Todd Dybas had been arguing for years that free wasn’t a viable business model in sports media.
“It’s not a business model for anything,” Dybas said to Sports Business Chronicle a week ago. “We keep seeing that prove itself out over and over again. It was great to see people take a step forward, realize that and think that their work was worthy of being paid for.”
Last Monday, he and his two co-founders — Ben Standig and Brian McNally — placed their bets on high-quality local “community journalism,” launching D.C.’s first hyper-local sports subscription site dubbed The Sports Capitol. Other local sites like DK Pittsburgh Sports, BSN Denver and Boston Sports Journal have paved the way for future independent sites around the U.S.
When asked specifically about venture-backed The Athletic, which announced a new $20 million round on Monday and further plans for rapid domestic expansion, Dybas explained that the two key differences between the media startups is in the “pursuit of the market share” and how they’re exactly going about it.
“They, it appears, want to be the No. 1 voice in a market,” said Dybas, who is The Sports Capitol’s Managing Editor. “It’s as much a marketing play as a journalism play. I would say we’re more community journalism. Local guys, doing local work, for a local audience.
“We’re both subscriber sports journalism. But, I would argue we are significantly different. That’s not to disparage them in any way. They have hired a lot of friends. Anyone who provides good-paying jobs in this industry, especially at this point, should be commended for doing so.”
Added McNally: “We saw a niche that could be filled now. If those guys come in, it’s more competition. It’s the way it is. … If D.C. is a place they want to come into, then you deal with it then. But for now, it just seemed wide open for a site like this.”
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Dybas added that integrating The Sports Capitol into the D.C. community will be part of the company’s DNA. For example, a featured local non-profit will be included in the daily email blast.
As we continued our conversation, the trio further illustrated the ‘why’ on bootstrapping a subscription-based site beyond the community commitment. In addition to Dybas’ belief against free coverage, the idea had been percolating with Standig for quite some time. The D.C. native highlighted how he thought the The Washington Post sports section in particular had ventured outside the local coverage he had grown accustomed to over the years. There was arguably more emphasis on national sports content and SEC college football versus the local professional sports teams, according to Standig. Furthermore, newspapers cutting costs on talent and hiring inexperienced reporters for less that perhaps didn’t produce quality content had also left a content void.
“You put it all together, and it just feels like a big gap missing with the sports coverage,” Standig said to Sports Business Chronicle.
He cited NASCAR reporter Jeff Gluck as one individual writer who had journeyed down the independent route and carved out his own niche via the Patreon model.
“One person could feel like a blog, three people could be a site. It just sort of worked. Todd became more interested, Brian got on board and here we are,” added Standig, who has been a long-standing freelancer for different outlets like the AP and Scout.com, among others.
Said McNally: “The timing was right for me personally.”
With the trio on board to launch the site, which includes coverage of D.C.’s Big Four and local college basketball, Dybas left his post at The Washington Times in mid-January. The seasoned designer and layout editor built the site, which cut overhead costs and any need to purchase a platform, something the Boston Sports Journal and BSN Denver did when both publications licensed the back-end technology from DK Pittsburgh Sports.
While The Sports Capitol talked with the local Pittsburgh technology company powering all three sites, Dybas said the group wanted its own unique look and feel. Still, they needed to hire an experienced developer to configure the paywall portion of the site and properly lock content via a Paid Memberships Pro plugin. In total, it took $2,500 in capital to get the site up and running.
It’s a low cost entry point for anyone looking to enter a local market but where The Sports Capitol’s differentiation lies is its career experiences, knowledge of the D.C. market and pre-existing relationships with team staffers and players. Across the professional sports teams, the group possesses some of the longer stints on those beats compared to other local sports reporters, according to McNally. Together, they’ll tackle the four teams and host their respective daily podcasts.
One of the challenges the trio acknowledged was that because of limited resources and being a three-person shop for now, there’s only so much they can do from a coverage standpoint. There’s an obvious focus on the Big Four, but Standig said that they’ll keep constant tabs on the other teams like the WNBA’s Washington Mystics and MLS club D.C. United.
Less than two weeks into the new venture, the co-founders are understandably still figuring out the article cadence, when to post their daily podcasts, who will handle social distribution, when is it appropriate to leverage the company’s travel budget and how to balance their respective radio and television hits. The podcasts, which include one for each Big Four team and a college basketball edition, have a few current sponsors. Outside of the advertiser reads and some sponsored Tweets, the site and overall content experience will be free of display advertising.
“Our goal right now is to see what the world looks like without that,” said McNally, who’s the site’s resident hockey guru.
He explained that the company will continue to listen to its fans around what specific content resonates and what doesn’t. They’re open to continue iterating as they find their footing in the marketplace and better understand their core readers.
“We’ve been thrilled with the response out of the gate,” McNally said.
The Sports Capitol is currently priced at $5.99 a month or $30 for six months. The company declined to disclose subscriber numbers 48 hours following its launch.