The dominant trend in the last six years of internet basketball writing has been the rise of blog networks. Nearly every single basketball blog you read either belongs to a larger network or is owned by a larger sports media company. With few exceptions (you’re reading one of them) independent basketball blogs don’t exist, and the ones that do exist aren’t very consequential. I can’t think of a single wholly independent basketball blog within the most influential or trafficked ones.
Some of these networks just consist of a bunch of blogs (Yardbarker, Bloguin, Big Lead Network), but the more popular ones are networks of team blogs, with one blog each for each NBA team (TrueHoop Network, FanSided, SBNation). The growth in team blogs, however, has mostly ceased. These networks are full (or as full as they want to be), and there is no new, credible team blog network. In fact, if anything, we are seeing a decreasing emphasis on team blogs.
Before the current NBA season began the TrueHoop Network cut seven blogs from its network, and shifted its focus to introducing new writers on the main TrueHoop blog (Disclosure: I have written two freelance pieces for TrueHoop). Similarly, as Vox Media grows and grows extra money has flowed to hire NBA writers and pay for longform content, but the team blogs have remained relatively static. The exception to this trend seems to be FanSided.
FanSided is the newest of the team blog networks, and if you know nothing about it you can read this blow-by-blow, very cheerlead-y oral history of its founding and growth—a clear indicator that apparently you can now write an oral history about anything. FanSided also has the lowest quality content of these team blog networks: there are many writers for SB Nation or TrueHoop blogs that started on a FanSided blog and moved up, but fewer that have gone the opposite direction. Numerous TrueHoop and SB Nation writers have been hired as full-time basketball writers somewhere—over 20 last time I counted—and only one from FanSided (Couper Moorhead, who writes for Heat.com). But this pattern, FanSided writers moving up to other networks, writers from other networks moving up to full-time jobs, may be changing.*
Last week Jared Wade, founder of the Indiana Pacers blog 8 Points, 9 Seconds and an inaugural member of the TrueHoop Network, sold his blog to FanSided. This is a notable development for the TrueHoop Network, Fansided, and sports blogging in general.
The TrueHoop Network was already shrinking, and last month its two editors were promoted and now run all of ESPN’s NBA coverage. I’ve already raised the question of what that means for TrueHoop’s future, and the defection of one of its blogs to a rival network only amplifies those concerns. I asked TrueHoop founder Henry Abbott about 8 Points, 9 Seconds leaving, and depending upon your point of view he either sidestepped the question or seemed unconcerned by it:
Jared is fantastic and I hate to see him go. But it is a joy and an affirmation every time another TrueHoop Network blogger gets an opportunity to do this thing we all love. Heck yes I wish we could hire them all but the fact is Kevin Arnovitz found way more Zach Lowes, Royce Youngs and Ethan Sherwood Strausses than any one company was ever going to be able to secure.
It is a good point, and one that Abbott and Arnovitz have brought up before: a ridiculously high percentage of the open full-time basketball writing jobs over the last couple of years have gone to TrueHoop Network alumni. Unless ESPN was prepared to hire 20+ new writers, some were always going to move on to other publications.
But this also feels fundamentally different than past departures from the TrueHoop Network. This isn’t a writer leaving but an entire blog leaving. This isn’t Wade leaving for Grantland, Sports Illustrated or CBS but FanSided, a network supposedly lower on the totem pole. This isn’t leaving for a full-time job but a modest cash out (more on that later).
Frankly, I don’t see a future for the TrueHoop Network in its current form. It now lacks team blogs for five of the NBA’s thirty teams, and what’s the point of a team blog network if you’re only going to cover 80% of the teams? The network still serves as a useful source of labor for contributors to Daily Dime and 5-on-5s, but that’s not contingent upon these writers having team blogs to write on. 8 Points, 9 Seconds leaving, an original member and one of the better blogs in the network, seems like one more drop in the bucket that will convince Abbott, Arnovitz and ESPN to go in a different direction.
It is important to note that FanSided has a very different financial model from the TrueHoop Network or SB Nation. TrueHoop lets network blogs remain mostly independent and free to host their own ads and gain the resulting revenues from them, a big selling point for highly-profitable blogs like the Daily Thunder. SB Nation has raised at least $80 million in venture capital funding.
In contrast, FanSided has received no outside investment or funding: the entire thing is bankrolled by its founders’ initial investments and advertising revenue. That means its purchase of 8 Points, 9 Seconds is a move calculated to eventually raise revenue for FanSided, rather than a crazy purchase by a network drunk on outside investment.
And to be clear, 8 Points, 9 Seconds was purchased by FanSided, not licensed. FanSided now owns the domain names, content and social media accounts. I honestly can’t recall the last time an NBA blog was purchased, maybe a few years ago when SB Nation was filling out its roster? Of course, it makes a difference how much it was purchased for: $500 is different from $5,000 which is very different from $50,000. Neither Jared Wade or FanSided would comment on the financial specifics of the deal, though Wade said in a goodbye e-mail to the TrueHoop Network e-mail list that, “[FanSided] approached me to talk about the site, and one thing led to another, and I’m at a place in life … where it made sense to cash out”. FanSided co-founder Adam Best also noted that they would, “continue to be aggressive when it comes to growing FanSided and all aspects of our coverage”.
With the knowledge that FanSided has at least some money to burn, it has already perked the ears of basketball writers looking to turn this low-paying hobby into a career. Might FanSided capitalize on changes within ESPN to gain a greater share of the quality basketball writing pie?
Basketball writing employment has reached a point of stasis. With the notable exception of Fox Sports, which owns the dying Yardbarker network (its traffic is down 50% in the past year), everywhere that you would expect to be is staffed up with basketball writers. Sure there will be the turnover that is usual across all online writing jobs, but it doesn’t look like a new wave of jobs is going to open up, nor will any new blog network be buying up blogs. The days of five or ten new jobs opening up during the offseason are over. With an increasing stream of basketball writers, supply drastically outstrips the demand for their services. But that also means any website with money to splash around, even if it is only a little bit of money, is in a fantastic position. With a glut of writers and blogs, FanSided is free to poach whoever they want, and those people and blogs are eager to be poached.
I doubt we’ve seen the last of FanSided buying blogs, nor the last of blogs leaving the TrueHoop Network.
* This post has been updated to note that Couper Moorhead was hired by Heat.com directly from FanSided blog Rip City Project.