SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA — Like more than a few newspapermen before him, Jeremy Balan was less than impressed with the play many of the stories from his beat–high school sports–were getting in the newspaper. When Balan moved to San Francisco in 2009, he was even more disappointed, but this time with everyone else. After years of cutbacks, the San Francisco Chronicle had reduced its high school sports coverage to the barest of bones, and competing media were doing little to step up. “If there was a gigantic game, the Chronicle might do a paragraph or two about it,” Balan says. As far as he was concerned, “there was literally no one covering high school sports in San Francisco.”
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In February 2010, Balan decided to do something about it, launching SanFranPreps.com, right in the middle of the city’s highly competitive basketball season. With the help of an early partnership with the San Francisco Examiner, the site rapidly began to attract new visitors. And, a little over a month in, the site had soon expanded to full game write-ups, breaking news, and feature-length stories about nearly every sport in the city’s high school ecosystem, which includes more than two dozen schools–both public and private–competing in three separate leagues. Now, Balan says that on its best days SanFranPreps.com brings in more than 2,500 unique visitors–and thousands more than that monthly. “It evolved into something that people really looked forward to and really wanted,” he says. “It’s just boots on the ground, going out and covering games. That’s what people want.”
San Fran Preps relies almost completely on straight-news with up to a half-dozen stories a day or more, eschewing the kind of opinion-heavy, knee-jerk tone that is standard procedure for many online sports sites. He recently published the site’s first opinion column, but the move to commentary hasn’t changed the site’s ethos. “I just try to run it as the sports section of a daily newspaper. That’s what I’ve been involved with for a long time.” Indeed, Balan frequently posts fare that would typify newspaper coverage, like a write-up of a football upset last year that is one of the top-ten most visited stories of all time for the site. He also names SanFranPreps.com “All-City” teams, a feature that has proved popular among readers. But Balan also insists that he doesn’t shy away from harder news, like coach firings. One such story, from May, attracted spirited discussion and more than sixty-five comments after one Catholic prep school fired its entire coaching staff.
When it comes to financials, Balan says that money has been more of a challenge than the coverage itself. He declines to discuss revenues, but he says that he’s gotten by on the strength of a reader donations and a sole advertiser, Lombardi Sports, a local outdoors and sporting goods store. The strength of the reader donations was more surprising, Balan says, and more essential, totaling some $30,000 since January of this year. “If I hadn’t gotten [those donations], I would probably be moving back to L.A.,” Balan says, referring to where he grew up. Balan, who works on the site full-time, pays himself a modest amount with that money while also maintaining a team of freelancers, many of them high school students, who shoot photos and write stories for the site in-season. His long term goal, though, is to be “sustainable,” he says, while also paying his freelancers better rates. (He declined to say how much they were getting paid now.) The deal with the Examiner–the newspaper pays to run several SanFranPreps.com stories a week–also helps the bottom line. The next step for the site, Balan says, is getting to the point where the site doesn’t “have to worry about raising money every year.”
SanFranPreps.com is receiving pro bono help from a lawyer/ sports fan as it incorporates as a non-profit. A board of directors is now in place and the site is in the process of applying for 501(c)3 status with the IRS. Balan says that the need to become a non-profit was simple, starting with the reality of getting by in one of the most expensive cities in the world. As a 501(c)3, the site would be exempt from paying many federal taxes, and, crucially, readers would be able to make tax deductible donations. One large donation of $30,000–a matching gift offered during the site’s summer donation drive–will not be delivered if the site does not receive 501(c)3 status. Unfortunately, this is a real possibility given recent roadblocks encountered by other nonprofit news ventures seeking tax-exempt status. “There is no other really viable advertising model for a local site like ours that would support life in San Francisco,” Balan says. If the tax man doesn’t prove helpful, a lot of people in the Bay Area will be hoping Balan’s wrong on that one.
City: San Francisco