How to write about sports on Substack
... according to someone who writes about sports on Substack.
Witches’ Sabbath, Francisco de Goya, 1821-23
Some great sports bloggers and podcasters are looking for a new home for their work given Vox Media’s latest retrenchment. (Fun fact: Vox Media was originally only a sports blog company. In fact, it was called SportsBlogs Inc. Gone are those days.)
Having been cut by Vox Media in a prior retrenchment era (the AB 5 California contractor kerfuffle of late 2019), I wanted to share some brief thoughts on any sports bloggers or podcasters looking for a new home — specifically, Substack — for their content.
For those unfamiliar with me, I founded Sactown Royalty in 2005 (it was SB Nation’s second NBA blog) and ran it until 2014. In 2010 I joined SBNation.com as a lead NBA writer, where I stayed until 2019. In 2015 when I turned Sactown Royalty over to a couple of awesome bloggers, I started up Good Morning It’s Basketball, which was SBNation.com’s longest running and (I would say) most successful sports newsletter. We built it up to 15,000 subscribers in about five years before I left to spin GMIB out on Substack.
I’m not being paid by Substack to write this, nor did any Substack employee encourage me to do so. I do not have one of those vaunted Substack Pro deals. The money I make on GMIB is from subscribers. This is a recovering sport blogger to other sports bloggers, trying to help.
A few caveats:
Every situation is different. What works for me and others will not work for everyone.
Some folks do this very differently than I do, and are more successful. Seek them out and listen to their advice, too!
A huge factor in all of this is the size of the audience you have when you start up a Substack. There will be attrition. If your audience on your existing team blog or podcast is small or not committed, and if you don’t have many Twitter followers, putting it on Substack is not immediately going to change that.
Sports media broadly is not a particularly lucrative field right now unless you are televised take merchant, one of the top reporters or analysts in your sport or extremely lucky. Substack is not a magic bullet on the highway to wealth. It’s still a grind.
None of this is financial or tax advice. I am not your lawyer, financial advisor or tax preparer.
All that out of the way, let’s get into some key points for folks considering moving their sports content to Substack.
Quality rules over quantity
The SB Nation team blog paradigm has long been to pump out lots of content. Game analysis, game previews, news analysis, news aggregation, game threads, etc. We were encouraged to prep like a half-dozen write-ups in advance of the NBA Draft so that we could get the news post up within minutes and move on to analysis and aggregation. That mode of content creation is pure quantity: feed the machine, feed Google News and Twitter and the other firehoses, feed feed feed.
That doesn’t work on Substack. Quantity isn’t queen here. Quality is. There are a few factors that go into it. The most obvious is that the primary delivery format of a Substack is the email inbox. This is how you alert your readers to new content: you send them an email with the content (or some portion of the content) in the email. After readers sign up, they don’t necessarily need to come to your website (which you also have with a Substack, you are almost assuredly reading this on the Good Morning It’s Basketball Substack website). You are pushing your content to the people instead of building a relationship which requires them to regularly come back to you.
This is good for creators! In the old paradigm, if a reader came to your website to get some fresh contentand there was none, they’d leave. They may not come back so quickly again. This strengthened the drive to create more content.
In the Substack paradigm, readers don’t need to check your place exclusively. They can check something they are (probably) already checking. This decreases the impetus to and importance of creating lots of content.
As a Substack reader, I find that a single piece per day per subscription is plenty. Fewer is great, too. Some of my favorite newsletters publish 1-3 times per week. You don’t want to go too infrequent, even during the offseason. But 20 posts a week? Not here. I (try to) cover the entire NBA and WNBA and I limit myself to five posts a week, one per weekday, with very rare exceptions.
Concentrate the most important stuff your audience wants from you — smart analysis, observations, highlights and jokes — into fewer posts, leave out the annoying feed-the-machine content and post no more than once per day.
You are probably going to want to make some money doing this. You do that through paid subscriptions, not ads. How do you maximize your ability to gain paid subscriptions early in your Substack adventure? Well, here’s exactly what I did. Your mileage may vary.
I didn’t announce on Twitter or my old newsletter feed through SB Nation that I was leaving SB Nation and starting a Substack until I actually started a Substack. I wrote an introductory post that explained everything, and linked that in my final SB Nation newsletter. I also immediately then announced it on Twitter, with a link to the post.
That post was riddled with SUBSCRIBE NOW buttons, like this one.
I had turned on paid subscriptions already, but said that for the first three weeks, everything would be free on the newsletter. Many of my most dedicated readers and friends in the industry jumped on a paid subscription immediately. Many more jumped on the free subscriptions. Over the following three weeks, I reminded readers in the normal daily newsletter in addition to in a couple of timed special emails that on a certain date in January, most issues of the newsletter would be for paid subscribers only.
On announcement day, many of my friends in the industry commiserated in the news that I’d separated from SB Nation by quote tweeting my announcement, which had a link to my Substack post with the subscribe buttons. You’ll notice that many ~personal news~ tweets get a ton of engagement. That is an opportunity. It’s better if the ~personal news~ isn’t just that you’re starting a Substack, but if it includes the why. Like,
“I’m leaving Team Blog X due to y and z. I’m now exclusively on Substack: [link]”
And then you write a thread thanking the people you need to thank, explaining what might need explanation, and so on. And then you swallow your pride and start retweeting some of the people who said nice things about you. It’s a virtuous cycle.
Building the base
At the time when I moved to Substack, the recommendation was to publish a few months completely for free to build up a base of free subscribers in hopes you could convert 5-10% of them to paid subscribers when you made the switch. I relied on my income from writing the newsletter and declined to take an advance from Substack, so I didn’t feel I had that long of a runway. I did three weeks, but had paid subscriptions turned on from the beginning. But I feel like this was a special case because I had 15,000 email subscribers — I wasn’t able to take the list with me, but I did get one email out to that list telling them where to find me — and about 50K Twitter followers.
After three weeks, I moved to my current model: four issues per week exclusively for paid subscribers, one issue per week for everyone.
Sometime in the past year or two, Substack unveiled its new in-line paywall feature which allows you to place a paywall within a post and email the post to free and paid subscribers. Paid subscribers won’t see the paywall at all; free subscribers will see it and be encouraged to become paid subscribers. I use this feature once every 2-3 weeks. It almost always results in a few new paid subscribers and a dozen or two unsubscriptions from free readers.
There are a lot of additional strategies to continue building the base of free subscribers over time. There are a lot of conversion strategies. To be honest, this is where I lack as a Substack entrepreneur. I just keep posting, try to lean into the growth features that Substack has implemented (Recommendations are great for building the free list) and try to tweet out my posts. There’s a graduate level program for this that I just haven’t hit yet.
If you’ve been running or contributing to a team blog for a while, you know it’s a grind. This is a grind, too. This isn’t meant as discouragement: this is meant as a dash of reality. If you think you’re going to spin up a Substack and never have to work again, or that it will make you fabulously wealthy because you just know the masses are waiting patiently to pay you: nope. It’s still sports media. It’s still a grind.
That means to find success with it you need consistency. If you don’t think you can consistently publish, this might not be right for you.
Pricing is a big question. I’m at the lowest pricing level ($5/month, $50/year). What I will say is that you can increase your price later … but any current paid subscribers when you do that are locked in at the lower price until that point at which their subscription lapses. So the marginal gain of raising prices is relatively small unless you experience steady growth. All of that is to say that you should set you price where you think you want it long-term.
Fees! Substack takes 10% off the top. Stripe takes 2.9% + 30 cents per transaction. So a $5 monthly subscription comes to you as $4.05. A $50 annual subscription comes to you as $43.25. The Stripe fees are higher for international subscribers. The Substack 10% is really high compared to other providers in the marketplace. I’ve looked into all the others. I’m a tech dunce and I don’t have time to optimize third-party bells and whistles to make the other services work like Substack does out of the box. So I’m cool paying Substack that 10% instead of using one of the cheaper services. Your mileage may vary.
Photos! If you’re coming over from SB Nation in particular, you’re going to be losing access to great photos. Here’s the best workaround: YouTube. If you embed YouTube videos in your Substack post, that thumbnail will appear as your social card image. You can also take pretty good screenshots on YouTube if you just want a standalone image for your post.
Allow higher-level “special” subscriptions. You never know who wants to pay you more money than you’re charging.
Push gift subscriptions regularly. This is a good source of growth.
You don’t have to post about every controversy. Edit yourself!
Twitter remains a top growth engine, so being good at getting attention for your work is important. Yes, that sucks. It’s life.
Podcasts: I don’t do them but Substack does have great tools to offer podcasts exclusively to subscribers. But I don’t know the mechanics.
There is a *lot* more to learn, and if you take the plunge you will indeed learn. I acknowledge that I should spend more time learning — this is 101 stuff here. But in the absence of other 101 guides from someone who has done this exact transition, I hope this is helpful. If you’re ready, you can sign up below and start setting up the backend for your future ragingly successful Substack.
Comments are open! I will try to answer any questions as they come through. Other current Sportstackers are encouraged to add advice or answer Qs, too!
There is also the Substack app, which I’m mostly going to ignore here because I don’t use it for GMIB and I am lightly skeptical of pushing my audience into an app experience I don’t control at all vs. the email distribution system I do have some measure of control over. You know, in case Substack goes sideways down the line. I *do* think the Chats feature in the app could be a powerful replacement for traditional game threads. But since I don’t write about a single team, that’s not relevant to me.
This includes comments. If you’d built a strong community, readers would check for new comments and engage there.
Tom, FYI I read all of my Substack subscriptions (including yours) through my iPhone app, and it works just fine - the app gives me a notification whenever there is new content of any kind, and all the art, photos and videos in your posts are readily accessible. I hate getting more emails than I already do!