At the turn of the century, sports on the Internet were a novelty. Games were broadcast exclusively on television. Newspapers were the most reliable source of written content about a fan’s favorite team, and their websites were still rudimentary at best. For a time so relatively recent, it can seem like another world of sports media consumption, and it would have been impossible back then to imagine what sports on the Internet would look like today, each with its own weird and expansive online community.
NBA Twitter has vaulted clever civilians with hoops takes to cultural relevance. NFL fans supplement an oppressive amount of traditional media coverage with their own world of advanced stats and in-depth tape breakdowns. Baseball fans are grappling with a mind-boggling quantity of play-tracking data.Within this collection of digital fiefdoms, college sports—college football, in particular—thrive on hyper-local sites, which host vibrant message boards populated by diehards who shell out monthly fees for access to exclusive nuggets of information.
Almost all of those sites are housed under one of two networks: Rivals and 247Sports, which together offer 366 school-specific sites (plus more general sub-sites and regional high school sites) that cover college football to varying degrees. The dueling empires can feel like an alternate universe from the newspapers, magazines and general sports sites where casual supporters can get all the news they need.
Meanwhile, Rivals and 247 have redefined the concept of “need” to their subscribers, providing them exhaustive recruiting coverage, which is the sites’ main draw. The constant demand by subscribers—these are fans who are looking forward to next year’s signing day during this year’s spring practice—compels the sites to report even more heavily on high school prospects, which sets the expectation for even more granular newsbreaks, which pushes the cycle onward and opens the door for the type of weirdness that holds crossover appeal. In 2015, Rivals started tracking players in the sixth grade. Last month, its rating of a fake recruit set off a domino effect by which the recruit wound up in 247’s composite rankings and set off sniping on all sides.
But the story of these networks and their individual sites goes far beyond those flash points. Rivals and 247 have become a critical artery through which a large chunk of fans get some or all of their college football news. Their collective vise grip on the world of recruiting and dedication to relaying the smallest bits of info have helped them amass hundreds of thousands of subscribers.
Plus, both outlets make money—though that wasn’t always the case. The idea for team-specific, recruiting-heavy sites was born more than 20 years ago, before there was money to be made on the Internet, or at least before there was a model for such a thing. Since then, the sites’ key revenue stream has evolved from ad dollars to subscribers to a hybrid, and parent companies have been hatched and bought, filed for bankruptcy and sold. There have been years of stability and even more years of uncertainty. Kim Grinolds, co-founder of Dawgman.com, the successful University of Washington site that launched in 1997 and is now under the 247 umbrella, puts it plainly: “We should have died two or three times.”
But somehow, these sites have persisted. No matter what pressures the parent networks and their corporate overlords are facing, fans need their fix of recruiting news and message-board banter in good times and in bad. It’s an online environment unique to college sports, which are intrinsically rooted in an element that many of the writers and publishers of these subscription sites say is the driver of the whole business: hope.
Distill this whole thing down, and that’s what you’re left with. To cover a recruiting cycle or a coaching search is to cover hope—and those are the two biggest drivers of traffic for most sites in the Rivals and 247 networks. Games are great, but college football delivers the fewest of any major sport, which leaves a ton of time to fill. “Most teams are guaranteed 12 games,” says J.C. Shurburtt, who first joined Rivals as a recruiting analyst in 2004 and now owns and edits the South Carolina 247 site after serving as 247’s national recruiting director from 2010 to ’15. “Some play 13, 14, 15. So that leaves 350 to 353 days out of the year to be passionate about your team. Most of the focus during that time is on roster personnel, what’s going to happen in the future and then, in a lot of cases, hope.
“College football teams, they don’t play exhibitions. They don’t do scrimmages. They ... play very few games. I think, what are you going to do for the rest of your time? We’ve kind of solved that. That’s the thing.”
The model for Rivals, the original college sports subscription network, was created amid crisis. Jim Heckman's marriage to the daughter of legendary Washington coach Don James went up in flames right around the time his business, Sports Washington magazine, collapsed. Having married into Husky football royalty, Heckman had been making a solid living with the magazine and other ventures, including a 900 number he set up to provide recruiting information to callers. He was riding that wave of success in 1992 when accusations began to roll in that he had paid recruits and players and influenced their decision-making. (Heckman told reporters at the time that he had made a small donation to the program in order to secure season tickets.) Heckman denied any boosterism and maintained that he’d simply been providing advice when he told players the reasons they should sign with his father-in-law’s program. The Pac-10 didn’t buy it; the conference leaned on Washington, and the school banned Heckman and several others from contact with the athletics department until 1996.
His business upended, Heckman retreated—sort of. By the mid-1990s, a burgeoning interest in recruiting had taken hold on the servers of AOL, Compuserve and Prodigy. Fans could dial up and access information about the teenagers their favorite teams were targeting, though there wasn’t much money in it for the information brokers. Other enterprising fans, like Grinolds, were launching sites of their own, on servers that proved ill-equipped to handle their web traffic. Heckman, who’d had success earlier in the decade by uniting the owners of 900 numbers to bargain for a greater profit share, thought the same thing could apply to these sites. He wanted to link them and create a colossus that would be able to bring in meaningful ad revenue. “We started getting pressure from the people that were doing the servers, because we had such high traffic volume,” Grinolds says. “And then Jim came to us and wanted us to join him in his venture, that was going to be Rivals.com. … We were getting pressure because they wanted to boot us off their server. We were the highest non-porn traffic on their servers.”
Talk to enough of the guys—and that’s what they were for the most part, young and middle-aged white men—who were on the scene when the idea for Rivals was hatched, and the conversation is bound to head toward porn. There were just too many parallels back then: The company that handled the 900 numbers mostly dealt with college football and porn. The men who posted video to the early servers streamed through hours of college football and porn. They are, as Heckman says, two things people are willing to spend “an irrational amount of money on.”
“The college fan is way more intense than NFL,” Heckman continues. “That’s the school that accepted you, right? … It’s family. These guys accepted me, so I want that team which represents me and my self-worth to be successful. People are very personal. A lot of people met their spouses at the games and tailgates, right, so the fanaticism [is personal].” He has a corollary to that theory specifically about recruiting. When a great player picks a school, he says, fans aren’t happy simply because their team improved. “That player validates you as a person,” Heckman says. “This person thinks [my school is] cool. He’s a great player and that validates me. It’s a totally different level that people don’t understand.”
Rivals was born to streamline the interests of these sites, 900 numbers and email lists to maximize earning power, but the path that the brand and its offshoots have taken since 1998 has been far from linear.
Heckman secured outside investors and began to recruit people like Grinolds and their sites, then created more sites for more teams. “The kids come from all over the country, coaches come from all over the country, so the idea of consolidating under a single platform but delivering direct to the fans, we loved,” he explains. For a few years, the model relied more on ad revenue than subscribers—and then the dot-com bubble burst. Sites with robust subscriber bases survived. Rivals, as it was originally intended, did not.
In 2001 the defunct network’s assets were sold to AllianceSports founders Shannon Terry and Greg Gough, which later rebranded their company using the Rivals name. That group sold to Yahoo! for $100 million in 2007. In ’10, Terry split off from Rivals to found another, similar site: 247Sports.com. Meanwhile, Heckman launched a similar concept to his initial model in ’01 that he branded first as “The Insiders” and then as Scout.com. He sold Scout to Fox for $60 million in ’05, and Fox let the network founder. Heckman, as the head of yet another purchasing group, reacquired Scout in ’13. In ’15, CBS purchased 247, and two years later, 247 acquired Scout for nearly $10 million, folding it into its existing sites.
That’s where things stand today. Heckman has moved on to another digital venture, while Yahoo! and CBS provide the corporate infrastructure for the hundreds of sites across Rivals and 247, which have a healthy rivalry but often function complementarily at the local level. Unlike a decade ago, when a team’s Rivals site might have been competing to steal a subscriber from its Scout platform, today many fans pay for both Rivals and 247, indicating a demand for as much information and analysis as the Internet can muster. The sites function symbiotically at times, which caused an issue during the now-famous Blake Carringer saga last month. High school pranksters portrayed Carringer, a benchwarmer at Grace Christian Academy in Knoxville, as a fictional three-star O-line recruit, and the catfish ruse worked well enough for him to make it into Rivals’s rankings. Then, because 247 uses Rivals data to create its composite lists—more perspectives should equal less bias in the rankings—Carringer ended up ranked on both networks. In the fallout, 247 announced a policy change: no prospect not ranked by 247 analysts will appear in its composite.
On the whole, the networks are flourishing. Cumulatively, the two networks report upwards of 300,000 subscribers, who pay about $10 per month for analysis, film breakdown and access to what Shurburtt calls the “virtual sports bars” these sites have set up in their message boards, where takes of every possible temperature abound.
Message boards were “social media before they were social media,” says Barry Bolton, managing editor of 247’s Washington State site CougFan.com since 2004. They are the time-suck most fans are willing to open their wallets for in order to survive the doldrums of the offseason, and a central draw of both Rivals and 247is the 24-hour access to debate, from nuanced to incoherent. There are lewd jokes and wild tangents. The Big Spur, Shurburtt’s South Carolina site, frequently hosts Atlanta Braves hot-stove chatter on its boards. It’s not uncommon for a team’s rival to drive conversation, too.
In an age where breaking news is harder and harder to control or predict—many recruits break their college choices themselves, and athletic departments have attempted to circle the wagons on injuries and other revelatory internal news—message boards provide a world of color and context, where writers and editors chimein with information readers won’t find on the other side of the paywall. Sources, too, like that distinction; sometimes there’s information they would rather not see broadcast on the front page of a newspaper but are comfortable leaking for only the most dedicated fans to find.
The benefits of message boards go both ways, stirring up conversation for fans as well as tuning writers into their audience’s interests. Keenan Cummings, who’s a senior writer at WVSports.com, the West Virginia Rivals site, was a message-board junkie as a teenager. Now, he admits to spending a healthy amount of time on the boards his site moderates, talking with fans and figuring out what they want to know. Sometimes, if he has a big interview planned with a player or coach, he’ll ask fans what questions they’d want to ask. “I don’t necessarily make a dollar off interacting with these people,” he says, “but I do in the long run.”
In the end, it’s those message boards and recruiting coverage that keep the traffic coming, but the writers and editors behind subscription sites say their readers’ loyalty stems from something deeper than that. Many Rivals and 247 writers believe they’re able to tap into fans’ passion in a way the local newspaper's beat writer can’t because most sites fall somewhere between traditional, objective journalism and fan service. The most successful sites have employees who hold themselves to the same standards as newspaper writers, lamenting the selfies some recruiting analysts post with the teenagers they’re covering. They warn against acting as information brokers between schools and players, which has been known to happen. Instead, they pound the pavement, make cold calls, hope that an 18-year-old might choose them over Twitter. They’re also talented football minds and strong writers; when Bolton found his way to CougFan, he was attracted to it over its rival site due to the quality of the prose.
To the men who’ve been around this business for the better part of 20 years, the money involved can still seem novel. They once felt lucky to charge $20 a year; now they get that much in two months from a subscriber. They grew accustomed to rudimentary ads of cartoon monkeys at the top of their sites; now those ads have been replaced by major car manufacturers and clothing companies. They’ve gone mainstream—but they’re still having fun. “The people who were the high-powered sportswriters back in the day, they all miss their typewriters and newspapers,” Grinolds says. “Everywhere else is fledgling. And we’re rocking.”
Grinolds doesn’t dismiss his newspaper competitors, but he does note that often he feels like they’re not so much covering recruiting as they are covering the subscription sites covering it—and that’s fine by him and most of his colleagues. Though Grinolds signed a non-disclosure agreement about his subscriber base when Dawgfan came under the purview of CBS, he says he’s confident that his site has as many, if not more, unique viewers than any of the papers covering the team.
Loyalty grows from more than just how long a site’s been around. “I think the ones that struggle are the ones that kind of ignore the fan base right in front of them,” Cummings says. “You have to remember: A lot of the guys that we’re serving aren’t your run-of-the-mill fan. They’re very involved. These guys know everybody on the roster. Just on my site alone, you’ll have guys where, just if West Virginia updates their official roster—if a guy leaves or a guy’s weight changes—they have their laptops set to send them an alert if that happens.”
And writers like Cumming are expected to be able to tell those fans why that player left or had too many hamburgers, and what it means, and if it matters. It almost always does, at least to the men and women willing to shell out a monthly fee for a ticket to the college football Internet, the only digital space where there’s meaning ascribed to a second-string left tackle’s pants size. It might seem trivial, but the numbers behind these enterprises say otherwise. Maybe Rivals and 247 amplify that need for ever more information—but they also respect fans’ desire for it. On the college football Internet, hope springs eternal, and so do message board threads.
Correction: A previous version of this story inaccurately stated the timeline of Rivals’ sale to the group that included the Alliance Sports founders.