Fourth and long. No timeouts. Go for it.
Josh Gates enlisted in the Army in 2000 at the age of 18. He earned a place in the elite 75th Ranger Regiment. He led Post-911 combat missions across the Middle East. But the hardest thing he’s ever done was save Saturday Down South — the website in which he’d been a hands-off investor — from epic collapse.
During its first four years, the site was a hobby blog — managed by a group of friends including Jon Cooper and Kevin Duffey as an outlet for their passion. Namely SEC football. “It was almost a joke when they started it in 2010,” says Gates. “They supplemented their own original content with a lot of posts where they’d comment on other writers’ columns, and link to their stories. For fun, they’d occasionally throw out really nutty statistics. And every now and then, they’d get to interview sports celebrities. I remember the Erin Andrews interview being a pretty big deal.”
For all its editorial looseness, the blog’s following kept growing. And the more Gates studied the situation, the more convinced he became that this hobby site could become a viable business. “I really felt like they had something.” So with a loan from his father-in-law and money he’d earned as a defense contractor, he invested $500,000, formed a C-Corporation, and started building the infrastructure.
Saturday Down South officially launched just before SEC Media Days in 2014. Within months, the site’s traffic was on a par with long-established national brands. By football season, it was attracting 20 million monthly visits. Clearly, they’d tapped into an underfed appetite for insightful football journalism that understood and respected SEC schools’ traditions — and often offered a broader perspective than readers might get from local Beat Writers.
Success leads to excess.
From very early on, Saturday Down South was more than just a critical success and fan favorite. It was extraordinarily popular with advertisers. However, Gates admits, “We had a lot of success in a short period of time, but not a lot of experience in running a business.” As revenues increased, the site’s payroll exploded. “At one point, we had 46 full-time staffers and writers. During our early growth, I really didn’t focus on the business itself; neither did Jon or Kevin.”
As Saturday Down South’s financial obligations mushroomed, Gates began to realize that major changes were in order if the company was going to survive — and that he was the team’s likeliest candidate to do just that. But he had a serious challenge to overcome before that could happen. “Not only was I hands-off with the business, I didn’t have a real relationship with Kevin or Jon before things started going bad. So before I could take the steps needed to save the business, and my investment, I had to gain their trust.”
The decision to turn-over control to Gates, Cooper reports, was surprisingly easy — given the circumstances. “I’ve known Kevin since we were both in Little League — so we already had that trust with each other. But the thing about Josh was, even though he had the most to lose, he was the calming voice among all of us.”
From bad to worse
The situation was hardly conducive to calm. “By this time,” Gates notes, “I was in my early 30s. I had pretty much gone All In on my savings. And if Saturday Down South collapsed, I had no fall back.” What Josh discovered when he finally got his first look at the numbers was a shock. “The company had $20 in the bank, and $1.7 million in short-term obligations.
“Aside from our financial position, another thing that distressed me was the fact that over 80% of our revenue stream was coming from programmatic advertising.” In other words, display ad inventory sold and filled by automated third-party algorithms — which creates a fixed revenue ceiling tied exclusively to site traffic. Worse still, Gates continues, “our direct sales were non-existent. Literally. We had no sales representatives. All our non-programmatic revenue came from partnerships with other media companies. We were just piggybacking off their inventory overflow.”
Filling the holes
One of the first things Gates did was restructure the company. “We identified essential personnel and whittled-down our payroll to a full-time staff of about 12. Then we developed an internal ad operations department to become self-reliant in generating revenue.”
At the same time, Gates had to build a productive working relationship with Duffey and Cooper. “I didn’t even know what their skills were. I’m not a tech guy. Kevin is. So I gave him the reins in that department. I’m also not a writer, and I don’t know how to manage writers. Jon does. Today, Kevin is President and COO, Jon is Director Of Operations, and we have a very good relationship.
“We’re still separated geographically [Cooper is in Virginia and Duffey is in Orlando, while Gates is in Jasper, AL], but the beauty of digital media is that you don’t need people in a fixed office environment. Our headquarters may be in Orlando, but we have staff in five different states and freelance writers nationwide.”
It’s about the relationship.
While monthly page views now average 35 to 40 million, Gates says the key metric these days is fan engagement, “which is great for us, given our niche and reader base. There really is something unique and special about SEC football. Fans just can’t get enough content. And if you’re a fan like so many of our readers are, it doesn’t matter what time of year it is. You still want to talk football with your friends.”
With the recent end of spring practice across the conference, you’d think that now would be a good time for Gates and his staff to take a rest. “Nope. Now is when we really start selling for next season.” Gates is pleased to report that programmatic advertising is now only 35% of Saturday Down South’s revenue. Cash flow is strong again, and he’s created a payment structure based on performance incentives.
Gates mentions Jasper writer Al Blanton in conjunction with one direction he’d like to see his site pursue more regularly. “Al’s specialty is long pieces. We don’t make money off his stories, but I think there’s a real hunger for his kind of work. I’d love to add historical sections for every school, with long stories on everything from historic games to former coaches.”
Saturday Down South’s most significant new initiative is podcasting. “We started with a soft launch, and now we’re producing them regularly. It’s a more intimate way to get into real depth on topics, and it’s more engaging for audiences.” Gates mentions Blanton again, specifically the podcast documenting his trip to Ed Orgeron’s hometown. “In addition to the wealth of background information Al reported, that podcast includes a world of different sounds from the community — which really brought life to the story.
“Ultimately, our goal is to transition into a true media company, but without diluting the Saturday Down South brand. At one point, we talked about covering all the major conferences. We’re not. We’re now talking about creating a curated marketplace, aligning a few brands with our own. For instance, brands that exist around tailgating. Or apparel.” Kind of like Garden And Gun, I ask? “Exactly. But with a foundational focus on the heritage and traditions of the SEC.”
Looking back. And forward.
“When I was a Ranger, I worked with incredible people. We had an incredible level of camaraderie, and we got to play with incredible toys. There were days when I couldn’t believe I got paid for what I do. I feel the same way today. I never don’t want to come into work.
“My role with Saturday Down South is more rewarding than I ever thought it would be. But if I hadn’t had to work through all the issues and struggles, I don’t think it would mean nearly the same as it does to me now. It’s my flesh and blood. It’s part of my identity. And right now, I can’t see myself doing anything else.”
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