Behind the Birth of a Sports-Media Bet for the YouTube Era

SB Nation Rolls Out Original Programming in One of Video Site's Bold Premium Content Plays

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The first episode of Amy K. Nelson's new show looks at arm wrestling and features Ms. Nelson participating -- and getting beaten -- in action.
The first episode of Amy K. Nelson's new show looks at arm wrestling and features Ms. Nelson participating -- and getting beaten -- in action.
"The Internet's not working," said Jim Bankoff.

It was March 1, and the Vox Media CEO had just arrived by train from the company's Washington, D.C., headquarters. He was standing, bag of doughnuts and boxed coffee in hand, inside a studio space on Manhattan's West Side, where some Vox employees had recently moved. Around him, the room was bustling. This was a big day for the company, which owns the sports website network SB Nation and the new tech-news site The Verge. SB Nation was officially launching its new YouTube channel, part of the $100 million partner program YouTube announced late last year to improve the quality of video on its site, and spur increased ad spending in online video.

Though it was going to be tough for the SB Nation staff to publish the first episodes without internet access.

"I swear Time Warner [Cable] is messing with us," someone said, prompting a laugh from Mr. Bankoff, who responded, "They don't want us to go over the top."

SB Nation owns a network of about 300 sports blogs that cover professional and college teams from a fan's point of view. The company is also building out its national coverage at SBNation.com. Together, the network and main site reached about 11 million unique visitors in January, according to ComScore, up from a little more than 7 million a year earlier. With that audience behind it, SB Nation is making a strong push into original video programming.

Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff
Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff
"When you do things in a text, as long as you're articulate and a good storyteller, you can produce a premium product that advertisers want to be associated with," Mr. Bankoff said, explaining why SB Nation hasn't produced much video until now. "When you get into video, the technical and production aspects make it harder to do."

From the outside, SB Nation's new studio screams startup. A piece of paper taped to the glass entrance on West 34th Street has the company name in black marker. On the second-floor landing, there's a stack of cardboard boxes, three at-capacity garbage bags and a half-covered metal catering tray.

Step inside, though, and you can feel YouTube dollars at work. (Mr. Bankoff wouldn't say how much money his company received from YouTube, but the new space, equipment and video-production quality suggest an amount near the $5 million maximum that YouTube gives some partners). There's a glass-walled recording room in one corner, a TV-like set with a three-flatscreen background in another, and lighting panels on the ceiling throughout so filming can take place anywhere.

"The space is a little grounded, a little internet-y," said Chad Mumm, exec director of Vox Media Studio. "But still with a high-end feel."

And that 's exactly what SB Nation hopes its new YouTube programming feels like, too. The company made a splash with two big-name hires familiar to fans of ESPN in Bomani Jones, the opinionated former columnist for ESPN.com and a regular guest on ESPN's "Around the Horn," and Amy K. Nelson, a seven-year veteran of ESPN who wrote regularly for ESPN.com and was on the cusp of becoming a fixture on "Baseball Tonight."

Mr. Jones will host a sports-related sketch-comedy-and-talk-show program called "Bomani & Jones" and Ms. Nelson will host "Full Nelson," whose first episode takes a look at the personalities behind an arm-wrestling tournament (as well as pretty gruesome footage of a participant breaking her arm in a past tournament.) She's also helping to formulate the "The Petey and LoMo Show," which shadows two baseball players in their off-the-field lives during spring training.

Part of SB Nation's appeal for YouTube was the company's 300-strong network of bloggers who cover local professional and college teams throughout the country, said Claude Ruibal, YouTube's global head of sports content. As a result, SB Nation plans to outfit about 150 of its bloggers with high-end cameras to videotape short analysis segments on local teams that will be featured on subchannels within the main YouTube channel. The night before launch, these bloggers had sent some of their first cuts in to SB Nation editors.

"We have some stars in the making," said SB Nation's Michael Bean, "and some who need work."

Is there an ad market for this style of videos? We'll see.

Channel partners such as SB Nation share ad revenue with YouTube, but only after YouTube recoups its initial investment. SB Nation's channel doesn't have a sponsor, but multiple advertisers have expressed interest in getting involved, according to Mr. Bankoff.

As for viewers, six days after launch the most-watched episodes on the national channel hovered around a modest 9,000 views each, though SB Nation hasn't yet promoted the channel heavily on its sites and social channels.

At its worst, the content thus far consists of entertaining clips that just might be too niche and too long for easily distracted web surfers. At its best, there are segments that you'd love, and expect, to watch on a 40-inch screen in your living room. Mr. Bankoff, and YouTube's Mr. Ruibal, said they don't expect every show to be a success. But that 's the beauty of the web, they said, where iterations and improvements can be made overnight.

Back at the SB Nation on launch day, Mr. Bankoff emerged from a recording room with tears of laughter crowding the corners of his eyes after watching clips of another show "Shutdown Fullback." A short while later, someone shouted: "Internet's back."

With that , Mr. Jones' show went out to the masses. The experiment was born.

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