SB Nation CEO Jim Bankoff is a happy man these days. His company is growing, and after completing a $10.5 million Series C round of funding, he’s setting up his network of team and sport-specific blogs for more growth in 2011.
So how did a scrappy batch of fan-run blogs suddenly morph into a mini-empire of highly-trafficked sites? Part of it has to do with the money. SB Nation has already raised $13 million in venture funding, and a lot of this can be attributed to Bankoff. But he’ll be the first to tell you that the real reason SB Nation is becoming a legitimate alternative to the sports section of your local paper is its bloggers, a lean staff of dedicated writers that covers each one of its beats lovingly.
I talked with him on the phone last week about SB Nation’s future plans, their current traffic, and which of the blogs (and bloggers) in their network is his favorite.
SportsGrid: What does monthly traffic look like for SB Nation?
Jim Bankoff: Our pageviews are at 80 million monthly now, our uniques are at anywhere from 9 to 17 million, depending on what service you use. We have 38 employees now. We’re growing in editorial, technology, and sales – we’ve added all three areas over the course of the year.
Unlike a lot of other services we’re seeing growth from both referrals and direct navigation. One thing that’s always set us apart from other companies is that we have a lot of direct traffic, which to me means brand loyalty.
SG: What’s the highest-trafficked site in the SB Nation network? I’d imagine it’s the national site.
JB: Yeah, it is. But it wasn’t always that way. We’ve put some attention to it over the past year, and it’s become the biggest site. But some of our other sites that do really well are mixed martial arts sites: we have a site called Bloody Elbow that’s just a monster. We have a site called MMA Mania that’s also a monster, in terms of traffic. On the team side it varies by season, but in the NFL we have a really big Kansas City Chiefs site at Arrowhead Pride, a big Dallas Cowboys site, a big Buffalo Bills site too, I mean they all do pretty well.
In baseball it’s interesting too, our biggest sites actually made the World Series, which is great. San Francisco at McCovey Chronicles and Texas with Lone Star Ball: both were outstanding sites and I’m sure they’re going to see a nice traffic pop because of their run into the World Series. We have strong sites across the board in every league, and a lot of it depends on the season and the team and of course the blogger, but we’re proud of them all and we work with them all to help them grow.
SG: My question is, let’s say there’s a giant fire, and you can only save 3 of the 290 blogs on SB Nation. Which ones are you saving?
JB: [Laughs] I can’t answer that question because that’s like asking which one of your 300 children you want to save. They all are valuable.
I think maybe what your getting at is, “Are you dependent on any of the sites?” and the good news is that we’re not. All of the sites are important, and we’re not so concentrated on a handful of sites or a few of our brands. It’s a nice distribution.
Some of our sites are newer. Some of the teams have smaller fanbases, so they might be more capped. Like a small market MLS site may not rise to the same potential as an NFL site, but having said that, even with the smaller leagues, whether it’s NHL or MLS, they have very passionate fans. Even though it’s not as big in size, it’s probably on a relative basis a more important outlet to the fanbase. For a lot of NHL sites we’re the premiere media outlet for the team, period. So we’re probably more important to the fans of smaller markets, smaller leagues. So while those numbers might not be as impressive, relative to their markets, they’re huge.
SG: SB Nation recently launched 21 region-specific sites. Has anything about the response been surprising to you?
JB: If anything’s been surprising, I’ve been surprised with just how well it’s gone. Like any internet product you kind of fine-tune it along the way, and we’ve certainly been doing that. Since we’ve launched them, without exception, all of them have had a really sharp growth trajectory. One thing we wanted to make sure, internally as a company, is that the regional sites were more of a compliment to the team sites, and didn’t just recreate them. And I think we’ve done a good job of that.
The regional sites are a little bit more newsy, while the team sites are a little more community-focused. Of course, they’re written by a lot of the same people that are team bloggers, and we’ve been able to leverage our talent as we expand, which is another thing we’re proud of, because it means we’re able to expand their roles and expand their pay along with it. So it works out well.
SG: How do you get your news? What sites or services do you check in the morning to get a handle on what’s going on in the world, whether it’s the world of sports, or the world at large?
JB: I use Media Gazer a lot. I use Paid Content. All Things D, I also read Venture Beat. I’m more of an internet guy, so I tend to gravitate to those types of sites. Tech Crunch. Those are probably the ones I frequent the most.
SG: What are your mobile plans for SB Nation?
JB: Our mobile traffic has been increasing a lot organically – the first thing we made sure to do was optimize our sites for mobile browsers, on any platform, whether it’s a smart phone or regular data phone. We haven’t even launched any specific apps, because we wanted to put our resources into making sure that that was acceptable and optimized, as opposed to developing anything new.
Having said that, we’re going to get really aggressive about mobile in the coming year. We’re probably going to launch some apps that are more specialized for fans. We’re not talking about the details yet, but suffice it to say mobile is going to be a key growth area for us in the coming year. In sports in particular, mobile is critical for consumption.