ILM:10: SB Nation Scaling to High School Sports

At ILM:10, SB Nation CEO Jim Bankoff revealed that his fleet of brand-based online sports communities is now experimenting with high school sports through the launch of a Washington, D.C., trial site (part of DC.SBNation.com) that will “test if the model scales to that level.”

The competition in the digital sports space — with CBS, Comcast, FOX, Yahoo and the ubiquitous ESPN all locking horns — is as intense as the passion of the fans whom these networks covet. That’s exactly why Bankoff has taken SB Nation down an explicitly different path, one that doesn’t try to roll up individual sports communities into larger groups, but instead embraces digital fragmentation by acknowledging that the “Web is topical” and then building 300 different brands around individual teams, leagues and regions.

The crux of the network of blogs is community-driven content from paid bloggers and fan forums built around a “strong partisan focus on sports teams.” SB Nation’s bloggers’ ability to expertly weave a palette of interactive content (original work, social media, community dialogue) drives engagement with the brands, leading Bankoff to extol this as the “highest form of art online.”

As for monetization, don’t say “sponsorships,” a dirty word in Bankoff’s book because of the overt commercial connotation it brings with fans who view community forums as safe havens or private clubs. SB Nation’s value is not in selling, per se, but in “getting people talking about brands” naturally within the gates of the online community.

The company is not currently pursuing any paid-content tiers, whether premium information or gaming (fantasy leagues, sports games).

SB Nation faces ambitious obstacles to scale because of the aforementioned rampant fragmentation and the challenge of simultaneously serving several hundred brands. Bankoff is encouraged, however. He stresses that the latest iteration of the Web makes production and distribution much simpler. As such, SB Nation can add “new sites at low incremental costs and keep quality high.”

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