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Behind the Paywall, Part 1: Fan Sites Play Ball

Behind the Paywall, Part 1: Fan Sites Play Ball

While Internet users have been staunchly frugal about paying for online content, at least one breed of website, the fan site, has thrived using paywalls. Peddling hyper-specific information about high school athletic prospects, fan sites appeal to a particularly zealous audience. And with media companies like Yahoo and Fox investing tens of millions into these sites, the subscriptions -- and the revenues -- continue to grow.

By David Vranicar
09/07/11 5:00 AM PT

The University of Florida coaching staff was short on selling points when it set out to recruit high school football players in early 1990. For starters, the head coach was brand new, his predecessor having been unceremoniously dismissed in the middle of the '89 season because of rule infractions.

What's more, one of the best players in school history, Emmitt Smith, decided to forgo the 1990 season and enter the NFL -- hardly a vote of confidence for the new coach, Steve Spurrier. Spurrier was a legend in his own right when he played at Florida in the '60s, but Smith's departure cast doubt on how much that resonated with kids who weren't yet born at the time.

Further complicating things was the rise of in-state rivals Miami and Florida State. Miami had won two of the previous three national championships, and Florida State had finished in the top three for three straight seasons. The Gators, meanwhile, finished the '89 season 7-5, capping a muddling 26-21 four-year stretch.

Spurrier's first task, to assemble a recruiting class in 1990, was hamstrung by a cocktail of mediocrity, turmoil and regional inferiority. As such, if Florida was going to catch up with its in-state brethren, it would likely take a little while.

Gators Can't Wait

Gator fans, however, weren't keen on waiting, and they seemed to vent their impatience on David Stirt, publisher of a weekly UF sports magazine called "Gator Bait." In the weeks before the 1990 National Signing Day -- the day when the nation's top high school players declared where they would be attending college -- Gators were so rabid that Stirt couldn't pick up the phone.

"As we tried to gather information, we couldn't make any calls," Stirt told TechNewsWorld. "All the lines were tied up with people calling looking for recruiting news. It was crazy."

To accommodate the interest, Stirt started a 900 number. At the time, 900 numbers were synonymous with porn, but Stirt replaced seductive whispers with football banter. Every day, he recorded a three- to five-minute message about prospects, about who might be the next Florida Gator.

Each call was US$2.00 to connect, and about a buck per minute after that.

Having been launched just a few weeks prior, Stirt's 900 number received more than 10,000 calls on Signing Day, netting him something like $35,000. All because people couldn't wait until the nightly news or -- god forbid! -- the morning paper to know that Terry Dean and Lateef Travis had decided on Florida.

"There was this time sensitivity that, for some reason, mattered to the fans," Stirt said. "And it wasn't even really that great of a [recruiting] class. Spurrier had come in at the end of the season, and it's hard to establish recruiting roots that first year. So his first recruiting class really wasn't even that great, but it didn't matter. People just wanted to know who was signing."

Recruiting News and Revenues

Stirt's 900 number is now defunct, but in its stead are hundreds of websites -- "fan sites" -- pedaling the same kind of recruiting information. And despite the migration from phone lines to the Internet, people are still eager to pay.

Thus far in Internet history, the idea of paying for content has been met with incessant complaints and closed wallets. But when it comes to the latest info on America's top high school athletes -- mostly football, but basketball as well -- tens of thousands of people are ponying up. University-specific fan sites have teamed up to create networks such as Rivals.com, Scout.com and 247sports.com, each of which makes Stirt's five-figure bounty look like pocket change.

For example, there are numerous Rivals.com sites, according to Jeffrey Lee, an Auburn University grad who publishes his alma mater's page for Rivals.com, that have more than 6,000 paid subscribers, and a handful that have more than 10,000. Subscribers pay about $100 annually, so a site with, say, 5,000 subscribers can generate something like a half-million bucks a year.

All in the name of recruiting.

"The lifeblood of these sites is recruiting information," Lee told TechNewsWorld. "All the football stuff -- post-practice interviews, game stories -- people can read that stuff online for free. But what they can't read about is what recruits were at that game, and what those recruits had to say about Auburn. Our subscriber base is recruiting junkies."

As the managing editor of Florida's Scout.com site, Bob Redman is something of an heir to Stirt. Redman has never dabbled in hotlines, but his site has thousands of paid subscribers, each a varying degree of Florida recruiting addict.

Perhaps more impressive than the 3,000-plus people who scoured his page on Signing Day last spring is that his is but one of four sites that specialize in Gator recruiting.

"You're diluting the fan base when you have that many sites," Redman told TechNewsWorld, "but there are plenty of people who will join every one. Recruiting is the core -- that's our main thing. Honestly, that's what sells."

Recruitniks: Deep Roots and Deep Pockets

Networks like Rivals.com and Scout.com are so lucrative that they have been gobbled up by media giants. In 2007, Yahoo acquired Rivals.com for a reported $100 million, and in 2005 Fox acquired Scout.com for a reported $60 million. It turns out that football recruits are literally worth millions of dollars. (Insert Miami Hurricanes joke here.)

That Rivals and Scout and others have turned "recruitniks" into millions of dollars is in a way confounding. This business model -- generate content, and then barricade it behind a paywall -- is something that media outlets have been almost universally unable (or unwilling) to implement. And that figures: Internet users have a well-documented Scrooge streak when it comes to paying for anything online, be it music, movies or news.

Then again, maybe the success of these sites is a no-brainer. After all, Stirt's phone rang to the tune of $35,000 in one day back in 1990, with people calling in to get the scoop on what figured to be, and indeed was, an average recruiting class.

Stirt didn't invent the market for recruiting news. There were a number of recruiting newsletters being published before his number went live. But he did meld recruiting fanaticism with fans' borderline irrational need to get information rightnow. And the market, for a variety of reasons, has swelled ever since.

Behind the Paywall, Part 2: You Gotta Have a Gimmick


David Vranicar is an American-born journalist who, after a year in China, is currently living in Europe. He has written for a variety of publications, including Deadspin, The Copenhagen Post, The Kansas City Star and The Earth Times. When not trying to find intersections between the tech industry and the world at large, he is writing a book and tweeting @davidvranicar.


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