BIG BREAK FOR THE BIG LEAD

Story by Alexa Johnson

Photo Illustration by Art Pekum & Courtesy of Jason McIntyre

It began as a hobby- a friendly, after-work email exchange between college friends over sports. It was February 2006, and neither Jason McIntyre nor fellow James Madison University alumnus David Lessa could predict that in seven short yeras, a three million views-per-month website would thrive from their thread.

In a large leather chair in front of a white wooden bookshelf, Jason McIntyre, 36, reads, writes and updates his nationally recognized sports blog, Big Lead Sports.  Since it was purchased by USA Today last year, it’s clear that the Fairfax Station, Va. native has created a job from his favorite pastime.

Wearing a heather-grey long-sleeved T-shirt, he divides his attention between his computer and the hit television show 90210. Underneath his beard it’s easy to see his wide-set smile.  His demeanor is confident, upbeat; something you’d expect from a man interviewing numerous sports media stars each week. Big Lead Sports covers nearly every sport from NFL to NASCAR. Using blunt headlines and short, humorous posts, McIntyre and his team of eight writers (six full-time, three part-time) conduct interviews with sports figures and update readers on athletes’ personal lives.

While there are thousands of sports blogs floating around the web, it was the careful balance between researched content and opinion pieces that captured enough readers’ attentions to get Big Lead Sports, then known as The Big Lead, nationally ranked. It also caught the attention of Clay Walker, USA Today’s vice president. “I was attracted to the site because it didn’t seem like any other blog I had run across,” Walker says. “In an era where so many decisions are made based on computer analytics, Jason has an uncanny ability to program the content on The Big Lead, constantly delivering the type of stories that consumers crave, yet being able to break news at the same time.”

In 2007, Walker left the NFL Players Association to start up Fantasy Sports Ventures (FSV), an assembly of more than 100 sports fantasy sites, with business partner Chris Russo.  When the company decided to expand past fantasy sports, Walker came across The Big Lead. FSV’s belief in The Big Lead’s potential was so strong that in 2010 the company acquired it and changed its name from Fantasy Sports Ventures to Big Lead Sports. Two years later, USA Today, a longtime investor in FSV, obtained the remaining outstanding shares of the company and with it, The Big Lead. The Big Lead had just received its big break. The merger became Big Lead Sports. Before his blog hit it big, Jason McIntyre studied journalism at James Madison University. He graduated  in 2000 before moving to New Jersey to be a sports reporter. There he wrote for the Herald News, Bergen Record, Star and Us Weekly.  He also freelanced for numerous sites and papers, such as ESPN the Magazine, ESPN.com’s Page 3, The Boston Globe and Metro. He currently resides in Bucks County, Pa. with his wife and two children.

McIntyre began The Big Lead anonymously and for fun. He could devote time to post only before and after work.  Co-founder David Lessa worked on the technical side until 2009, when the site needed to switch to a bigger server. “I remember receiving my first paycheck after quitting and thinking, ‘I can pay my cell phone bill!’” McIntyre says, recalling when he left his job at Us Weekly to work full-time on his site. Though the ability to watch boxed sets of The Office with his then-fiancée all day made up for the pay cut.

So what exactly does a full-time blogger do all day?  McIntyre starts his mornings at 7 a.m. by reading, reading and … reading.  He updates the site 10 to 15 times throughout the day, publishing six to eight self-written posts. He’ll take a breakfast break around 9 a.m. and by 9:30, he’s back to the grind. He takes a lunch and workout break around 2 p.m. (“… so my mind doesn’t turn to dust from staring at the computer”) and then he’s back on the site until 6 p.m.  After one more break for dinner and family time until 9 p.m., he ends the day with television and poking around the Web for the next day’s story ideas.

Sports blogger Jason McIntyre updates Big Lead Sports from his home office.

“I try not to be a slave to traffic, so I don’t look [at how many views the site gets] every day,” McIntyre says.

The formula behind Big Lead Sports’ coverage is simple.  It is split into thirds: sports, sports media and athletes off the field. Breaking news stories and athletes’ dating lives seem to be the biggest draw.  The site had its best month ever in page views this past January thanks to the buzz around Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o’s fake online girlfriend.

The highly interactive nature of the site is another draw for readers.  By commenting anonymously on posts, site users are able to communicate with each other and get their voices heard on the Web.  Some Big Lead posts can get as many as 400 comments.

One reader, who comments under the username “KC Resident,” has been commenting on The Big Lead since its beginning — seven years to be exact. “The Big Lead’s commenting community is tight-knit,” he says. “Everyone might not get along on each topic, but we have fun and respect each other for the most part.” It’s that broad sense of community interaction that KC Resident blames for his commenting habit. “Fifteen years ago, people played Minesweeper and nobody was ever able to see how brilliant I was,” he says. “Now we have blogs and commenting sections and people can tell me how dumb I am. This is much better.” Another frequent reader, Ty Duffy, a 2006 graduate of the University of Michigan, went a step further when he responded to an internship call by Big Lead Sports in 2008.  Today, Duffy is a staff writer for the site. “I like being able to express myself, take on challenging topics and having the freedom to take risks,” he says of writing for the blog.

He also notes the negative side of the Internet’s vastness. “The Web has given more people a voice, but at the same time is drastically reducing the value of having one,” says Duffy. Due to the less formal nature of blogging, the line between site commenter and site writer seems a little blurry.  Most blogs do not have a written code of ethics like corporate news sources do. Other than the obvious reasons of a paycheck and extra research, what differentiates a commenter from a writer?

“You just have to be good,” says David Dorey, co-founder of the fantasy sports blog The Huddle. Dorey and Whitney Walters started The Huddle back in 1997 after playing in a fantasy sports league and realizing there were almost no Internet resources out there for fantasy fanatics.  Five years in a row after its start, The Huddle won first place for fantasy football website in the Annual Internet Sports Awards. Fantasy Sports Ventures, and then USA Today, acquired The Huddle in 2007.

“Unlike days past, you do not have to have a specific degree [to] get hired by a TV or newspaper company or gain the favor of some editor,” says Dorey. To keep Big Lead Sports in the blogosphere, McIntyre believes in keeping the content edgy, young and loose — the difference between blogs and hard news. “USA Today has been great so far,” he says of his overall experience. “We’ve been able to keep the site’s identity intact despite being part of a corporation.”

As for Big Lead Sports’s future plans, readers can expect more investigative reporting and a continuation of the podcast series that began on March 1.  Celebs like Golden State Warriors NBA player Stephen Curry and CBS sports columnist Dan Wetzel can already be heard on “The Jason McIntyre Show.” “We’re going to be ribald. We’re going to ruffle feathers,” McIntyre says of the direction he’s headed.  As he prepares for more emails, conference calls and meetings in New York, there will always one perk of the job for McIntyre.

“I get to work from home, though, so no complaints from me.”