The Global Media Weekly for executives and entrepreneurs

How I do it: Adam White, Front Office Sports

Adam White is CEO and co-founder of Front Office Sports (FOS), the fast-growing US media company covering the business of sports which celebrates its 10th anniversary this month. He started the site as an undergraduate at the University of Miami who had no idea to guide his future career other than the love of sport. That had prompted him to study Sports Administration: “Front Office Sports started after I did a class project in my freshman year. The summer after that year, I wrote a post in the University of Miami sport administration Facebook group asking if anyone wanted to be involved in this idea that I had.” As a result, he was joined by former Miami classmate Russell Wilde, now the FOS chief operating officer.

On his return home to Phoenix, Arizona for the vacation, White pondered the idea of a web site about the sports industry, paid a friend to make the logo and launched it on Wix. The early incarnations of FOS were based on the longform Q&A interviews of his university class project. For a few years, Wilde was his only colleague in a New York-based company which now has a headcount of 46 (about half are journalists).

They had started to think big in 2019 with the first external funding, from Jason Stein’s SC Holdings (whom White had befriended on Twitter). The revenue lift-off was delayed by the pandemic but audiences grew strongly during enforced working from home. In the last five years, FOS is believed to have raised a total of less than $10mn. In 2022, family-owned B2B Crain Communications (publisher of AdAge, Automotive News and Modern Healthcare) acquired a 20% stake for a total of $5mn. Some 18 months later, in October 2023, Jeff Zucker’s RedBird IMI acquired what is believed to be some 35% of the equity (now on a par with SC Holdings) which included buying-out Crain at what is thought to have been a profit of almost 100%. White, his colleagues, advisors and angel investors are believed to hold the remaining 30% of the shares.

FOS now seems set for ambitious times. We estimate the company – 80% of whose audience is in North America – will this year increase its advertising/sponsorship revenue from $6mn to $14-15mn, producing its debut profit, having become cash positive last month. With an estimated $3mn in investment cash, that breakthrough is likely to propel the company’s international ambitions, presumably in 2025, and – eventually – some paid-for subscription services too. Its fledgling education courses could also become a more significant business.

Meanwhile, Adam White claims 800k signups for the free, twice-daily newsletters, 40mn platform opens, 10mn video views, and 2mn page views every month: “We did 250mn social impressions in January and we’ll probably do close to 750mn in the first quarter. We did ‘only’ 2bn in the whole of 2023.” The learn-as-you-go CEO comes down to earth: “At the end of the day, we are two people who had no money, no experience, and no audience. And we’ve built a business that’s really meaningful and very impactful in our space.”

These are our estimates for how FOS will break through into profit this year with a likely 2.5x increase in revenue:

Front Office Sports
SnapShot
$mn**
202420232022
Revenue14.06.05.5
EBITDA  2.0
Margin14%
Headcount  464010
**Flashes & Flames estimates
“If we had raised money from the start, we wouldn’t be here today”

How do you describe Front Office Sports?

We like to see ourselves as the leading media news organization covering the business of sports. In some ways, when we describe it to brands, our idealistic space is:‘How do we build the Wall Street Journal of Sports?’ It’s a unique space and opportunity because there’s this conversation around enthusiast media and niche media. I think the issue that people don’t really see is that “niche” means focused and does not have to mean small small – because we’re not small: in January alone, we did a quarter of a billion social impressions. We have a million cross-platform social followers. And these are real people who are engaging with us across all platforms. We’re the number one sports publisher on LinkedIn from an engagement standpoint. Editorially, we cover the influence of sports on business and culture.  

Our audience is made up of prosumers. They’re professional consumers who work in white-collar industries like tech, finance, media, real estate, and marketing. And that’s our whole thesis: all these athletes want to be business people and all these business people were athletes or are connected to sport in some way or are interested in it. And people now really, really care about what happens off-the-field because owners have become larger-than-life personalities. Athletes are now billionaires.

The stuff that’s happening off the field is really driving what’s happening on the field. We don’t want to take a traditional ‘trade magazine’ approach to this because I think there is a meaningful audience outside those people who just work in sports. We are building a media organization driven by real news, scoops and analysis by our journalists. I always tell people, when they talk about Bloomberg, the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal, that these are not trade publications for business. They’re just enterprise business publications. They do have things that are more ‘trade’ and they have paid subscriptions and events. But, if you look at their footprint, it’s hundreds of millions digitally. Then you bring that down into how many people pay. For Dow Jones, I think it’s 10mn. Then how many people attend their events? Thousands. It’s just like you have to have that ability to funnel things down. I think that’s the same with us. In my ideal scenario, we will have a large top of funnel audience that then gets funnelled down and is more of a hub and spoke approach where the hub is the digital brand and the spokes are things like our education business, our events, awards and our (eventual )subscription business. 

Why is this an attractive market?

People now care so much about the business of sport. The biggest stories in the NFL last year were about who was going to buy the Washington Commanders. Even 15 years ago, I don’t think that would have been the case. Nobody even knew who the owners were. It’s a really interesting time to be covering this space and we’re the only ones taking this purposeful approach. 

What are your ambitions?

Our goal is to scale domestically and then internationally. This is a meaningful opportunity because everyone else just kicks around the edges of it. CNBC and The Athletic have some of this coverage and The New York Times now has a sport business group of four or five people and Wall Street Journal covers it too. But it’s not their full business. That’s where you start to see the real opportunity in media. You take these big brands and say: “I’m going to do a single part of what they’re doing as my full-time focus, and I’m going to do it better than anyone else”. That’s the opportunity for us.

It’s a bit like  what The information has done that with tech. They basically said ‘We’re going to take tech out of all of these publications, and we’re going to cover it better than anyone else’. Like Craig Fuller with FreightWaves. Focused specialists are the real opportunities in digital media. The New York Times bought The Athletic, because The Athletic was better at sports. Could it next buy Food 52? Obviously, food is already big at The New York Times, but is someone doing it better than them?

What’s your audience split between B2B and B2C?

I think in a way, it’s probably 50% or more prosumer because there’s not that many people actually working in sports. If you take our followers on LinkedIn, which is a good cross-section of our audience, it’s finance, real estate, technology, marketing, media and entertainment. For example, the CMO of Carter’s, which is the kids brand, who I just talked to the other day because I saw him on LinkedIn sharing our content. He told me he loves our stuff because he’s a super-interested former athlete. Is he a B2B reader or a B2C one?

Our pitch to the brands is that our audience is higher quantified consumers who buy cars, houses and airline tickets. When you look at our ads business, it reflects that – whereas, say, in media, there are trade sites and publications – there’s not the same in sports because the’re relatively small businesses employing sometimes only a few hundred people; they want to be part of our wider audience.

That’s why we’ve taken this prosumer approach which we’ve been doing five year as a full-time business, although we’re actually now 10 years old as a brand. We need to make sure our publication feels good for big brands. You can see our newsletter yesterday was sponsored by Acura. Today, it’s Apple and has been Autotrader. We have Hulu running on the site.

We have a great affluent, influential, unduplicated audience for those brands and they’re engaging with our content in a way that’s much different to other people. That’s the pitch, and its worked. 

How did you launch FOS?

I started as a sophomore in college in 2014. Really, at the time, it was just an interview platform. I would sit down, have informational interviews and publish them. My idea was that, by the time I graduated, I wanted to make sure I had enough relationships to get me a job. I did total of 110 interviews. 

Through those, I spoke to bunches of different people, and they basically all told me what they wanted: ‘We need more of this and that’. It’s so funny. I always tell people, we didn’t have any money until the first investors in 2019… and then Covid hit. Those first four years, actually having no money, was the best thing that happened to us because I could try a bunch of things and, basically, we did four years of market research where people told us all of the things that they needed to see and wanted to see from a publisher in this space. And then, once we had the money, we could do it. And then, over time, I’ve got a lot of my inspiration from other media companies. I’m not normally looking at people in our competitive set because it doesn’t really matter to me. I’m focused on what the Wall Street Journal, Politico, the Financial Times and Bloomberg are doing. Because we want to be those people. How do their events look? Of course, we’re not anywhere near them in terms of size, scope and resources but they’re the inspiration.

The best and worst thing about building a media company is you’re ‘working-out’ naked, because everyone can see all of your imperfections and mistakes. But, as you get better and better, people share the joy and feel how amazing it is that you’ve come this far, because they can see you’re now fit and strong. The’re part of the club and help you develop.

When we were trying to pivot our approach on Instagram, just a year ago, we sat in Zoom meetings every day for an hour, and worked out what the content that would drive the most engagement on that platform would look like. And then – all of a sudden – we started doing it. Next thing you know, the audience started to snowball. We now have 250k followers on Instagram alone and, in some cases, we’re driving 200,000 likes on our posts.

How did you get funding?

I met Jason Stein, of SC Holdings (which invests in sports, media and advertising businesses) on Twitter!  We had been messaging each other and one day (incidentally, after my girlfriend and I had broken up) I messaged and told him about my approach to the business. I was 23 years old and didn’t expect it to result in anything. But he invested $750k for 51% of the business at the end of 2019 and they’ve been amazing partners ever since. At that time, we staffed up to five or six fuilltime people and our revenue went from zero to about $800k. And then Covid hit. We actually went up to about $1mn in revenue during Covid but we hugely built our audience because, suddenly, the only things happening in sports were off the field. It was the catalyst for us and really helped drive audience growth across all platforms. Then, in early 2022, Crain invested <an estimated $5mn for 20%>, buying some of the SC Holdings share that had become about 70% and also putting some money on the balance sheet. They were really good partners. But, last year, RedBird IMI and Jeff Zucker came along and gave Crain the opportunity to exit the business with a meaningful gain in a year or so. Redbird was a huge stamp of approval for us.

How important are the social media platforms?

Many traditional digital publishers are so focused on bringing people back to their owned and operated sites. They don’t think about the fact that many people consume content differently on different channels and platforms: you need to build content for each of those platforms. Many publishers either went super-hard for the Facebook-like platform traffic or, alternatively, just for their own sites. They never found the balance we are always working on. You’ve got to be everywhere.

What’s behind this year’s acceleration in revenue?

Economic conditions are better. People understand how to buy us in the market. When you start to deal with big brands and agencies, you have to spend an entire year educating them about how to buy you, where to buy you and get into the RFP flow. And, quite frankly, we didn’t previously even have the solutions to offer these brands. Our audience wasn’t scaled. We were mostly a newsletter business. A year and a half ago, we pivoted the business to be multi-platform, focused across all channels, delivering scale, meaningful engagement and reach. And then we decided to really focus and go into brands and agencies. We now have a real sales team. We’re soon going to have seven full-time sales people and a head of sales. We have a creative strategy team that’s making all of our decks. We have built a commercial  team and our overall market awareness and the economic headwinds have now become tailwinds. We know our audience. We’ve had to really build a ton of trust and relationships and deliver for brands and campaigns – and it’s happening with 97% of those brands spending $100k+ coming back for more.

Most of your revenue is advertising?

Yeah. 99% of our business right now is ads-supported but there will be opportunities to diversify our revenue. We’ll develop meaningfully into events and a few other things. I think that’s a big part of the investment from Jeff Zucker which is allowing us to really focus on diversifying the revenue beyond just advertising. So we have our education business. That’s been really successful, but its been brand-supported so far. We’re going to be doing some production, working with the Netflixes of the world, so we’re really excited about that. 

What’s the future?

The focus will continue to be on how we can invest in high-quality journalism and then drive audience brands, opportunities and additional revenue streams. I think there’ll be opportunities for us to do a lot more in podcasting. We’re also looking at opportunities to work with more athletes and creators. We’ve already started some of that, but it will be a deeper presence in North America and there’ll be either an international version or international coverage, and the expansion of awards and events. My ‘pie in the sky’ goal is $25mn revenue by 2025.

There’s so much room to grow. I tell people all the time, if we had a staff the size of WSJ or Bloomberg, we could probably write 400 or 500 articles a day. There’s so much going on in this space across-the-board, internationally, globally, between what’s happening in college athletics, soccer and the Olympics. I think there’s a meaningful business there of perhaps eight or nine figures. 

What about subscriptions revenue?

The only reason why we started without subscriptions is because, 10 years ago, I was nobody and we were nobody. I didn’t spend 15 years at a publication. I hadn’t worked in the media. How are you going to charge someone for something if you’ve never worked in media? People don’t know who you are. We had no audience and no brand. 

I think we’re now at the point when we could envisage subscriptions – and we just hired a new editor-in-chief, our first true newsroom leader. Really, over the next 12 months, we need to get to the point where every piece of content we put out feels like a subscription-worthy piece of content, whether it’s news or a quick hit or a scoop. How do we make sure that we become indispensable over the next 12 months? 

Do we actually need subscription revenue? No.

Our ads business is healthy enough to support the business without subscriptions. But we – and every media outlet – know the value of revenue diversification. Our ads business is healthy enough to support us without that. But, at some point, there will be paid-for revenues, something that is structured and appropriate. 

We now have an established authority. The brand matters to a lot of people. Now, with the right journalistic people in place, we’ll nail all of these things. I just want to do it right. It’s not the right time to rush out a subscription or anything like that. I would rather continue to build brand equity and audience and bring as many people into the funnel as possible. We have a registration wall that’s been meaningful for us. And it’s a first step into getting an understanding of first-party data. Who’s registering? What are they reading? What are they seeing? We’ll probably continue that pace and have close to 100,000 people registered on the site. The way we have it is ‘first visit free’, ‘second visit, you have to register’ and on. I would say probably within the next 12 to 18 months is the plan.

Is it all about getting more exclusive content?

Well, we’ve had some really good scoops. But nowadays, because there’s so many people who quickly curate and aggregate – which isn’t a bad thing, as long as they link back – it is what it is. But those stories can be commoditized pretty quickly. I think scoops, news and analysis matter. But the analysis is what helps you really crush it. We did this story the other day around pickleball and how it’s basically China’s new national sport. They have this whole thing around pickleball and diplomacy. I think we had some 750k opens just on that story, and that includes people forwarding it. It’s the stuff that works but is it a scoop per se? Probably not, but it’s just smart and sophisticated. It’s a point of view that people aren’t going to see elsewhere. That’s why I think Puck, for example, does a really good job. It definitely breaks some news. But they have very interesting third-wave stories where wave one is breaking news, wave two is a scoop but wave three is the next-day analysis of what happened and what it means.

What are the best lessons from your first 10 years?

Every business is always is a people business but media is 100% a people business. And your audience are people too. You can always learn. I’ve never sat in a newsroom or in a sales organization. I only sat in my dorm at the University of Miami. That’s where I learned all this stuff. That’s where all these things happened. And so you just learn along the way. I’ve learned not to be afraid to reach out to people and ask about their business. That has been super-beneficial to me.

Then there’s leadership.

It’s weird when you start the business from zero of zero of zero and you do everything. You have to find ways to pull yourself out and allow people that have been hired to do some of the stuff that you have always been doing. That was a really hard challenge for me early on. I remember I still had the keys to our social account for the 18 months after we got funding because I had always run all of our social when we first started – and now obviously I don’t. You’ve got to get really good at firing yourself, and it’s uncomfortable but that’s fine.

I have learned that your business is never going to grow without taking some risks but you just have to be financially prudent. We obviously have great investors but we’re not just sitting on piles of cash that we can throw around and have a fun party with. You get to create that sense of discipline; you’re not born with it. Many of the digital news startups show that you can’t just throw money at media. It just doesn’t work. It’s a true grind every day 24/7 and 365. Now we have a real audience, brand and understanding. Someone, somewhere might think they can throw millions at it and have the best journalists and everything. But we know they’re wrong. 

The whole thing about these kinds of businesses is if you work at getting it right, it doesn’t require that much money. But having done that, money can then help you scale it.

Did you benefit from starting small, raising little money and taking your time?

100%. I think, again, the blessing at the beginning of our business is we didn’t raise any money at first. I always tell people that, if I had the money in the first year we started the business, Front Office Sports would not be here today because I wouldn’t have known what to do with it. We had four years of understanding where the white space and opportunity was. And, look, I was lucky in the sense that I started in college and I was working and doing all this stuff, so I didn’t have to worry about those things outside of college. But, if we had even just the $750k that we  later raised, it would just have never been successful. When we did get investment for the first time, I knew that what we needed to do with it…

Front Office Sports