World’s ‘biggest blogger’ gets sporty

Megan Foster      No comments
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Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, arguably the world’s most successful blogger, is excited.

Not only has his politics super-blog, Daily Kos, just recorded its first million-hit day, cementing its position as the most popular site of its kind, but he is also convinced he has nailed the Next Big Thing.

“What I found is that blogs work really well in hyper-partisan environments,” he tells Times Online. “There are three areas of life that are hyper-partisan: there’s politics, obviously, religion, and then there’s sports.”

So runs the sales pitch for SB Nation, Mr Zúniga’s planned network of 200 sports blogs. If the business plans come to fruition – and Mr Zúniga succeeds in raising the $1 million in angel funding he requires – by 2007, it will cover every team in every major league in the US. Then, after hooking into America’s hugely popular college sides on the way, it will tackle international football – “soccer, that is”.

The policy wonk turned sports pundit is banking on one central principal. He argues that a sense of dislocation from the mainstream media has fuelled the explosion of left-leaning blogs – including the Daily Kos – in America during George W Bush’s tenure at the White House. He says that sentiment is mirrored by the frustration of smaller-team fans when the media giants skip their results.

“When I started blogging, if you spoke out against President Bush you were accused of being a traitor and I was deeply offended by that,” explains the US army veteran on what drove him to take up blogging.

“But where I guess the politics stuff just happened, the sports stuff is calculated.”

If Mr Zúniga seems to stray into hyperbole when he says President Bush has made it “very difficult to be a liberal in America”, it seems sensible to remember that this is a man who attributes his success to pure, unembarrassed, partisanship.

But when he argues that sports could follow politics in the blogging stakes, he moves on to more coldly rational ground. The advertising soothsayers are predicting that these are the two areas that will keep the advertising industry afloat this year. Chief among them, Sir Martin Sorrell of WPP, the head prophet, has marked the World Cup in Germany and the mid-term elections in America as the engines that will drive marketing spending in 2006.

The Daily Kos, which now employs three programmers, earns its money – “tens of thousands of dollars a month” – from advertising, as will the sports network. “We already do Google AdWord advertising, Mr Zúniga says. “As we get funding, we’ll look at other promotional opportunities.”

Already, SB has around 45 sports sites, each run by “established bloggers, people who have already shown the dedication and talent necessary to run a blog. It’s not as easy as it looks.” Those bloggers have signed revenue sharing agreements with SB Nation.

And while, despite its size, the Daily Kos has seen some frighteningly volatile revenue flows over the past year, both it and the sports venture would seem to be well placed to cash in on the migration of advertising dollars to the internet.

However, Mr Zúniga does not have the field to himself. There are several other online sports networks courting his target audience. Scout Media (www.scout.com), a college sports site, for example, was bought by News Corporation, the parent company of Times Online, last year. Similarly, Nick Denton’s Gawker Media group now has a range of blogs targeting everything from celebrity gossip to political scandal to technology news.

The interest from the media giants is understandable. Blogs aren’t proving to be the fad some thought they would. When Mr Zúniga started his own in early 2002, the largest politics site was Instapundit, which was getting around 8,000 hits a day.

“Now I get close to a million a day,” Mr Zúniga says. “I broke a million yesterday … We’ve seen incredible growth. I’ve tripled the growth since last January. The site is doubling in traffic every four to five months. It’s pretty insane.”

So, is this the start of a new media empire? Is Mr Zúniga a mogul in waiting? Is the prospect of wealth behind the move into the sporting arena?

The Daily Kos has, for some time, provided enough revenue for Mr Zúniga to consider it his day job, he says. It has also given him the freedom to sign a publishing deal – “with an independent house, so there’s no massive advance”.

He adds that he has “no philosophical aversion to making more money”. He would, one day, like to buy rather than rent his home. But when he cites a childhood spent in El Salvador “where we never had a lot of money” and how his family is very happy with their one Subaru, it’s easy to believe cash doesn’t drive him in the same way it does a businessman such as, say, Sir Martin.

Indeed, Mr Zúniga gives the impression of being left with a sour taste in his mouth after witnessing the overwhelming part played by money in American politics. The Daily Kos raised more than $1 million in the last electoral cycle, he notes – but immediately sets that into the context of a country where each side in the last Presidential election spent around $1 billion.

Still, though, while Mr Zúniga approaches potential angel investors, Capitol Hill staffers are coming to see him to learn how they can make blogs work for them.

“First, they’re all money, money, money,” he says. But then he explains that it is the e-mail lists kept by organisations such as MoveOn.org that are the keys to the huge fund-raising efforts. After that, he tells the politicos how in his opinion blogs are “not even about the money, it’s about manipulating the message”.

And that, he argues, doesn’t benefit from any one player dominating the market. “I would love nothing more than to have ten sites as big as Daily Kos right now. It would mean that we were that much more organised – and able to move the politics of the country. But we don’t have that … There’s a bigger issue than market monopoly. We’re trying to change the politics of the nation.”

The same philosophy extends to the sports network. Mr Zúniga insists he does not regard rival sports blogs as dangerous competition and believes there is the appetite among neglected fans to make the SB Nation a success. After the explosive growth of the blogosphere in the past year, it’s a claim that is hard to ignore.

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