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May 20, 2016, 9:54 a.m.
Business Models

TipOff, an email newsletter, is trying to explain sports to non-fans

Launched last fall by a team of investors and writers, TipOff has attracted 50,000 subscribers.

Sports are ever-present in most Americans’ lives. There’s practically always a game on in the background at restaurants or bars, and idle chit-chat in offices or parties often turns to the latest about Steph Curry, LeBron, or the NFL — no matter the time of year.

But 41 percent of Americans say they aren’t sports fans, according to a 2015 Gallup poll. To help those people navigate a sports-filled world, a group of investors and writers from ProPublica and ESPN have launched TipOff Sports, a twice-weekly email newsletter that provides explainers and background information on the latest happenings in the sports world.

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“There are tons of guys out there who don’t know much about sports and are annoyed that they can’t join the conversation at the office, at the cocktail party, or with their kids,” said Todd Arky, TipOff’s co-founder.

“I think there are also tons of women out there who are going on dates, talking to their kids, or at their office, and they feel like they can’t join in this conversation that is so prevalent,” he said. “The weather and sports are the two easy go-tos when you meet someone.”

Arky, a sports fanatic, worked at food delivery service Seamless as EVP of sales and business development. His good friend and Seamless co-founder Paul Appelbaum doesn’t follow sports, and Arky has explained various sports topics to Appelbaum for years.

“I just found myself from time to time calling him and saying, ‘Put on this game. It’s on this channel. Here’s the backstory. Here’s why it’s particularly exciting: These are two longtime rivals or it’s Game 7,'” Arky said. “Then he would call me afterward and be like, ‘That was so enjoyable.’ Knowing the back story and knowing the importance of that particular event made it much more interesting for someone who generally doesn’t get that excited about sports.”

That’s where the idea for TipOff originated, and last fall, Arky and Appelbaum, working with their friends ProPublica reporter David Epstein, who is editing TipOff, and ESPN columnist Pablo S. Torre, who is an adviser, launched the newsletter. It’s written by Nuri Adler, and writer Liz Newman is the community manager.

A recent issue, for example, highlighted the NBA’s conference finals. It explained how the Oklahoma City Thunder upset the San Antonio Spurs and also went over the Golden State Warriors’ record-setting regular season. It also covered Drake’s relationship with the Toronto Raptors and LeBron James’ dominance. The goal is to provide enough context that readers feel comfortable engaging in conversation about the topic.

Each issue also includes Watercooler Words, a tweet-able sentence or two that lets readers share their own Hot Takes such as “There’s no way the Oklahoma City Thunder can upset the Spurs AND the Warriors… is there??” and “I feel for Laremy Tunsil. I’m just glad potential employers don’t get to see videos of me when I was in college.”

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TipOff has 50,000 subscribers and a 20 percent open rate. About 60 percent of the newsletter’s subscribers are women.

The number of subscribers has tended to grow most around big events such as the Super Bowl and NCAA basketball tournament.

“People start hearing these stories multiple times and go looking for something to clue them in without having to go read ESPN, Sports Illustrated or something like that.” Epstein said.

The newsletter initially had many links and was quite lengthy, but TipOff decided to trim it back and try to limit the newsletter to a few hundred words that could be read in three minutes or so.

“We decided we were at a pretty good length now because it kept growing, and a couple of people told us they didn’t like that,” Epstein said. “They told us they wanted it to be very basic and bite-sized.”

For now, TipOff is primarily focused on building newsletter readership, though it may look to build out other products as well. There’s currently no advertising, though Arky said they will likely begin including ads sometime this summer.

He wouldn’t specify how much they’ve invested in the project, only saying that it “isn’t burning a lot of cash,” as the writers and editors are mostly working for equity.

As a result, their costs are low, and TipOff doesn’t want to rush to throw ads on the newsletter.

“You need to be a trusted source, and the way you’re a trusted source is that you provide something of value to people and you don’t send them a bunch of junk,” Arky said. “That’s where we want to get.”

Email newsletters have surged in popularity recently. Led by stalwarts such as The Skimm, publishers see email newsletter as a way to reach an engaged audience while bypassing adblockers and the never-ending stream on platforms such as Facebook.

Despite their trendiness, it can be a challenge to grow a newsletter audience. TipOff’s staff met with the people behind The Skimm and other popular newsletters, including Fatherly and PureWow, for tips.

TipOff has relied on word-of-mouth and contests it has run in partnership with other newsletters to draw in new subscribers. When people enter the contest, they’re automatically subscribed to all the different newsletters that are participating.

“That’s a way you can go from 5,000 subscribers to 20,000 subscribers in a matter of two weeks,” Arky said. “Now, you’ve got to keep those people interested. Some of them do unsubscribe — it’s fairly easy to do with any of these newsletters — but hopefully they’ll take a look once or twice, and if you’re putting a good product in front of them you’ll be able to grow your readership, not just your subscriber base.”

While the sweepstakes are effective in boosting the newsletter’s overall numbers, TipOff wants to create a subscriber base of engaged readers who actually use the email and will share it with their friends.

In the coming weeks it plans to launch a program that will target its most loyal readers and ask them to share the newsletter in exchange for TipOff swag and other prizes.

“This comes from a genuine place,” Arky said. “And the best way to continue that on is through genuine means, which is more word of mouth than sweepstakes.”

Photo of Penn State sophomore Nikki Greene and Dayton junior Casey Nance going for a jump ball in the 2011 NCAA women’s basketball tournament by Penn State used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 20, 2016, 9:54 a.m.
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