When Vox Media announced its latest round of layoffs in January 2023, the impact appeared to be most heavily felt in the hockey and soccer verticals.
While SB Nation had long since shuffled loose many of the talented writers who came up through its ranks, its soccer blogs were often hailed for their consistency, in-depth coverage, and community building. It seems as though these layoffs signaled the end of that era, or at the very least sent up a signal to those doing the work that they should think about what the future looked like if they wanted their sites and communities to continue.
We’ve seen a consistent movement by former SB Nation bloggers and site owners to either find new homes for their outlets or break out on their own. The latest to do that is Sounder at Heart, the long-running Seattle Sounders site that had been part of SB Nation since 2009, a year after it initially began as an independent blog. That stint ended this past Monday when the platform officially left SB Nation and returned to its indie roots.
Along with the Sounders podcast and newsletter Nos Audietis and OL Reign blog Ride of the Valkyries, they have been reborn as one resource under the subscription-based PNW Soccer Media banner.
Daddy's got a new home. Welcome to the new Sounder at Heart. https://t.co/bIn0zXK6Gl
— Sounder At Heart (@sounderatheart) August 22, 2023
Awful Announcing spoke with Managing Editor Jeremiah Oshan about the changes, why they decided to move away from SB Nation and Vox Media, and what all of this means for the future of sports content on the internet.
Awful Announcing: Can you provide some background on Sounder at Heart? When it started, how long you’ve been with SB Nation, and its place in the Sounders and Reign communities?
Jeremiah Oshen: Sounder at Heart was founded by Dave Clark in 2008 as an independent site and moved to SB Nation in 2009, toward the end of the Sounders’ first MLS season. He ran the site basically solo — albeit with a few other people pitching in — until I joined him during the 2010 preseason. I had just taken a buyout from my newspaper job, had just moved to Seattle with my wife, and was looking to transition into digital media while basically living off unemployment and my wife’s student loans. Dave gave me the opportunity to basically become a beat writer and I was going to training sessions on a pretty regular basis, which greatly accelerated the site’s growth. As was pretty normal at the time, I wasn’t really being paid.
Shortly thereafter I hooked up with Richard Farley, who had been hired to run SB Nation’s soccer coverage, and started taking a small stipend for coverage around the World Cup. SB Nation was also trying to build out its team-specific soccer blogs around the same time and I was eventually tasked with recruiting MLS sites. That’s all a roundabout way of saying I started writing for SB Nation in 2010. In 2014, I was hired full-time by SB Nation to effectively manage the MLS sites and serve as Graham MacAree’s assistant. A few months after being hired, Graham left and I became the editor of all the soccer team brands. Through all that, I continued to help build Sounder at Heart but it wasn’t until 2019 that I really took control. That’s when Dave left for a job with the Tacoma Defiance/Tacoma Rainiers and I’ve effectively been running it ever since, while Dave is still a contributor.
AA: What precipitated the decision to become a reader-supported site, separate from SBN?
JO: The main reason is an underlying belief in our community. We trust that what we (the staff) want is what it (the community) wants and that’s a vibrant editorial product that can stand on its own. Fueling the change was simply looking around at the ad-supported media ecosystem and understanding that relatively niche sites like ours can’t really compete at scale if we’re to thrive. Look no further than SB Nation’s decision to cut all but two MLS blogs about six months ago. Although SB Nation never indicated we were on the chopping block, it did seem like the writing was on the wall.
AA: Did January’s layoffs play a role in the decision?
JO: I’d be lying if I said this is completely unrelated. The only MLS-focused sites that survived that purge were us and Dirty South Soccer, the Atlanta United site.
I want to be very clear that SB Nation and Vox leadership were very clear that my job was safe and there were no plans to cut Sounder at Heart but were also supportive of my desire to leave the network and accommodated my request to take Sounder at Heart. I can’t say enough how grateful I am to them for entrusting this brand to me. Their resources played a huge part in getting SaH to the point it’s at now.
AA: We’ve now seen several SBN blogs break off or get bought back by their founders/writers. Do you foresee this as an ongoing trend?
JO: I really don’t know, to be honest. I think a lot of people will be watching SaH, including those at Vox Media. Right now, it feels like we are off to a good start but we are not at a point of sustainability beyond the first few months. I wouldn’t say SaH is unique in that we are the biggest outlet covering a relatively niche interest, but I do think that our ability to successfully make this transition will go a long way toward showcasing the potential viability of a move like this.
There are a lot of former SB Nation sites that have left the network and been revived in some way or another, but I don’t know how many are doing it with the intention of making it a full-time gig (which is what I’m trying to do).
AA: Do you feel like we’ve moved into a new (old) era of sports site independence?
JO: If we can agree that the last 15 years have mostly been about independent blogs and bloggers consolidating on big networks, I would agree that it seems like we’ve left that era behind. I still think we’re going to see consolidation, but it’s mostly big brands eating other big brands. I think we’re also seeing smaller brands re-emerging to fill the niche vacuum and I hope SaH is one that will succeed.
What I don’t know is the long-term viability of what were once passion projects. The Substack model, for lack of a better term, is promising in that creators can get paid without relying on bulk ad sales. But those are also more closely tied to specific creators and less tied to broader brands like what many of the SB Nation blogs were and are. I do believe that a site like ours will prove viable as an independent entity and I’m excited to see it become sustainable beyond me running it.
As part of this change, we’ve recently moved to a primarily-reader-supported model. Plans start for as little as $19/year. https://t.co/OwJZG2w0cz
— Sounder At Heart (@sounderatheart) August 22, 2023
AA: What made you decide to go with a membership/subscription model?
JO: Like a lot of people, I’ve grown pretty frustrated with ad-supported media and the experience that comes alongside it. I also didn’t think we’d be able to offer the kind of scale that would make that a viable model going forward. Looking around the landscape, we found a lot of inspiration in the listener-supported Seattle radio station KEXP and on a smaller scale the U.S National Team podcast Scuffed.
After sort of testing the waters with our Substack, we became convinced we had enough readers who would be willing to support us through a subscription model. This feels a bit more honest in that we don’t need to play games with algorithms or worry about ad rates. If readers want us around, they’ll hopefully pay.
AA: What can longtime and new readers expect to find through PNW Soccer Media?
JO: Aside from a new look, most of what we do will remain pretty much the same in terms of Sounders and OL Reign coverage. There will be a few of our more in-depth articles and longer versions of podcast interviews only available to paid supporters, but the vast majority of what we publish will remain accessible to everyone. In fact, that’s a big part of where we think we derive value, being sort of the ubiquitous place where people can find Sounders news outside of the team’s official website.
PNW Soccer Media, to be clear, is more of an umbrella organization for Sounder at Heart, Ride of the Valkyries (our Reign coverage), and Nos Audietis (our podcast channel). I don’t know how much we’ll see that used in public-facing spaces.
AA: Anything else you’d like readers to know?
JO: Mainly that we’ve been sort of blown away by the support we’ve received early on. As of [August 14], we have about 550 paid subscribers and if trends continue we should be close to 1,000 by the time this change goes live.
Since I’ve talked so much about sustainability, I should be upfront with the reality that we are still a pretty long way from getting there. In addition to needing to bolster our paid subscriber list pretty substantially, we also need to find some sponsors who see value in what we do and connect more directly with our readers. We’d love to talk to any businesses or organizations who want to support this exciting venture.
Our intention with this is not just to have an outlet for fans to talk about their favorite teams, it’s to pay our writers fairly for their work and, frankly, for me to turn this into a full-time gig. That’s really how you make this sustainable, turning this from a passion project into something more real. The internet is littered with smart, capable people who were passionate about something and wrote about it in a way that was far more informative than anyone you’d find on a mainstream outlet, but who stopped doing it because they couldn’t or wouldn’t effectively donate their time and energy. Changing that cycle is a big reason why we’re doing this and if we can inspire others to do the same, the internet will be a better place.