Since the blogging heyday of the mid-aughts, it feels like there’s been no shortage of people filling up the internet with sports (or sports-adjacent) content.
The Sports Capitol, which launched in late February,is, or would like to be, different.
First, this is not random dudes making draft-day bingo cards in their basements (that was me, more than a decade ago). It’s also not just enthusiastic fans hoping to find a bigger audience than the team message board. These are experienced local journalists—managing editor Todd Dybas, host/writer Ben Standig, and senior staff writer Brian McNally—with connections, sources, and all that other good stuff.
Second, the site is ad-free. Third, the site will be operating on a fee-based subscription model, $5.99 a month to access all the site’s content.
The follow-up question is obvious: What does The Sports Capitol give fans for their money that they can’t already get elsewhere?
“They have to like YOU,” McNally says. “They’re paying to hear your voice, to a certain extent. I’ve covered the Caps and the Nats for a long time. I’ve covered the [Washington football team] … you’re hoping that people buy into that.”
McNally also makes the point that very little useful content is truly free. “You don’t get John Keim’s full coverage without paying ESPN [Insider] whatever X dollars a month,” he says. “Same with the Post. You’re already paying for those things. [NBC Washington’s] website is free, but you put up with a lot of ads and a lot of nonsense when you go those sites.”
That last point is true—I’ve generated entire columns out of the awful user experience on some local sports sites. But I wonder if ad-free is really a significant differentiator.
Paying for people’s voices sounds good in theory, and the crew at The Sports Capitol is solid and professional. But what are they going to be writing about that makes their voices worth the money?
Talking to McNally and scrolling through the site during its free trial period, it’s clear that the site is focused on D.C.’s big four major league teams. That’s the paradox of any sports site. You can write all the clever pieces you want about the local Air Sex champion or the play-by-play guy for the new Arena League team and it’s never going to draw half the audience of the 800th column about Kirk Cousins.
Practice updates and game analysis aren’t going to command money; any halfway decently curated Twitter feed can get you those. Coverage of the ultra-local, street-level sports scene would sell to a small (if passionate) audience, but you can’t build a site on that. You have to cover the big teams to get a big enough audience to live on.
The Sports Capitol’s staff is currently capped at three, McNally says, for several reasons, not least because keeping the staff small sets the lowest benchmark for a livable profit. There are a lot of experienced free-agent sports voices in the D.C. market, several of whom have similarly tried to monetize their content—Andy Pollin comes to mind for podcasts; David Elfin for football writing—but the cost-benefit analysis for The Sports Capitol right now demands smallness.
Will their particular voices draw eyeballs?
I don’t know, and neither do the guys in The Sports Capitol. “There’s a lot of reasons NOT to do a site like this,” McNally says, “but I think that we were at a point—all of us—where we could do it, and see where it takes us.”
FOX 5 is also piloting a new show this month. Like It Or Not brings together former ESPNers Britt McHenry (also ex-WJLA) and Bram Weinstein (also ex-ESPN980), with WPGC news director Guy Lambert. The intended draw seems clear from the pugnacious name: McHenry, following her dismissal from ESPN, has positioned herself as an aspiring conservative voice, triggering the libs (or whatever) on Twitter. Many people don’t, in fact, like this, largely because McHenry’s opinions tend toward amateurish half-baked provocations.
FOX 5, in other words, is selling this show on nearly the same “It’s about the specific voices” platform that The Sports Capitol is using.
Which raises the grim possibility that the addition of a distinct (if, hopefully, less awful) voice like McHenry’s to The Sports Capitol might be exactly the kind of differentiator that would open up wallets in the way that solid content, impeccable sourcing, and an ad-free experience might not.
McNally knows that the site is in some ways yet another experiment in the changing world of sportswriting. “People are rooting for us,” he says, “but whatever happens, it’s another data point.” It’s true for both these ventures—and how they’re received will tell a lot about what consumers actually want.