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More sports: SBNation launches Minnesota site Wednesday

Sports drives so much web traffic, and sports fans are so team-oriented that it’s only a matter of time before national entrants up their stake in the local market. We’re still waiting for ESPN Twin Cities, but on June 16, a smaller player, SBNation.com, debuts a Minnesota portal for its local fan sites.

The D.C.-based SBNation (co-founded by Daily Kos namesake Markos Moulitsas) boasts 6 million unique monthly visitors and 50 million page views for its 250 individual team or sports-specific blogs, according to Quantcast.

Locally, SBNation’s network already includes Daily Norseman (Vikings), Canis Hoopus (Wolves), Hockey Wilderness (Wild), Daily Gopher (U sports) and Twinkie Town (guess). With the exception of the phantasmagorically detailed Canis Hoopus, none has made a dent on this sports fan’s consciousness, but all fit SBNation’s passionate-and-proud-of-it ethos.

So far, SBNation’s approach has been to let the individual sites stand alone while selling the batch to national advertisers. Now, it wants to collect the individual sites and sell the batch to fans.

“Basically, were trying to get people who might not be hard-core sports fans to our site,” says Chris Gates, who will be SBNation Minnesota’s managing editor. “We’ll have features, story streams and consistently update” the local home page.

Fans not rubes
So why pay attention to SBNation Minnesota? CEO Jim Bankoff says SBNation’s model is “one part really good writing and one part community management, and we take the latter part as seriously as the former part.”

In other words, while SBNation’s brand is the “fan perspective,” its sites are not just rubes flinging spitwads at each other.

“I often compare it to sports talk radio — there’s a professional host but multiple conversations that are really strong,” Bankoff says. “At the larger, national sites, you’ll see a lot of garbage in the comments, calling names and screaming — there’s no reason to read those comments.”

Newspapers tout a similarly moderated space, but with a professional reporting staff that travels with teams. Furthermore, the Star Tribune has wisely embraced fan blogs; its Twins page boasts the excellent TwinsCentric crew among others, and staffer Michael Rand’s Randball totally gets the fan ethos.

All told, Strib sports coverage gets more than half as many page views as SBNation’s entire network. While some SBNation blogs boast 1,000-plus comments, in this market, the Strib is clearly the comment champ.

“God bless Twinkie Town, but I’m down with TwinsCentric,” says Howard Sinker, the Strib’s web sports overseer and a pretty good blogger himself. “Not to disparage them at all — I’m intrigued by their stuff — but if I’m going to want to know what’s going on with the team, I’m going to read [beat writer/bloggers] Joe [Christensen] and La Velle [E. Neal III], TwinCentric, or I’m going to ask myself!”

Meanwhile, radio and TV stations are making their own steady incursions. KFAN claimed 12.2 million page views in April from 180,000 unique visitors; the whopping 6.7 page views per visitor indicates just how die-hard the rube chatterers might be. The new ESPN1500 Twin Cities has added ex-newspaperman Tom Pelissero and new Pat Reusse co-host Phil Mackey as omnibloggers/reporters. And Fox Sports North’s web side has also added pros like Phil Miller (who also works for the Strib) and a host of other bloggers.

All of those places have legacy-media megaphones to lure fans their way. Bankoff notes that certain locales feature “enlightened” incumbents, but that SBNation has “handshake partnerships” with legacy sites like USAToday to cross-promote. (You can see the duo’s MMA Rankings here.) Another affiliation, he says, is with Comcast and its regional sports networks: “There are more formal agreements in the pipeline; some newspaper groups are reaching out.”

Says the Strib’s Sinker, “I’m not sure why at this point we’d want to partner with them when we have our own citizen bloggers.”

Still, the Strib editor acknowledges sports coverage is like “a dessert buffet” and fans are often gluttons. Startribune.com's sports traffic is rising despite the new entrants, and SBNation Minnesota might provide a welcome mat “for people to spend more time at work trolling through websites.”

For his part, Bankoff insists SBNation can find a place. “We can do it efficiently, and on one technology base,” say the former AOL, TMZ, Engadget and Moviefone staffer.

Building better blogs
One local SBNation blogger, Nate Arch of Canis Hoopus, enthuses about SBNation’s tech-side savvy. “Their platform is far and away the best one we’ve worked on. I’m somewhat computer literate and was running Canis Hoopus on Wordpress, but we had issues if we had 5,000 hits.”

SBNation has earned national praise for its “story streams” — real-time sports news aggregation that’s timestamped. I actually followed the conference realignment saga via an SBNation stream, and found it an efficient addition to links that popped up in my Twitter and RSS feeds.

Beyond the software, Arch says SBNation is sharp about improving a blogger’s content. The site licenses photographs, so bloggers have legal access to top-quality imagery. The 29-employee SBNation also has a national newsroom which Arch says has “great Rolodexes — they plug you into their network, they have really good background sources they point you to.”

Arch estimates SBNation has been responsible for about a 30 percent traffic bump since the affiliation began; Canis Hoopus gets about 5,000 unique visitors a day and 13,000 or so page views.

Arch grants that he covers the most pathetic of all local sports teams, but says the amount of cash SBNation kicks his way “buys beer on Canis Hoopus Night at Target Center. I don’t think they have that part of the business model figured out yet.”

Ironically, the Minnesota portal will be overseen by a guy who lives closer to Brett Favre’s farm than the Metrodome. Gates is a 12-year active-duty meteorology field instructor based at Mississippi’s Keesler Air Force base.

Gates, who grew up in the Upper Midwest as a fan of the local teams and works the Daily Norseman blog, says he will oversee Minnesota coverage during lunch breaks and in the evenings. Bankoff says Gates is a rarity, and shouldn’t be penalized for serving his country. However, it does underscore SBNation’s reliance on part-timers.

Naturally, Bankoff believes SBNation can survive not only the local competition but ESPN’s city sites, which now include New York, L.A., Chicago Boston and Dallas. With the aplomb of a salesman, Bankoff ESPN has actually given the notion of a national market for local coverage credibility, making it easier for SBNation to position itself as a grassroots-with-standards alternative in the category.

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Comments (4)

Gophers? I would love to see someone take on a full-on gopher sports blog and have it be done well. For starters on how not to do it, take a look at the STrib's Kent Youngblood and his gopher football blog. Updated about six times a year.

Sam - there is a Gopher site; added it to the blogroll in the story paragraph above. Thanks.

Don't forget the Minnesota Hockey Hub (www.mnhockeyhub.com) which is the home of Minnesota Boys High School Hockey. Some serious journalistic chops with Loren Nelson and great interactive stats, game results and more.

I have one nitpick with this article. We at Hockey Wilderness (as well as Twinkie Town, et al) aren't trying to compete with MSM sites for comments or traffic. Ok, maybe a bit on traffic, but for the most part, it's about a deeper conversation that exists on the Strib (and other) sites.

We're about giving the fans a place to share their thoughts and ideas. Let fans create & own content. The average fan simply can't do that at an MSM site. On Hockey Wilderness, someone can come in, post an article and they're owning the conversation instead of just consuming it.

We give the opportunity for fans to becomes publishers instead of consumers of content. This ability gives us a distinct area of the blogosphere where it isn't about one authors voice, but rather the voice of the community.