Looking Back on Lost Lettermen’s Four Years
By Jim Weber
You know how certain moments in your life feel like an eternity ago and yet you remember them just like yesterday? That’s what launching Lost Lettermen four years ago feels like to me.
The week the 2009 NCAA Tournament started is forever etched in my mind because that’s when I launched this site dedicated to college football and men’s basketball. I did it for one primary reason: I wanted to recapture the same love of sports journalism I had while working at the University of Michigan’s student newspaper, The Michigan Daily - which I still consider the best experience of my life.
I even concluded my farewell column for the paper with this morbidly depressing line: “I’m still not ready to say goodbye to this place; letting go of the Daily is going to be the toughest adjustment I’ve ever made, as I’m left to wonder if I’ll ever be this happy again in my life.”
The photo below is of me and my wife, whom I met at the Daily, during my last couple days at the paper.
And as I’d feared, I wasn’t able to recapture the magic of the Daily in the real world. My passion for journalism waned in the five years I spent in New York City between graduating college in April of 2004 and launching this website in March of 2009.
During that time, I worked at College Sports TV (now CBS Sports Network), NBCSports.com, Us Weekly (feel free to make fun of me) and ESPN The Magazine, mainly as a fact checker. When I got hired at CSTV in the spring of 2005, I thought I was on the fact track in the sports media world.
What I didn’t realize at the time, of course, is that entry-level journalism jobs like fact checking often lead to dead-ends because editorial positions in journalism turn over very slowly. I was even told at ESPN that the magazine didn’t want fact checkers who wanted to move up because they didn’t stay very long at the company. That left low-level workers like me stuck in purgatory with little opportunity to write and be creative - and even less money to live on.
Even worse, we were more easily discarded than scrap metal. At NBCSports.com, I was hired and laid off within six months along with a large majority of the staff because of a massive budget cut. When money got tight at ESPN The Magazine, they told us to only work every other week (the magazine is a bi-monthly publication). And in what I can only hope will be the nadir of my journalism career, I was “permanently removed” from the fact checkers’ schedule at Us Weekly for allowing Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen to be mistaken for the other in a caption (true story).
Feeling like I was at the breaking point of my journalism career, I originally got the idea for Lost Lettermen while poring through college football and men’s basketball media guides every day for work at ESPN. As someone who grew up in Columbus, OH, loving college sports above all else, I always found myself drifting to the “All-Time Letterwinners” in the back of the media guides to see how many of the names I recognized and Google them to check on what they were doing at the time.
Then came my “eureka” moment: Putting all the football and men’s basketball letterwinners from BCS conferences into a massive online database with a profile for each player (over 150,000 in all) listing their accomplishments and their current whereabouts. My plan was to make it the “IMDb of college sports.”
Starting in the winter of 2008, I spent months compiling PDFs of media guides and converting them into Excel sheets to create the database. I read about how IMDb and Wikipedia built up their army of editors that updated the websites. And I hired a company to build the website from scratch, something I knew absolutely nothing about.
This photo is one of the final mock-ups of the original Lost Lettermen and almost identical to what the initial website looked like:
When I finally launched the site during the opening week the 2009 NCAA Tournament, I posted a couple interviews with former March Madness heroes to tease the database, sent out a blitz of e-mails for publicity and then sat back and waited for it to “go viral” and become the next IMDb.
Looking back, I can only laugh at myself for how naive I was.
Then again, maybe if I wasn’t so naive, I never would have left my job at ESPN The Magazine at the end of 2009 to do this fulltime, which must have seemed crazy to many people. The last three-plus years have felt like an absolute blur of figuring out how to:
• Make the site more than just a database;
• Find a niche in the immensely crowded sports blogosphere that made me want to read the site every day by combining unique original content with interesting aggregated news not found on places like ESPN.com;
• Learning the world of digital media, including ad networks, ad serving, media kits, site architecture, IT maintenance, SEO, blocking hackers, forming partnerships and building a social media presence;
• Run an actual business with employees, office space, server costs, IT expenses, taxes and a million other things I’d never dealt with before;
• And, oh yeah, try to make an actual living doing this.
There have been tremendous highs over the last four years. The site has contributed stories that have landed on the home page of Yahoo! Sports and been read by millions of people, been mentioned on “Pardon the Interruption” and built up an audience that I only dreamed of during those first couple months.
And there have been tremendous lows. The darkest moments of running the site include working incredibly long hours on articles only to feel like they were read by no one, realizing one day in June of 2011 that the digital sales person I had hired months earlier defrauded me of tens of thousands by running fake ads before skipping town and lying awake at night wondering if this was all one big mistake.
Thankfully, it wasn’t. And looking back now, I can safely say that launching Lost Lettermen is easily the most difficult and most rewarding thing I have ever done. We aren’t Bleacher Report, SB Nation, Deadspin or The Big Lead, but I’m very proud of how much success the site has had for a company with a fulltime staff of two people. And I’m so thankful that I’m now able to make a living at a job I would do for free.
I can only hope my next four years are as incredible as the last four.
Not to turn this into an Oscar’s speech but I can’t show enough appreciation for those who have advised and encouraged me - including my wife and family, friends and board of advisors - and all of those who have worked with me on the site over the years, including Jose Bosch, Anthony Olivieri, Meghan Tomechak, Lynne Burkett and the site’s current managing editor, Chris Mahr (below is a picture of me and Chris at our office in the Brooklyn Creative League). Without them, there would be no Lost Lettermen.
And to everyone else that has even visited this site just once - the vast majority of which I will never personally meet: Thank you for helping make my dream job become a reality.