Expanded Roster | Fringe Average: What Was FanRag Sports?
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Fringe Average: What Was FanRag Sports?

By: Ryan Davis

What the hell is FanRag Sports? That was a question I heard frequently the last few years, especially early in my time with the now-defunct sports media network. And to be honest, it was a question I never did figure out how to answer properly. The next Bleacher Report? The next FanSided? Or would it have a fate similar to that of Grantland, Sports on Earth, and various others that have come and gone in the sports media landscape?

FanRag Sports started in 2012 as nothing more than a small sports blog and fan forum. It was an idea, and nothing more. With the early addition of Tommy Stokke as the director of content, the backroom production quickly grew into a moderately recognizable name in the over-saturated industry. But in hindsight, FanRag was less like a beacon in a harsh industry and more like a sparkler on the Fourth of July, burning bright and quickly toward its own demise.

By June of 2018, the small Phoenix, Arizona office was closing its doors for good, and plenty of questions remain today. What the hell was FanRag Sports?

I started with FanRag Sports (henceforth referred to as FRS) in February of 2015 as a freelance writer. I was making $17.50 per story, writing for both their NBA and MLB websites. I recall my first impression being that I was immediately put off by the site’s name. A fan rag, I had thought, was probably something covered in mustard stains and soaked in the memory of so very many $12 Bud Lights.

But for an unknown writer trying to make his way in the hellscape that is sports media, a paying job was a paying job. That was at the beginning, when FRS had around 200 freelance writers of varying levels of talent and credential. About a year later, the site made what would be its biggest and most shocking announcement: They had picked up Jon Heyman, the well-known baseball insider, after he had been let go at CBS Sports.

Suddenly, I was no longer a face among hundreds of unknown writers. I was colleagues with Heyman, John Perrotto, Jack Magruber, Tony DeMarco, and other lesser-known but respected baseball writers such as Stacey Gotsulias, Kate Morrison, and Robert Murray. The pay got better, I got more exposure, and by the end I was attending the 2017 NLCS at Wrigley Field via FRS’s credential.

But for every Ryan Davis whose byline became moderately recognizable thanks to FRS, there were many others holding it all together that you probably never heard about. Alex Smolokoff is one of those people. You wouldn’t know it just by looking at his Twitter account, which boasts 574 followers, but Smolokoff was one of the most important people behind the scenes at FRS. He was the managing editor of the baseball side, which meant he edited – and sometimes even ghost-wrote – Heyman’s frequent and lengthy Inside Baseball articles.

Smolokoff, a native of Boston, Massachusetts, had just graduated college in June of 2013 when he started with FRS. He answered an ad on Craigslist that Stokke put out calling for writers, and eventually that led to a full-time position with the company. Smolokoff even uprooted from Boston and moved across the country to Phoenix for his position with FRS.

“They were great about the whole process,” said Smolokoff. “It slowly morphed from ‘hey it would be great if you moved out here’ to sort of, they implied that being there would really solidify my position with the company. They did a really good job. They paid for my flight down here, they put me up in an apartment with another employee of FanRag’s, and then they were really good about helping me find a permanent living situation. I didn’t have a car when I first moved down here and my boss at the time literally drove me to and from work every day. So they really did a very, very good job of acclimating me to the area.”

The bright lights of the sports industry was what drove Smolokoff to FRS in the first place. As he tells it, he was really just looking for any site that would help him get a foot in the door. But one of the key elements to FRS’s pitch to Smolokoff – and also to other writers that found their way to the network – was that every writer needed to be paid, regardless of their level of name recognition.

“Once I actually spoke to Tommy,” said Smolokoff ,“it just seemed like they were one of the few places out there that recognized that, even if you’re not a big site and even if you don’t have a big following and you’re not established, that’s not really a good excuse to not pay the people that help you get to that point.

“They just made it such a big point at the time that they wanted to compensate me. It wasn’t one of those ‘write for exposure’ type of things, and they were very blunt about the fact that A) it might not offer me any exposure, and B) exposure doesn’t pay the bills.”

Anyone that is familiar with sports journalism knows how difficult it can be to find gigs that pay a flat rate per story, which made FRS unique. There are more than enough sports blogs begging writers to come curate their content in exchange for nothing but a “voice in the conversation.” A frustrating, unpaid experience in the early days of Bleacher Report helped cultivate Stokke’s philosophy.

“At first, because nobody had ever heard of us and because we couldn’t offer exposure, I felt like we had to pay people for two different reasons,” said Stokke. “One, we had to pay them because otherwise they wouldn’t write for us, and the second reason was, around that time and even in the years after, the big topic in sports journalism was free labor and how so many websites were getting rich off of people who were working for free.”

There were several different tiers on which writers were paid, but this effort to make sure that everyone received their fair value played a role in FRS inevitably running out of time. According to Kristian Ibarra, another one of FRS’s full-time employees, the execution was lacking.

“There was just so much disarray in the beginning,” said Ibarra. “The amount of writers that we had toward the end of 2015 and most of 2016, it was a lot. I can speak from my own personal experience that many of them were not qualified. And I say that because at the time I understood what it took to land a paid position in this industry. Anybody can go write for FanSided, anybody can go write for one of those SB Nation blogs, but few people are actually going to get paid.

“So this idea that we were willing to pay people a standard rate for their stories, not paying them by the word and not paying them for pageviews or whatever. To me, it felt like a premium. The people that we should’ve been bringing in to write for us should’ve been above-average writers, and a lot of the time that wasn’t the case. Personally I would’ve turned down like 90 percent of them, but the way that the highest level of management felt, it was like they wanted to put butts in seats as quickly as possible.”

Like Smolokoff, Ibarra was an editor that existed mostly behind the scenes at FRS. He was in charge of writing and editing stories in the niche sport of mixed martial arts, and then later the taking a lead role on the news desk. Because he had so many writers under him in the early going, Ibarra said that he was editing as many as 14 stories in a single day. A conservative average would be that he was working 60 hours per week when he first started at FRS.

But early 2016, the litany of writers had been pared down. The future was looking bright for the little sports media company with the funny name that nobody had heard of. While Smolokoff toiled in Phoenix from the home office, Ibarra did his work from home in San Diego, California. In total, there were anywhere from 10-15 full-time employees with FRS. Jay Patt ran the NBA side, Ryan Wooden was in charge of the NFL, Carolyn Wilke did the NHL, and various others held low-level, full-time positions.

Stokke operated alongside fellow director of content Jaime Eisner as the leaders of the network’s day to day business. Above them in the hierarchy was their boss Keith Kinney, as well as the rarely seen owner and investor, Pat Burke. The group was well on their way to making FRS a legitimate news source, but one issue continued to hold them back.

“We struggled with what exactly we wanted to be,” said Stokke, “because the original idea of what FanRag was going to be was essentially a message board for fans where they got to be seen and be heard. We evolved that into trying to be a more credible outlet.

“I tried to find people in similar situations where all they needed was a chance. It was fun to do that, it was fun to try different things. The part that wasn’t fun was trying to get people to believe that we were a serious outlet and that the work we were doing was professional. Because it was. We just needed somebody to look past our name and look at the actual work we were doing to see that.”

In the spring of 2016, Heyman was the one to look past the name to the core of people working behind the scenes at FRS. The high-quality work already being published by FRS helped seal the deal with the baseball insider, but you can’t overlook the impact of the people who were burning every ounce of energy to help the company succeed. People like Smolokoff.

“It started when he wasn’t working at CBS anymore and we kind of joked, like ‘hey we should offer him something,’” said Smolokoff. “Very much understanding that it wasn’t a realistic option. But over a couple of months period, we noticed that Jon was posting full-length stories literally on his Facebook page. And that’s when Tommy reached out to him much more legitimately and said, ‘hey, you’re not writing for anybody right now, why not write for somebody, have full autonomy, and really help build something?’

“And when he came on board it was definitely the first time I thought, someone who knows what they’re doing and is established in the industry at least believes that they can help us. That was a big moment for us, and sort of the first time that I thought if he believes that we’re worth his time, maybe we really are.”

Heyman added legitimacy to the operation – which had already added Bill Williamson, who had been with ESPN – and other bigger names would follow. Zach Harper joined to cover the NBA and Jon Rothstein brought his college basketball insider pedigree.

“It was exciting,” said Ibarra. “I remember Tommy had called me specifically to tell me that we had landed Jon Heyman. It did make you feel like you were making it. We were a place that people wanted to work, and we were becoming an established part of the industry as a result of people coming to work with us.”

The same model of importing established talent, to a degree, is currently being used by The Athletic. The biggest names in the industry have been flocking to the San Francisco based start-up in large part because of their clear, specific vision and deep pockets. It remains to be seen whether The Athletic can eventually turn a profit on their subscription-based service – over two years in, and they’re reportedly still hemorrhaging money. But we do know that there are some clear differences between The Athletic and FRS, and it starts with the clear, specific vision and deep pockets.

In August of 2017, just over a year after Stokke had helped recruit Heyman to the site, a consultant by the name of Craig Amazeen was quietly promoted as the new CEO of FRS. Amazeen had previously been with scout.com, first as their senior executive producer and later as the site’s president. According to his LinkedIn page, Amazeen boasts the following accomplishments during his 10 months as president.

“Strategically reduced operating costs by $18mm in less than eight months without impacting revenue. Foresaw, prepared for and mitigated the departure of an entire engineering/tech team. Retained 100% continuity on the site and 100% publisher loyalty … successfully exited the Company to CBS Interactive through Chapter 11, section 363 Bankruptcy Protection.”

The move was made with a complete lack of transparency. The writers were unaware of Amazeen’s presence and new role in the company while the employees were sold a bill of goods on the site’s rapidly shifting direction. The same day that Amazeen took over at FRS, Stokke was informed that his employment was being terminated. It was the beginning of a downhill sprint that saw writers being laid off en mass and many other jarring, cost-saving measures.

“When I was told that I was being let go, I was rooting for it to be successful and I really wanted it to be successful,” said Stokke. “When I was let go, I was told that others would be let go. I knew that cost cutting was going to be a big part of it, and I don’t think that you can cut costs the way that they did and still be successful and grow. And in my personal opinion, I don’t know that they ever wanted to do that. I don’t know that that was ever the plan, especially seeing the way that it happened.

“I don’t think that they wanted me to be part of that decline, because I speak my mind. So I don’t know that I would’ve been happy watching it happen and I don’t know that I would’ve been able to keep my mouth shut. I wouldn’t have been able to put on a happy face every day, so it was probably best for both sides that it happened. I was pretty sure that it was the beginning of the end.”

Ibarra and Smolokoff have their own thoughts on the reason for the downfall of FRS, and it rhymes well with Stokke’s take on the situation.

“It’s a very difficult balance to have expectations that are high enough to keep people motivated, while not misleading people intentionally or otherwise,” said Smolokoff. “I was told many times over by many different people, ‘if we do X Y and Z we’ll get to a certain place that we want to be.’ And I believe that those people believed that, I don’t think that it was any kind of intentional deception. But at the same time, those things never happened and it leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth because I feel like I held up my end of the deal. It’s not that they didn’t hold up their end of the deal, it’s just that things didn’t go as planned.”

“I think management was probably the biggest issue that we had,” said Ibarra. “We had somebody at the helm that I think was a good people manager but wasn’t versed in the industry. We had a lot of good people who were helping with the day to day, but we never really had anybody who could help us carry out what vision that we had for ourselves in the long run. I think that was a big role in the stagnation and eventually the downfall (of FRS).”

FRS is gone but not forgotten, at least among those who made it what it was. Smolokoff, Ibarra, and Stokke still speak glowingly about the good times they had and the people they met. If they had the chance to go back in time, would they still have done it? Of course they would. Nothing will replace the experiences they had during FRS’s brief moment in the sun.

So, what the hell was FanRag Sports? It was the writer that might have given up on his craft entirely if not for the small, monthly deposits into his PayPal account. It was the Alex Smolokoff, fresh out of college, looking to break into an industry that only continues to get smaller and more closed off to outsiders. It was a platform for those who otherwise may not have had one. It was the underdog in an industry primarily occupied by cheap hot takes and vapid content.

FanRag Sports was real people, and it says everything you need to know about sports media that nobody knew or cared.