Flrunners and the MileSplit network

What started as a website for a high school cross country team has grown into a profitable, nationwide conglomerate of hyperlocal running coverage.

History

The MileSplit network and member site Flrunners all began during founder Jason Byrne’s junior year in high school.

Interested in Web design, Byrne developed a website to showcase his team – with recent race results, scouting reports of key rivals and profiles of individual athletes on the team.

By his senior year, the site had gained a following aside from those who attended his school and supported the cross country team. Although he was graduating and bound for college, people were approaching him at races and voicing their desire to see the site continually updated.

So Byrne figured that if he were going to run a website devoted to high school running while in college, he might as well do it right and get paid.

And Flrunners was born.

Along the way, additional coverage like feature stories, photographs and rankings were added and coverage was expanded to incorporate the entire state. Extras like forums for users to socialize as a community also attracted visitors.

The website’s popularity took off.

Competition and Philosophy

It is not without competition. However, the coverage on similar sites is significantly different.

The nature of high school athletic competition is local, Byrne said. Very few athletes are interested in what’s going on in other states across the country, but many of them are very interested in what’s going on a few cities away.

Other websites, like Dyestat and Flotrack, focus on the big, prestigious races – and so does Flrunners – but bearing in mind the principle of locality in high school competition, Flrunners gears more of its coverage toward satisfying curious scholastic athletes eager to peruse other nearby runners’ performances.

It’s a concept that others have tried and succeeded at as well.

Coachnet, a website moderated by Lyman High School coach Fred Finke, was Flrunners’ forerunner – focusing on Florida and providing race results and numerical analysis such as rankings.

Other states have webmasters operating similar ventures as well, which ultimately led to the creation of the MileSplit network by Byrne in 2001.

MileSplit was meant to be a way for state-sized websites to collaborate and compete on a national level with Dyestat and Flotrack.

The model is not unlike broadcast networks that have a national presence – like CBS – but then have various affiliate broadcasters on the local level.

“It didn’t immediately take off,” Byrne said.

The Economic Model

But the network has come a long way. There’s now a paid national staff and the network has affiliates in 30 states.

For those states with sites that are understaffed, the national staff contributes to the reporting. And for those states without an affiliate, the national staff provides coverage to ensure that every state is represented.

MileSplit’s primary source of revenue stems from advertising.

There’s no venture capital or serious collateral investors, Byrne said. It requires a lot more work initially, but prolongs the longevity of the operation by excluding investor influence.

Some people startup with venture capital and can hire a sizable staff for their operations, but then can’t keep the investors happy and have to lay off that newly hired staff, he said.

The network combines the audiences of each individual website and thus increases the amount of viewers able to be served up to advertisers. MileSplit partners with Universal Sports, a division of NBC, to sell advertising. These ads appear nationwide and the revenue generated goes to MileSplit.

After paying for things like operating the servers and maintaining the national staff, MileSplit shares the remaining profit – when possible – among the affiliate websites. There’s no national cut or money flowing to the network from the individual sites, but the individual sites can profit from being a part of the network.

Byrne said the agreement has worked well. Prior to partnering with Universal Sports, MileSplit partnered with Rodale, the company behind Runner’s World magazine, and before that dabbled with Google AdSense.

Although, placing Google ads wasn’t very profitable by comparison, he said.

The network also retains the right to disallow ads with content it deems not suitable for the targeted audience (i.e. beer ads on a website targeting high schoolers).

Under the umbrella of MileSplit, affiliate websites still retain some autonomy in their advertising decisions.

For instance, Flrunners can sell advertising independently to local businesses. An example of these types of ads would be for non-chain running stores like Track Shack in Orlando, Fla. These ads appear only on Flrunners and the website gets to keep the profits from its independent advertising.

An additional source of income for Flrunners in particular is derived from its sponsorship of an invitational cross country meet. The event attracts heated competition and attention, and makes money for the website through entry fees and sponsorships.

Another autonomous decision made by the affiliate websites is whether to put up “pay walls.” Flrunners does have a subscribers only portion of the site following the “freemium” concept. This is where most of the in-depth stories and the juiciest content goes with the hope that after visiting the site for other features like race results, users will be enticed to subscribe in order to access the enhanced content.

Flrunners’ subscription fee represents a substantial portion of the profit, but usually gets reinvested in content production such as hiring photographers, Byrne said.

Content Generation and Monetization

Flrunners currently has four photographers who cover events regularly. Other staffers write and attend to daily operations of the website – such as moderating the forum.

A lot of the content is generated by student-athletes, coaches and parents who are enthusiastic about the sport.

Basically, it’s a collaboration between audience and journalist – networking to enhance the product and cover the niche.

Most of the traffic is site-specific. Visitors know what they’re looking for rather than stumbling randomly upon the site and new visitors often arrive after hearing about it via word of mouth.

Even with Google, visitors often search for “Flrunners” or input the URL in the search bar rather than searching for generic terms such as “Florida high school running.”

This has led to the downplay of search engine optimization.

Byrne said he is aware of SEO when he writes headlines or derives sub-URLs, but largely ignores it when writing stories and focuses on human readers due to the site-specific nature of the website.

Miscellaneous

Byrne said the most important aspect of successfully operating an Internet venture is to be innovative.

That’s why he hopes to phase out the public forum – which he sees as largely a holdover relic from the ’90s – and transition into other forms of social media to serve the purpose of facilitating interaction between users.

This could include Facebook, Twitter, Ning, Google Groups or some other platform accomplishing the same thing.

His advice to new media entrepreneurs:

“Focus on the product. Create something excellent – something you yourself would use, that does positive things and that people like. Don’t focus on the financial [aspect] and don’t focus on your competition, though don’t be blind to them either. Just create something good and that makes you feel proud and then good things will happen.

“I’ve seen a lot of people with shady and anti-competitive business practices get ahead. It’s very frustrating. But you have to be able to look yourself in the mirror and it’s important to me to always try to be a good citizen first and do the right thing. In the long run, I believe that shows through and you will reap the rewards. Hey, it worked for Google (“Don’t be evil” mantra)!”

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