Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Blogs With Balls Conference Recap

In a room of 300 Blogs With Balls sports-blog conference participants, I was the only one wearing khakis, not jeans.

That alone qualified me as the biggest tool in the room. And it would have been my biggest regret, except I ended up trading moderator slots with Dan "On the DL" Levy, who moderated a raucous, day-ending panel (sort of) about MSM vs. bloggers -- I loved the panel I moderated (CEOs of content networks); I wanted to do both!

But I'm getting ahead of myself, as I wanted to report back from Saturday's first-ever sports-blog conference, held in NYC, known as "Blogs With Balls" (or BWB).

Huge kudos to the organizers: They thought they'd get 150 attendees. They got 300. They found a space to accommodate everyone -- the basement of a bar, complete with spill-over rooms that were wired with HD TVs and sound, so you could follow the conference even if you weren't sitting right up in front of the stage. The HHR Media guys got half a dozen sponsors -- in this economy? (exactly) -- and attracted a wide variety of panelists and conference-goers.

That was probably my favorite part: Walking around the room, my eyes locked down at everyone's shoulder-level, where I could see their name-tag and -- naturally -- what blog they were affiliated with. I met folks who I have gotten emails from (or emailed with) or who I have read with great enjoyment (or even read with less than enjoyment). It was a "Oh, YOU'RE so-and-so.com...great to finally meet you in person!"

This wasn't your typical business conference (and most are sadly typical) -- replacing your standard executives were folks who were the proprietors of their own blogs. Some are making money. Some are just in it for the love. Some are in networks like Yardbarker or SB Nation. Some are "indie." Some were big. Some were small. Some use T&A. Some use stats analysis. Some spam email, looking for links. Some thrive with a more modest approach. Some cover specific teams. Some cover sports. Some cover everything.

Regardless of whether or not folks were veteran conference-goers, you come to something like this for a couple reasons:

(1) To "network" (whether for business or, like many here, for fun). On the plus side, there were plenty of folks to network with. I found myself in conversation after conversation with folks with whom a better relationship will either (a) help me in some way in my professional and/or blogging career, or (b) simply earn me a new colleague in the space, which I value incredibly highly. We are all only as strong as our networks. To a point others have made, more dedicated time for networking in an otherwise packed panel schedule would have been welcome -- a consistent theme was asking folks NOT watching the panels to keep their voices down so the audience could hear the panelists.

As the only sports blogger with a Harvard MBA (and perhaps the only one with an MBA, more generally -- holler if you're with me...in debt!), it was really important to me that I get a chance to sit down and talk with some of the folks who own and operate the most successful businesses in the online sports media universe; it's a big reason I switched with Levy to moderate the panel about content networks -- the opportunity to dig into the topic with guys like SB Nation's Jim Bankoff, Yardbarker's Pete Vlastelica, Bleacher Report's Dan Kelly, Uproxx's Jarret Myer -- plus other business owners like FSV's Chris Russo, Octagon's Jim DeLorenzo, SMC's Kathleen Hessert and Real Clear Sports' Jeff Pyatt were really important to me. Online sports media has been my passion -- and my professional life -- across my entire 15-year career; this was a great chance to talk with some folks at the leading edge of where things are going (or should be going).

(Don't get the wrong idea: I already knew I was going to bounce around the room meeting bloggers I know -- or "know," virtually -- or just plain respect, which made the event the most energizing day I have had in a long time. I hesitate to name names, because I will leave out 95 percent of the folks I really enjoyed meeting. I will say that Spencer Hall stood out for his natty, Tom Wolfe-ish white suit and his typical raconteur flair.)

(2) To get some tactical advice. Now, I don't want to overemphasize this -- you go to any conference, and panelists are MUCH more tight-lipped than the folks here with success tactics. One thing I found was that panelists seemed very free with providing tactics and advice. More would have always been helpful. I think something to consider was that the audience -- most of the audience -- was VERY experienced bloggers; a greater emphasis on tactical insights -- even small-group info-sharing groups -- will make v2.0 even better.

(3) To hear from a wide variety of panelists on a wide variety of topics. Some would have liked to see more, but here were the interest groups represented: Huge marketing firms like Octagon, social media marketing firms (Sports Media Challenge), podcasters, successful individual bloggers, mainstream media reps, CEOs (a couple of them), indie entrepreneurs. Panels covered "Big Picture"; social media; earned media; how I made it (I was on it, and I'll agree it needed work, despite our best intentions); how to work with content networks; making blogging your full-time job; advertising; and the obligatory MSM-vs-Blogger panel. Oh, and Gary Vaynerchuk.

So the disciplines covered were mostly on point, particularly for v1.0 of this event. Room for improvement: I'm with Brian Cook (whose critical analysis of the event is worth reading), who pointed out that we really needed either a dedicated panel or representation on every panel of the "team-specific blogger" perspective, which makes up a huge portion of the sports-blog universe. I'm sure that will be added in for v2.0.

I also think that, aside from the CEO panel and "industry overview" panels, you're talking about panelists with an uneven level of experience of being on a panel -- the ability to talk in short sound bites and put an emphasis on clear and actionable takeaways, keep the flow going, question and press each other. Additionally, a strong moderator can usually have an outsized impact on the quality of a panel. As a moderator myself, I think I could have done more.

(If nothing else, Gary Vaynerchuk was a total pick-me-up at the end of the long day. Actually, I was somewhat obsessed with watching him on the TV screen, because he actually sort of looks like me, physically. And we both are sort of high-talkers. But he has a LOT more energy than I have, which may be the understatement of the year. He is VERY high energy, and -- like him or not -- you can totally understand why he has been successful. But to his own point: If being salesy isn't in your DNA, being as successful as him -- in that self-starter, entrepreneurial way -- will be very difficult. I think half the folks in the room had that drive and the other half would love a salaried gig with a mainstream sports site to just blog.)

(4) To get some media attention. This is sort of optional, but you'd like your conference to generate some earned media about the topics you are covering, particularly important for sports bloggers looking to mainstream media to push the ball forward on the credibility of the platform. (I'm talking about beyond coverage from attendees themselves.) Now, we did see ESPN cameras covering it for Outside the Lines. And a bunch of ESPN folks were there -- and welcome. And I think I saw Newsday's Neil Best wandering around. And I know SI's Richard Deitsch, who is as obsessed with sports blogs as anyone in MSM, had a prior commitment.

But putting 300 bloggers in a room together is a pretty big event -- not sure why more sports media didn't pick up on covering it. I think that the USA Today sports-media folks like to think of themselves as the biggest sports-media outlet there is; did they not know this was happening or just choose not to show up? (There was even a lot of free food, free Guinness, etc., catnip for sports media reporters.)

If I had known it would make a difference, I would have carpooled with Richard Sandomir myself, because I think he's an example of an influential sports-media critic who doesn't quite understand new media as well as he understands traditional media, and this would have been a good place for him to talk with some folks about it. So, another takeaway for v2.0: Expanded media outreach.

(As it stands, On The DL's Dan Levy had a great podcast analysis yesterday. Worth your time. And even folks who didn't attend, like Smart Football's Chris Brown, were inspired to write about the state of the industry.)

I think it's opaque -- not to mention rude -- not to talk about (and sincerely thank) the sponsors that, frankly, made the event possible: Yardbarker, SI.com, NESN, SB Nation, Lijit, Bleacher Report, Real Clear Sports, Diageo (for the complimentary Guinness and a bottle of Crown Royal for me to take home) and an incredibly fun afterparty sponsored by GQ. They show a terrific commitment to events like this that help bring sports bloggers together to meet each other, talk, hang out and otherwise see what a vibrant community it has been.

There were a lot of PR folks at the event -- as there should have been, if they want to create contacts within the industry -- and we need more conversation, not less, about how to work together in a way that is transparent for the audience and authentic to the writer. The brand wants it that way -- or should (or soon will). And it is critical for the bloggers. (Actually, for future events, I would love to see a panel talking about standards and best practices for working with both PR firms and advertisers who come directly to bloggers.)

But the biggest thanks goes to the organizers from HHR: Chris and Don and Kyle -- guys, who am I missing? They pulled off something that I think has been at least 5 years in the making, and the result is something that can happen annually (if not more frequently, with v2.0 coming in October in Las Vegas).

I know that they are particularly obsessed with constructively building off this inaugural event -- the good and the "needs improvement" -- to make the next version even better. I encourage attendees (and even non-attendees, but perhaps future attendees) to take Brian Cook's lead and think about what types of panels or discussions would create the most value.

I will say this: For all the value of walking out of a conference with new tactical tips and a couple free pints, it was a success for me personally because I got to meet and talk with so many great people, conversations that started before the conference, continued through the conference and will hopefully extend far beyond the conference.

We had fun. We ate chicken fingers and pigs-in-a-blanket (or, at least, I did...so many...) Folks enjoyed some good beer and what was hopefully some quality conversations, both on the stage and in the wings. I enjoyed myself, hopefully others enjoyed themselves, and that's about all you can ask for.

Except for my Dockerrific outfit. Next time: Jeans. Definitely.

-- D.S.

(PS: If you think I missed any big points -- I didn't want to necessarily build or comment on every single critique that Brian made -- please let me know. But I think that everyone can agree: The HHR guys deserve huge kudos, simply for pulling this off with the professionalism and enthusiasm that they did.)


Reverend Paul Revere said...

I was there as well, and I thought as a whole it was fantastic. Of course, always things to improve on, but for a first go-round, really exceptional.

Patrick said...

So disappointed that I missed this. I can't wait to attend v 2.0.

BlueWorkhorse said...

I wore some linen pants if that makes you feel any better, but I'm not exactly sure if that is a step up from jeans or a step down.

Thought you did a great job though. Thanks for your participation.