanche, BSN Nuggets, BSN Rockies and BSN Broncos, started to take root as well. That included individual Twitter and Facebook accounts, team-specific writers, daily content across different formats and a dedicated daily podcast for all four teams.
Last year, the thought of moving from solely an ad-based model to more of a hybrid between subscription and advertisements had entered the conversation. It was time to move to a cleaner, friendly environment for everyone: reader, advertiser and publisher.
When Spano’s colleague and Avalanche beat writer Adrian Dater heard of the business model transition, he reached out to the founder of DK Pittsburgh Sports Dejan Kovacevic, who he had a prior relationship. DK Pittsburgh Sports was the first independent sports outlet in the U.S. built around a subscription model, and according to Spano, Kovacevic and his staff “really got the environment right” for the platform they had developed.
Eventually, Spano and Kovacevic settled on an undisclosed licensing fee for the technology platform behind Kovacevic’s website and app, wth the latter being further tweaked by Spano’s technologist to cater toward BSN Denver’s “podcast heavy” nature and include a specific audio channel.
“Podcast is one of our major instruments,” said Spano, who added that his sales staff has nearly sold out this year’s podcast inventory, which contains four commercial spots per daily show ($80 – $120 per). “We really want to disrupt sports talk radio. We feel like giving somebody a podcast about their favorite team every day that’s hosted by a journalist who travels and covers the team, we think that that’s a really powerful element.
‘That’s something that if you’re a sports talk listener, and you’re stuck listening to hour number two of the provocateurs talking about the quarterback battle, and you want to hear something about some basketball or something like that, then there’s a podcast for you in your local city. That’s the way we’re looking at it.”
While there was the obvious risk of losing advertising dollars with eliminating website monetization, Spano said that since the launch of the ad-free site on Dec. 22, BSN hasn’t lost any ad revenue. As Spano described, his sales staff reallocated clients’ spend toward video, Facebook advertising and the BSN podcast network, which receives roughly 150,000 downloads per month.
Spano’s goal for the first 30 days was to convert 3,000 subscribers, and he said “we’re ahead of schedule,” though he we wouldn’t disclose the specific number to Sports Business Chronicle (BSN Denver charges $5 per month or $35 for a year, among other pricing options).
So, how does BSN differentiate itself from other local coverage and potential competitors, like the venture-backed sports media enterprise The Athletic? Spano said it’s the content consistency, that “sports coverage on steroids,” which has struck a cord with the local Denver sports fan.
“The most important thing here is the digital infrastructure. It’s the fact that we built those team networks and team communities,” Spano said of BSN’s success to date.
In addition, he highlighted that with BSN Denver in 2018, readers can consistently expect certain articles. After every game, there will now be a game story, quote piece and a Game Grades report grading every player. A weekly Film Room feature for each team is also on the table. Locker room audio, video content, breaking news, practice notes, injury updates and the aforementioned daily podcasts round out the coverage.
When asked how he views The Athletic, which is now in cities like Chicago, Toronto, Philadelphia, Detroit and Cleveland, Spano did say he was initially “threatened by The Athletic.” According to him, he thought the company was going to provide “hyper-local journalism,” similar to what BSN Denver is currently offering readers.
Said Spano: “The Athletic I think is good. I don’t have a problem with them. But The Athletic is a good supplement to the sports media industry. They’re a premium service. They have a great product, and they have fantastic writers. Let’s just say in Chicago, if you’re a Chicago sports fan, you don’t only need The Athletic Chicago. It’s a lot of really talented writers, and they’re doing some feature pieces, a podcast every now and then, they’re doing a lot of cool stuff. But, it’s not like you know that every single day after practice, there’s going to be a practice report, an injury report. There’s going to be the quotes from the coaches and whoever is talking that day. And it’s like, all you need is that.”
Spano continued: “We get people who email us and say, ‘All I need is BSN. It’s the first place I go. As long as I read this, I know I’m in the loop’. That was what we wanted. We wanted to say, ‘We can beat talk radio. We can beat newspaper. We can beat TV’. That’s what we wanted inside of Denver. The Athletic can’t say that. That’s fine. That’s not a knock on them. I guess what it comes back to is they’re a great supplement. We are trying to create the next major sports network. We think we have a model that can really do that. We think that we can co-exist inside of a market with The Athletic.”
Spano explained that since 2015, he’s only had to inject another $20,000 of his own money into BSN Denver “because we’ve really been kind of profitable.” The company has been 100 percent bootstrapped to date besides a recent small friends and family round. However, in the next six months, Spano plans to raise an angel investment round. He also alluded to launching BSN in another major sports market in March or April but declined to specify where.
Below are a few more thoughts from Sports Business Chronicle’s interview with Spano.
On whether or not Spano could see more of these independent sports media outlets — which have some type of subscription model — popping up around the country…
I think that there could be a couple more. It’s tough to run. Not everyone will have the knack. You have to be able to run a business. There’s some scary elements to it as well. If you’re starting this, you probably have a name in your market. You’ve found some success in journalism, in business, TV, radio, whatever it is. You’re giving that up. The one thing that I know is that — and this what we’ve seen from Greg Bedard in Boston, it’s what we’re seeing from DK in Pittsburgh and definitely seeing with us — is if you’re in this, you’re in. This is all you do.
If you’re doing some other stuff, like you’re doing interviews and you’re still ‘that guy from that site who has a guest spot’ I think that that’s tough for a lot of media guys. They’re used to throwing themselves around and doing as much as possible. There’s a lot of guys out there who try to do these things, and they still want to do that TV show that they got offered for three times a week. They still want to do this and that. It never ends up getting off the ground. You’re building something, you’re interacting, you’re addressing problems, hiring and firing, replacing. It’s everything. … It’s a business. If you’re willing to run a business, that’s where I see the biggest issues. So, yes, I could see more popping up. But I don’t think it’s as easy as people think that it’s going to be.
On the learnings of being not only a sports media professional/reporter but also, an entrepreneur running a media company in this ever-evolving digital age…
The number one most important thing in this business and every business, by far, is the people that you hire. This goes back to what we were saying when it’s still just a business. Just because you’re a great newspaper writer and then want to start a website, you got to be able to identify talent, especially if you’re the one doing the hiring. There’s sales, production, different facets of marketing. So, I’d say the people are so important and especially when you’re talking about building media. In this day and age, you’re building it through social media. These people have to be great at conveying a message and building a community online. The other side of it is that the biggest misconception in sports media is that you have to hire big named writers or even big names on radio. Big names help immediately. They’re a quick fix. Boom, big name, bring on subscribers. But, you don’t have to.
Because the threshold to break into sports media is so thick, there are thousands of extremely young, talented, creative, bright minds that are out there. Some of these kids are double majors in journalism and communications from major universities. They can’t get a job. Sometimes getting one of those kids over the guy who wrote for the newspaper for the last 18 years, is going to help you more in the long term. That kid is going to speak to the young readers and listeners. That guy or woman is going to have a better relationship with the players in the locker room because he or she is their same age. They understand digital. They understand what it’s like to do a podcast every day. They understand how Snapchat works. They understand why they have to be on Twitter. They get IG. They get it. To me, that’s one angle we’re going. … It’s OK to hire the unproven talent if you understand and know what you’re looking for and you believe in them.”