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May 29, 2012 9:00 AM

SB Nation Tackles Video Production

SB Nation sign.jpgA simple piece of printing paper attached by Scotch tape hangs on the door. The handwritten sign is a reminder that this location is not permanent but also signifies how quickly this entire operation came together.

Located just west of Madison Square Garden in a 2nd floor rental space lies SB Nation Studios. The first thing you notice when you walk in is the shuffleboard table front and center. Next your eyes drift a bit further to see a big flatscreen TV mounted on metal poles. Couches surround the TV tuned to ESPN but those on the couches have their eyes fixated on their Apple laptops.

On the left side of the room there are banks of powerful G5 desktops. The dual monitors sit on top of what looks more like table saw benches than office furniture. Each computer is occupied by what looks to be mid-20 somethings nearly all donning headphones.


In the right corner of the room is the closest thing to a normal office in the space. There are a handful of people sitting at one long table and a couple more lining the wall. Luckily, everyone in this area is on laptops because there wouldn't be enough room for desktops with the amount of paper and supplies covering the tables.

Shuffleboard.jpgFor as social as this space appears with an open kitchen against the back wall, no doors except the one to the podcast room in the back right corner and about 20 employees between the ages of about 20 to 35, everyone appears to be dialed in to their own task.

If you are unfamiliar with SB Nation it is a network of over 300 sports blogs run first and foremost by fans. It began back in 2009 and gobbled up some of the best independent blogs for every major team in every major sport. The network has grown dramatically in just a few short years and now, according to Quantcast SB Nation receives about 6.8 million unique visitors a month.

With sports being such a visual product it was only natural to eventually expand into video production but the funding just wasn't there to do it right. This is where Google stepped in. In late October, Google-owned YouTube announced it would help launch about 100 new channels with a total investment of $100 million. Although SB Nation wouldn't reveal the exact amount YouTube contributed, AdAge speculates it was close to the maximum $5 million YouTube gave its partners. What followed was a whirlwind of activity and decisions to be made to get the channel up in running in just over 3 short months.

SB Nation was facing a task that was both liberating and daunting since something like this had never been done before. The first step was to get the right leadership in place and at the forefront of the planning was Chad Mumm. Mumm was working for The Verge, a tech site owned by SB Nation's parent company Vox Media and had previously come from AOL where he oversaw video production on sites like Engadget and Joystiq.

"Basically, we'd show talented people the work we were doing on The Verge and say 'come make this sort of stuff about sports', said Mumm when talking about assembling his team. "We were able to attract a lot of extremely talented shooters, editors, and producers by getting them excited about the vision of a new digital studio."

One of those talented people Mumm brought in was Kyle Kramer tabbed to oversee the management of production. Kramer had worked with The Verge before and his sports knowledge and managerial skills developed through years of commercial production made him the perfect fit.

They had to make sure the videos were engaging and a big part of that was developing the right look, perspective and talent. Mumm chose a bold yellow font that is incorporated in just about every single video. With the help of a strong SEO team those videos pop up near the top of most sports searches and the yellow lettering is front and center.

Next, they had to figure out the on-camera look. What would these studio shows actually look like? "The goal was to give the production a sense of 'place' that a fan/viewer might want to visit if we did our jobs right," says Mumm. "There's something about web video that feels more connected to me and I feel like large and fake studios seem out of place in the online community." With the help of 513 Designs, they created a space that gives that sense of community and also has a pragmatic application in that they aren't confined by designated shooting locations.

The biggest strength of SB Nation is their talented roster of over 300 bloggers. But then the question becomes how to utilize that asset when those bloggers are spread throughout the entire country and have varying levels of on-camera talent. To handle that task they brought in Michael Bean, current editor of the Steelers blog "Behind the Steel Curtain". Bean was tabbed to get the bloggers up to speed and all on the same page in how to shoot the videos and best practices. He sent out 100 blogger remote interview kits (or BRIKs - the acronym they gave for the kits) and web cams to many of the other sites and through a process of trial and error began to hone both the aesthetics and content of the productions.

"We're finding our next level stars among our network," Kramer says. And that's the beauty of having 300-plus blogs. It's like a farm system and the most gifted talent will be encouraged to produce more content.

Aside from the sheer volume of bloggers, one of SB Nation's biggest strengths has been its speed. "We're not set up to beat anyone to the punch," says Kramer. "I mean ESPN's got it up there instantly when you look at it. And NFL.com and NBA.com and CBS Sports. We're not going to be able to compete with the speed of that. So we're not going to be breaking a lot of news unless we have the inside track on something. So yeah, that's our goal - to bring the opinion to it. To bring the fan perspective to it. Because all these guys they're experts but there also fans." And that's the strength of SB Nation.

There is a drawback to the bloggers though. The majority of the bloggers are dedicated to a specific franchise and thus don't have mass appeal. That's where what Kramer calls the "pyramid structure" comes into play. In order to get some name recognition, SB Nation hired a few big personalities. First on board was Amy K. Nelson who was a writer at ESPN and often appeared on camera on shows like 'Baseball Tonight' and 'First Take.' Next they brought in frequent guest on "Around the Horn" Bomani Jones. They also added Kissing Suzy Kolber's Matt Ufford. These names are part of the face of SB Nation video and they form the top tier layer of videos. Their videos range from straight journalism from Nelson to Ufford and Dan Rubenstein debating athletes in a segment called "Bro vs. Douchebag". With the big names providing a more broad appeal and the bloggers getting the niche audience, SB Nation is hoping there is something for all sports fans.

Given that this entire venture is breaking new ground it's difficult to measure the success so far. The videos with broader appeal tend to receive around 5-6,000 views and the quicker hits like game recaps or previewing events usually get about 500 hits. There is the occasional video that hits it big like when Ufford redesigned NFL logos or Nelson interviewed fans during a Duke-UNC game and those videos have been viewed over 100,000 times.

"The thing that we're looking at most is growth - percentage growth. And we've been, especially in the sports realm of the YouTube partners, pretty much leading in consistent growth and growing more every week," Kramer said when asked if it's considered a success. "That's what we're looking at more than the numbers themselves and as long as we keep growing and as long as YouTube and Google are happy with our growth and numbers...we're happy."

The deal with YouTube is just for one year but with SB Nation churning out content and the sizable investment put into the project there's no reason to think this partnership will expire any time soon. The relationship is extremely beneficial to SB Nation because Mumm points out that there is no cannibalization of their audience. There's little crossover between those that watch content on YouTube and those that get it directly from SB Nation.

The agreement with YouTube also doesn't restrict what SB Nation can do. They are still able to produce videos independent of YouTube including a recent deal made with the United States Marine Corps. The Marines Corps contacted them about advertising on the site and instead of a typical banner ad, Mumm and his team pitched a series titled "Core of Sports" where they produce vignettes of athletes "who best represent the principles of the marine corps' warrior ethos." The result has been some beautiful pieces shot and edited by the SB Nation crew.

Mumm makes sure to stress that they won't be shilling products and instead intend to take content and bend it around sponsorships instead of the other way around. But they are quickly outgrowing their current space and have plans to move to a more permanent facility in October that will have all Vox Media entities under one roof including The Verge and video game site Polygon as well as the sales team.

When asked what the benefits of the new space will be Kramer mentions hot water and better internet before discussing the ability to share resources and having private editing bays among other things. He tells an anecdote of how the current space used to be a dance studio and that there were trampolines when they moved in. Ufford quickly chimes in how he misses them. Perhaps the culture change has already begun.

But just because the trampolines are gone and soon all of the editing won't take place on a couple of cramped tables doesn't mean the relaxed environment is coming to an end. When taking a tour of the facilities I see an intern working on laying graphics over Miami Heat footage to make it look like the video game NBA Jam while Bean looks on and gives notes with a Yeungling in his hand.

"This is the best team I've ever worked with," beams Kramer. "Everyone here is here for a reason. Everyone can do multiple things. Shoot, edit, After Effects, Final Cut, sound design. You name it. Everyone is multi-talented." It sounds like a company line but it's not.

We walk over to another set of computers where another tech-head with a Mohawk is working on a transition effect he has created. He is so excited to show it off to Kramer. Kramer is just as excited and gives him a fist-pound after the demonstration. It's the ultimate nerd moment but it's what makes the environment so appealing. Everyone seems genuinely happy working. It doesn't feel like a chore. No one is desperately waiting for the clock to strike 6 to rush out the door.

The majority of the editors were working on footage that had just come in from over the weekend from the NFLPA Rookie Premiere Event held in Los Angeles. It was the first event of this caliber the crew had traveled for and so far the videos produced from the event have garnered a lot of attention. This tight group of people is constantly learning on the fly and the quality of the product has already increased dramatically in just a few short months. It is unclear what the future holds for the relatively new venture but as long as the culture of hard work, creativity and enthusiasm remains, you can expect the entertainment value to continue to get better as SB Nation Studios grows.

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