Twenty years ago today, my life changed. Not immediately. But the wheels were put in motion when we flipped the switch, on November 1, 2001, on ProFootballTalk.com.
I had no idea where it would go at the time. There was no master plan or mission statement. It was fun. And, at $500 to set it up and $50 per month, it was a lot cheaper than, say, playing golf.
I’d been on the fringes of the business since June 2000, from writing on a part-time basis for the long-defunct NFLTalk.com (and making not a penny) to landing at ESPN.com’s Insider service on a six-month contract in May 2001 (I still don’t think they knew I was moonlighting with a full-time law practice) to deciding in lieu of signing on for another year at a salary of $36,000 (I still have the document) to launching my own thing. Something that I controlled. Something that I edited. Something that could instantly go live without layers and levels of approvals.
The post-9/11 soul-searching in which so many of us engaged also was a big factor. Life is short and uncertain. I was working 18 hours a day. I decided to forgo the 36K sure-thing and take a chance on something new. My only actual goal, frankly, was to eventually make the money I’d turned down on the one-year ESPN deal.
The search for available domain names almost immediately landed at ProFootballTalk.com, one thing led to another, and we went live the day after my ESPN.com contract expired.
The Internet was different then, in every imaginable way. I connected to the web through an old-school modem. It took forever to download stories and even longer to upload content.
We found an audience early, with a surprisingly high concentration of people in the football business (Amy Trask can confirm this). We built the audience gradually but consistently. The only problem, however, was that we didn’t make any money.
Over time, the money began to trickle in. Ever-increasing traffic helped. In 2006, Sprint showed up out of the blue and became our first major partner. That was the moment I knew that, before too long, I’d exit the practice of law and devote my full time and focus to PFT.
That moment came three years later, when Rick Cordella of NBC proposed a partnership. I resisted, demanding full editorial control in the hopes of scaring him away. It didn’t work. After a few months (which included outages fueled by traffic demands that had exceeded critical mass), we reluctantly did a deal with NBC.
That was the moment everything changed. No more law practice, at NBC’s request. My arm did not need to be twisted. My hobby had become my job.
My fear was that it would start feeling like a job, not a hobby. Sometimes it does, especially as we’ve found our way onto multiple platforms. It can be a little stressful at times. But it’s never as stressful as having someone else’s interests hinging on whether I make the right move at the right time, either in writing or during a deposition or while stumbling around in open court. Litigation consists of constant conflict, and plenty of hard feelings.
That’s what made it easier for me to be a bit of a disruptor, an agitator. An instigator. As I told someone years ago, when practicing law half the people I dealt with hated me and the other half loved me; the biggest challenge was to keep the half that was supposed to love me from hating me. In this business, any day in which less than half of the people I deal with hate me is a good freakin’ day.
So here we are, 7,305 days later. The thought actually crossed my mind last week of shutting it down and walking away today (many of you would act like you’d like that, but I have a feeling that deep down you wouldn’t). That flicker of a crazy impulse instanty was snuffed. I love what I do. I still enjoy it every day. I’ve got at least another 20 years in me. Maybe 20 more beyond that.
Even if it goes back to the days of little or no revenue, I’ll keep doing it. Because I’ve already done it for no money. In whatever forum, form, or format, I’ll keep doing it until I no longer can.
So, basically, you’ve been stuck with me for 20 years. And you’ll continue to be stuck with me.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t use this opportunity (HERE COMES THE PITCH) to point out that: (1) I’ve got a book coming out in March regarding the last 20 years in the NFL; and (2) you can, if you are so inclined, preorder Playmakers to show your appreciation for 20 years of always-free content.
After you read the book (or if you never do), you can put it on your shelf, use it for a paperweight, or (as Big Cat suggested last week) use each page as rolling paper. Whatever the case, you’ll get value if you buy the book. And if you buy it now, you’ll get exclusive access to the weekly Playmakers podcast.
Whether you buy it or not, I appreciate the fact that you’re here, that you’re reading these words. I could say that PFT changed my life, that Sprint changed my life, that NBC changed my life. The truth is that you changed my life. Without each of you, we never would have gotten to the point where someone with a lot of money would have decided to give us some of it in order to serve you.
I could (and probably should) thank many people right now. Today, I’m only thanking you. None of this would have happened if you hadn’t decided to make us part of your daily routine, to welcome us into your homes and onto your phones. You’re been there with us and for us for two decades, and we intend to be there with you and for you for many years to come.
On behalf of myself, my family, the entire staff, and everyone connected in any way to the operation, thank you. I could never do for you what you’ve done for me.