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How HBCU Gameday went from a passion project to a profitable business

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: To grow revenue, work within your means and do things you are passionate about. Hone in on your team’s skill sets and partner with third-party companies to monetize your content across platforms.

This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. This “win” comes from Tolly Carr, partner at HBCU Gameday, which participated in the 2020-2021 cohort of the Table Stakes program run by the University of North Carolina.

Question: What communities do you serve and what can you tell us about the history of your organization?

Answer: HBCU Gameday was founded in 2012 by Steven J. Gaither. I first discovered the platform around 2014 while scrolling through Twitter. I was shooting HBCU games regularly as a freelancer and was curious about what was happening at other games that I wasn’t at.  

HBCU Gameday partner and host Tolly Carr is pictured on set in the HBCU Gameday studio. (Tolly Carr/HBCU Gameday)

The Twitter feed for HBCU Gameday seemed to be the most real-time and reliable source of information that I could find at the time. I would later join the organization and bring a video element to the platform.

The community we serve are fans of HBCUs, whether they be alumni, current students or people who just have an affinity for the institutions. We find that our platforms serve different demographics within that community.  

Our website and Facebook trend older, serving alumni and affinity groups. Our Twitter and Instagram channels trend younger, more toward current students. YouTube is probably the most balanced platform of them all. We have a surprisingly strong female demographic, which ranks 50-50 in our Facebook community.

Q: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?

A: There were two problems that we had to solve as an organization that manifested over time. 

Our very first problem to solve was providing quality and reliable coverage for HBCU sports and culture that was consistent with mainstream programming. We didn’t want our audience to see HBCU content that we created and view it as less than anything else they might see online or on TV.  Because we were a very small company, we had to be intentional about what we did and what we didn’t do. 

Screenshot of the HBCU Gameday homepage since its redesign (HBCU Gameday)

Our first major lift was to redesign our website and move from a blog-oriented site to a user interface that looked more like a traditional news site. We had to focus on short storytelling segments that we could offer as video-on-demand content for our community. We intentionally stayed away from producing live video, because we didn’t have the resources and fail-safes to properly produce a professional broadcast.

Over the course of five years as we continued to refine and polish our product, we discovered a second problem that needed to be solved immediately.  

While we were giving a great product to our viewers and our readers, we weren’t monetizing it efficiently enough to make it sustainable for our staff. Solving this problem fortunately coincided directly with our entry into the Table Stakes program.

Q: How is this approach related to Table Stakes (e.g. one of the 7 Table Stakes and/or an outgrowth of the Knight-Lenfest initiative, etc.)?

A:  This initiative relates directly to Table Stake No. 1 (“Serve targeted audiences with targeted content”) and Table Stake No. 2 (“Publish on the platforms used by your targeted audiences.”)

Simply put, we needed to transform HBCU Gameday from a passion project into a profitable organization that provides a living for our team. We have three full-time employees. We had to find a way to provide a liveable income for our management team and provide some sort of compensation for our contributors and grow that part of the team, as well.

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: The first decision that we had to make surrounded our monetization, and we definitely needed to outsource this task.  

We were very fortunate to have a couple of groups that were interested in partnering with us, but we had to pick the right one.  

The decision came down to two organizations, and they had two very different approaches. One group had a slightly better revenue share offer, but they were more interested in co-branding our content.  

The other group’s revenue share split wasn’t as good, but they were 100% hands off when it came to content and branding.  

We didn’t want to lose any freedom or have any interference with our content creation. We really felt that was a danger to dilute our authenticity, which could impact the trust we’d built within our community.  

Our Table Stakes coach, Tim Griggs, helped us navigate that decision-making process. That decision was painstaking at the time, but we felt very comfortable afterward and our revenue began to scale quickly.

We previously had been dependent upon Google AdSense but our new revenue partner, iOne Digital, significantly increased our advertising profile.

For example, when you look at 2020, our company generated $52,000 of revenue, which is not a lot of money. That’s not a sustainable rate of revenue to support an organization — maybe enough for an individual with no children or serious responsibilities.  

In 2021, we increased our revenue over 600 percent and made $375,000. Not earth-shattering by any stretch, but now that opens up the idea that there is potential for sustainability and key investments within the company.  

It must also be noted that this was a perfect storm moment within our company. Deion Sanders, a global icon in sports, became the head coach at Jackson State University. That created a spike in our viewership and readership that sustained itself over time. So this great opportunity to expand our audience dovetailed with our timing of raising our profile in the ad community.

In 2020, our website attracted 2.7 million users; in 2021, that number almost doubled to 5 million users. Our page views grew from 5.7 million in 2020 to 11.4 million in 2021. Our Facebook page saw a 33 percent increase in reach during that same period while our Instagram page increased its reach by 110 percent. Our alignment with iOne and its ability to leverage that traffic and inventory created a game changing moment in the history of our company.

Q: What tactics and strategies helped you gain traction in meeting your goal?

A: Accountability and measurement were real big factors in keeping us on track with our goal for Table Stakes. Some of the tactics that I found particularly helpful were “from/to” statements (a tool that helps you describe your current state and then your desired future state), the S-Curve (a method for plotting your progress throughout the challenge) and defining our North Star.

There was a unique combination of the North Star and the “from/to” in regard to their relationship. Whenever we ran into an issue, our North Star was always “what would the top tier companies in our industry do in any given situation?” 

How would we imagine the decisions that ESPN, NBC, Fox Sports, et al., might make whenever they stood before a crossroads?

The opposite side of that coin is that when you designate a top tier organization as your North Star, you often want to be where they are in all areas. It takes patience to make those types of gains and the “from/to” strategy allowed us to achieve milestones that we placed on a roadmap to our success and goals.

Read more about monetizing your content: Serving diverse communities | Growing a national audience | Local collaborations

Q: What didn’t work?

A: Home run swings. 

This goes back to the previous answer of not trying to use our North Star as a destination but rather as our guide.  

With the implementation of our ad partner and its premium revenue capabilities, there is no cap on our revenue potential. If we are able to produce viral or far-reaching content, then it makes for a great payday. 

But we’ve only generated home runs through an organic process of doing the work on a daily basis. Any time we’ve had the notion of creating something viral or having far-reaching results in any of our processes quickly, it never seemed to work. We found ourselves spending time on ideas that didn’t offer a return on the investment.

The highest rated results generally occur when we are doing the work of the day and an interesting topic or event presents itself. We insert that content in our daily flow and the results happen through a combination of luck, but also being ready when the opportunity arises.   

Q: What did you realize about your organization in doing this work?

A: Everyone in our company has a set of skills and things they are passionate about. We have found that we are at our best when we allow people to stay within their wheelhouse and excel in those specific areas. That may sound elementary, but our platforms are diverse and have foundations in different areas of expertise.

For example, I am a complete video geek because I learned my professional skills in a television environment. Wali Pitt has a combination of skills as a filmmaker and a programming coder. Steve Gaither is more astute with social media and writing.  

As we began to see revenue increases with our content, there was the idea that we should generate articles in volume. More volume equals more ad inventory, in theory.  However, we realized that people work better when dedicated to the things they are passionate about as opposed to revenue-specific tasks.

After dropping the idea that everyone should just contribute to the pool of articles written every month we created a winning content strategy. Our video content generated higher ad revenue but people couldn’t see the videos unless they first visited our site to read an article. 

So we scaled back on creating complex videos and created more digestible daily content to make available on our site.  

Wali and I kept the video pipeline flowing while Steven and other contributors provided the written content that mattered to our community. It became less about volume and more about an effective recipe of content. Our team seemed to thrive and find more happiness when they were able to spend more time on the things they really cared about.

Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?

A: As a business owner I have learned to protect my business self from my creative self. There are things that we might want to do that are really “cool” but they don’t fit into our business model.  

For example, we were early adopters of an over-the-top platform for our video content. I thought it would really say something special about our business if people could watch our content on their TVs.

But the truth was that the platform was not generating revenue and it was taking multiple hours per week for maintenance.  

I didn’t move off that platform quickly enough. The effort would have been better served just focusing on content on our profitable platforms like YouTube or Facebook. I learned that it doesn’t mean anything to be “cool” or “neat” if it’s not a financially sustainable endeavor.

Q: What advice would you give to others who try to replicate your success?

A: When I advise people in the content business who are trying to build a brand, I give them the same advice: Don’t give away your content for free.  

That doesn’t mean that you have to be a subscription-based service, which I’m personally not a fan of, but it does mean you need to be aware of your monetization capabilities.

The first thing you should always do is to build your content flow through your website.  

The website allows you to offer an ad-based experience that generates revenue through your content. That seems like common sense, but social media can be seductive for new content creators. You can reach a large audience quickly and easily, but building a foundation on social media alone is fool’s gold. Put the work into building your website and traffic to your website, even if it’s frustrating. The long-term return on investment is the motivating factor here.