In 2004, I was living in a state of confusion. (That's a high-tax state, incidentally.) My favorite team, the Oakland Athletics, should have been the most compelling story in sports. Had not the A's won the West in 2000, 2002, and 2003? Had they not won more than 100 games in 2001 and 2002? Had not a renowned writer just written a national bestseller about the team and its valiant underdog struggle against the unfair status quo of baseball?
I kept thinking, "Somebody should make a movie about this team."
Of course, I would have settled for a mere feature story once in a while, somewhere, anywhere. Besides the minimalist beat coverage in the daily newspapers, there wasn't much about the A's to read or discuss. The A's had a website but, to be charitable, it was undeveloped. At parties and in the bars of the South Bay, the baseball conversation invariably centered on how great the Giants were, how great Barry Bonds was, and what Brian Sabean needed to do to support the Giants/Bonds greatness. For variety, someone would marvel at how great Pac Bell Park was.
Introducing any discussion of the A's into this conversational idolatry was like farting in a crowded elevator. People couldn't wait to get out of there.
As one-sided as the party talk was, at least it came with alcohol. Sports radio had no such appeal. It was dominated by KNBR, part owners of the Giants! Did I really think Giants homer, Ralph Barbieri, was going to provide the rival A's decent coverage? Back then, it didn't help that the A's own radio broadcasts were beamed from a pirate tower somewhere in Nicaragua. The A's local TV coverage was nowhere near what it is now.
That left the national media. Surprisingly,
ESPN's Joe Morgan, a former Athletic and a guy who grew up in Oakland, told the world that "Moneyball" had been written by the self-serving Beane. Other knuckleheads joined the chorus. Beane was overrated. Beane was only winning because he had gotten lucky with the "Big Three" pitchers. (Beane had drafted two of the "Big Three.") And then, there were all those playoff failures. Beane was the cause, as if he were the one who had failed to slide or tag a base.
I remember a Tim McCarver lecture about how great playoff teams score runs: "They get ‘em on, get ‘em over, then they get ‘em in." They somehow "manufacture" runs. McCarver's conclusion was, the A's had been built to achieve walks, rather than runs, and thus were doomed in the playoffs. When I heard this simplistic tripe, I actually screamed at the TV set. My wife, in the manner of all wives ever, said, "You know, he can't hear you. Screaming isn't going to make it better."
Ah, yes it could. After all, if you're an A's fan alone on a raft, adrift like a refugee on the cross-currents of Giants worship and national media ignorance, why not scream? What else could a devoted A's fan from the great state of confusion do?
Though I didn't know it at the time, a guy named Tyler Bleszinski was working on a rescue mission.
"In 2003, I was a very frustrated fan who wasn't getting what he was looking for from the media," Tyler recalls. "I was a former reporter myself and wanted someplace to discuss, complain and basically gather to have intelligent discourse about my favorite team."
Fortunately, Tyler did something more than just scream at the TV. "I actually started Athletics Nation on a Typepad site to see if I could do it the way I wanted to, and see if I even enjoyed this thing called blogging," he says. "Turns out it was something I enjoyed more than anything I'd ever done professionally before. I'd found my calling."
Tyler may have found his calling but who knew? I was sitting in a bar at the Chicago O'Hare airport waiting for a delayed connecting flight. The TV was tuned to Fox and the Yankees were playing the Red Sox. (What are the odds?) I may have mentioned, about 12 times, how sick I was of hearing about the Damn Yankees. The guy next to me said, "Yeah, just once I'd like to see the A's on the Saturday game."
Huh? An A's fan? Sitting next to me in Chicago? What were those odds? We shared our mutual frustrations and he tipped me off to something called Athletics Nation.
"Athletics Country?" I said. "What's that?"
"Athletics Nation," he corrected me. "It's a blog."
"What's a blog?"
I have to admit, I have never been the speediest car on the great internet highway. Yes, I read things on the internet but only the online versions of traditional publications like the Chronicle, the Mercury News, Sports Illustrated, etc. I didn't know what a blog was, nor did I particularly want to know. I speak a little French, and I knew the French word, "blague" (pronounced blog) meant "joke." So I was a little suspicious. I was even put off by the inelegant sound of the word, blog.
"Give it a try," the guy in the airport bar said. "If you don't like it, you can always go back to watching Yankees' games."
Thus challenged, I did exactly that. Suddenly, this A's refugee had found a home.
Athletics Nation was a little disorienting for me at first. It was a strange nation indeed, with odd customs. The look of the place was a bit barren; the graphics were the primitive Clip Art variety. But it was truly a nation by and for A's fans. The place had possibilities. Even better, the commentary was as fast, as perceptive, and as funny as anything I had ever read. It was almost as if the pent-up demand dictated the speed and quality of the observations.
The denizens of this new nation were interesting, too. There was a guy named Nico who spouted more puns than an Elizabethan standup comic. The game threads were running, spontaneous diatribes seemingly written by Samuel Beckett on angel dust. There was a whole supporting cast of contributors, all with bizarre pseudonyms, lobbing statistics-based analyses and jokes. Some guy named Tyler conducted the best, most comprehensive interview of Billy Beane I'd ever read. (I hadn't yet figured out that Tyler and Blez were the same guy.) There was even somebody named Tony whose rude, succinct post-win comment never varied, "Nice win, bitches!"
"Holy Toledo! These people are nuts!" I thought. In other words, my kind of people, a bit surrealist maybe, but A's fans through and through. I started reading Athletics Nation, sporadically at first, but one day I latched onto a game thread and I was hooked. This was far more interesting than the simplistic color commentary emanating from TV. It took me more than a year to find the courage to post a comment. (Back then, I called myself simply ptbarnum.) It was a two-line defense of Eric Chavez which I re-wrote three times before publishing. Unfortunately, the thread had moved way past my point and the only reaction to my golden insight was, "Another lurker heard from."
I soon learned the founding father of Athletics Nation was somebody named "Blez." "For Athletics Nation, it was just me," Tyler says. "I was the writer, moderator, game thread person, game recap person. Everything."
Tyler was as amazed as anybody by the response. "AN drew smart fans who like to analyze every detail of the team," he says. "They still approach everything in trying to understand what the A's front office is doing. I was surprised by how quickly people seemed to find the site. I was expecting to basically be talking to myself for the first several months, but people found it and participated. I was kind of shocked by how hungry people were for the type of coverage I had wanted.
"I remember thinking that 500 visits a day was a huge number for me, and we hit it relatively quickly. As a matter of fact, for a long period of time, Athletics Nation was the highest-trafficked team site on the Web."
(To put 500 daily visits into historical perspective, Nico recently reported AN numbers for just one day (October 8) during the playoffs: 37,148 page views, 14,195 visits from 8,444 different people. That's an average of almost 600 visits per hour!)
So what was the draw?
"I think it was the functionality of the site," Tyler says. "That was a huge part of it. Sure I covered it from a quality perspective, but I think the ability to open up FanPosts (at the time they were called Diaries) was one of the biggest reasons it succeeded. People suddenly had a platform to talk intelligently."
"Markos Moulitsas, who is my best friend, provided the technology for AN from the beginning," Tyler explains. (Moulitsas is the founder of Ted Cruz' favorite website, Daily Kos.) "Markos not only brought the technology but he largely funded the company (meaning me) for the first few years of its existence. His help allowed me to quit my job two weeks after my daughter was born, in January of 2005, and start doing this full time."
By the time I discovered AN, though, Tyler was already working on something bigger. A year after launching the original site, he added five more baseball sites to the mix, recruiting site writers to contribute. In March of 2005, Athletics Nation morphed into SB Nation, a consortium of team-oriented sports blogs. Tiny Athletics Nation had notions of empire.
"Markos and I had talked and saw an opportunity to recreate the AN model elsewhere with other folks who were already covering their own teams on Blogspot or Typepad. I began convincing guys to bring their coverage over to our platform. We didn't really promise them anything other than great technology and being a part of a bigger group."
The expansion of SB Nation demanded more sophisticated technology. For that, Tyler turned to a friend of Moulitsas' named Jerome Armstrong. Armstrong was running a campaign consulting team for the Democrats and essentially brought in the same tech team to operate SB Nation. "We would've never gotten to where we are today without both the technology and the quality approach we took from the very beginning," Tyler says.
SB Nation quickly became more popular and more complex. The management structure necessarily became more intricate. Athletics Nation, your favorite, is now one of 312 team-oriented and sport-specific blogs. The umbrella organization for those blogs is SB Nation. SB Nation is the sporting faction of Vox Media, the holding company which owns three separate digital publications including The Verge (tech and culture) and Polygon (gaming).
Each individual team site is shepherded by a site manager. (Nico manages Athletics Nation.) The site managers are supported by "league" managers who are, in reality, "sport" managers (baseball, basketball, hockey, college, football and combat league). The league managers report to Tyler directly about the team sites, their problems and progress.
"Our national site, SBNation.com, functions much more as a top-down kind of editorial structure," Tyler explains. "Our team sites don't have nearly as much oversight. We like to give our team site managers the freedom to create a site that they think their fans would love."
Tyler was CEO of SB Nation until 2008 when Jim Bankoff was hired to run things.
"I was an ill-equipped CEO, from the business perspective," Tyler admits. "It was tough to let go, but I really lucked out in that our CEO was able to keep the soul of what I'd built intact and make it into an actual business."
Bankoff, a veteran of AOL, organized the management, jet-propelled sales, and attracted venture capital. SB Nation is growing fast. Vox Media released some numbers to illustrate that growth. SB Nation has reached 50 million unique visitors per month and 190 million monthly page views. It also increased in size 178 percent between April 2012 and April 2013 according to Google Analytics.
But what do those numbers mean? It means simply SB Nation is headed in the right direction. Bankoff says the enterprise will turn an actual profit this year. Woohoo! Love those profits!
"Markos and I had the assumption advertisers would bang down our door if we just did the work. That wasn't the case at all," Tyler says. "I'm very proud to say that all of our blog managers are paid now. It brings me great pride that we've gotten to that point. Figuring out how to get enough revenue to pay the writers has always been the biggest challenge."
Another obstacle for SB Nation will be market share. The competition is ferocious and includes the most hallowed names of sports media: Yahoo/NBC Sports, ESPN, Fox Sports, Bleacher Report-Turner Sports, Perform Sports/Sporting News Media, MLB Media, USA Today Sports Media, CBS Sports, and Sports Illustrated. The online sports industry has been coalescing around alliances meant to capture market share in a still-growing market. But the creative destruction of capitalism still looms. An upstart like SB Nation is running well now, but what next? Markets, like the playoffs, have a crapshoot air about them.
Tyler Bleszinski, for one, doesn't have a whole lot of time to worry. "I've figured out that if I spent 24 hours awake every day, I couldn't possibly read all the content our sites produce," he says. "It's basically grown beyond my ability to even consume our sites."
Another thing: Tyler has always big on the notion of "community." Just a week ago, he tweeted that Athletics Nation will be celebrating "a decade of community." One should always tread lightly when contradicting the Boss, but I do not share that view. Athletics Nation would have been out of business in a year had it been selling "community." What AN has been selling for a decade is the best, the wittiest, the most insightful, and the most devoted writing about the Athletics to be found anywhere.
For that, this naturalized citizen of Athletics Nation is truly grateful.