by Mark Carter
Trey Biddy’s hawgsports.com is leading the new wave of sports media
Photo by Jamison Mosley
For Trey Biddy, business is booming. Despite a historically bad run for Arkansas Razorback football, Biddy’s HawgSports.com is enjoying unprecedented popularity. You can argue that people love a good train wreck, or that the Hogs’ current gridiron plight has stoked the passion of the fan base, or that Razorback fans flock to a coaching search like Brits to a royal marriage. Whichever it is, and all likely ring true, Biddy’s site has become the No. 1 independent online source for news related to Razorback recruiting and the big three money sports of football, men’s basketball and baseball.
And he’s blazing trails as he goes. Biddy was the first online-only media member to receive game-day credentials to cover the Hogs and the first to upload practice videos and press conferences to the web. Though his iconic bald head – launched in ’10 – might rock a coonskin cap, he’s more than mere media pioneer. With the help of his exposure on Little Rock’s 103.7 The Buzz and its statewide radio network, and a reputation for asking tough questions in press conferences, Biddy is becoming bona fide sports-media celebrity in Arkansas.
HawgSports is riding a wave of hyperlocal sports coverage nationwide as digital networks filled by team-specific sites provide detailed, team-specific coverage. It’s what the market demands in this day and age and for Razorback fans, it’s what Biddy and his team deliver.
Biddy is the sole owner and proprietor of the site, now a member of the 247Sports network and operating under the CBS Sports umbrella. The network is considered the leading source for college recruiting news and boasts more than 100 team sites mostly devoted to college sports. Aside from Biddy, HawgSports employs three — recruiting guru Danny West, a budding celebrity in his own right; staff writer Pete Roulier and videographer Alec Harrison.
But don’t confuse Biddy or his team for eager fans with time and cyberspace to fill. Biddy grew up following the Hogs, but HawgSports essentially operates like any other news outlet; Biddy earned his journalism degree from UA Little Rock following a run as a business major in Fayetteville. He and his staff of three want the Hogs to win, but their job is to report the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to Razorback money sports and related recruiting news. Lately, at least on the football front, the news mostly has been bad. Business, however, has been good.
“I can’t reveal subscriber numbers, but I will say with confidence that we have more subscribers than any affiliated Razorback team website has or ever has had,” Biddy says.
How good? This good: Despite a debacle of a football season and drawing from a low-population state, HawgSports is one of the 10 largest sites in the 247Sports network in terms of subscribers and 25th in advertising revenue. That’s out of 120 team sites on the network. And it’s on pace to become 247’s top site for new subscriptions in November, Biddy says. This, after HawgSports was No. 14 among network sites for new sales in October. The site now hosts more than twice as many subscribers as it did when it left the Rivals.com network to join 247Sports in April of 2018. Biddy and crew left Rivals with a bang as well, on the heels of 15 percent growth over the site’s last year there.
And despite more empty seats than ever in Razorback Stadium, HawgSports is welcoming more visitors than ever. It receives several million page views a month, hundreds of thousands per day and has even topped 1 million views in a single day. Since leaving Rivals, HawgSports has doubled its size and now is five times the size of the previous Arkansas site affiliated with 247 and 10 times the size of the old 247 site before a merger with Scout.com.
The move to 247 made sense. The CBS property is ranked as a top 10 overall digital sports brand by ComScore and hit 30 million unique monthly visitors with more than 30 million followers on social media and 3 million daily newsletter subscribers, according to Alexa Internet.
HawgSports benefits from the larger platform, but Hog fans are helping push the site to new heights. Two of the site’s biggest days since National Signing Day last February were the Monday and Tuesday following the Hogs’ home loss to Mississippi State, and high traffic days continued throughout that week. Razorback fans were sensing a coaching change in the air, of course, and they turned to HawgSports for the breakdown. But then came the firing of Chad Morris on Nov. 10. In the days that followed, the site set several new records for traffic.
“It’s crazy,” he says. “That just shows the passion of Arkansas fans. They want answers and still want to talk about the team even in the face of the worst eight-year stretch in Arkansas football history.”
Biddy’s daily segment on The Buzz’s popular Drivetime Sports has helped brand HawgSports across the state. And the bald head — shaved twice a week — affords Biddy a unique look that perhaps even accentuates that brand. Biddy’s podcasts attract live viewers in the hundreds and his postgame Walk and Talk videos are flirting with becoming the stuff of Razorback media consumption legend. Typically, they draw roughly 60,000 Facebook views, 15,000 plays on YouTube and about 4,000 podcast downloads.
Want a feel for the pulse of Razorback Nation? Tune in to Walk and Talk following a game. Using a selfie stick and his phone, Biddy videos himself leaving the stadium after a game, home or away, while sharing his post-game hot takes. Viewers are afforded an opportunity to relate with a fellow fan, one with inside access, while getting an inside peek at Razorback Stadium and other venues and their surroundings as Biddy, literally, leaves the building. The videos were just introduced this season, and through them Biddy has come to embody the emotions of the average Hog fan.
“I want that video to be like you and I are walking to the car together after the game,” Biddy says. “It’s a very raw, unscripted post-game opinion video I do while exiting the stadiums and walking to the car.”
The 42-year-old businessman, Georgia-born but Sheridan-raised, assumed stewardship of a neglected team site 17 years ago, bought it outright 12 years ago, and grew it into one of the state’s primary sports media outlets. Not the path he foresaw when he left Fayetteville before finishing his degree.
Biddy graduated high school in Sheridan in 1996 and like many Arkansas kids, headed up the Hill for college. He was a general business major with a communications minor and a member of Phi Delta Theta. And having grown up a Razorback fan, attending the University of Arkansas was all he ever wanted to do.
But before finishing his degree, Biddy’s path led him to Georgia, where he helped his dad operate pecan groves in and around Wrightsville, the hometown of Herschel Walker. Even while Biddy was tending the trees, 5 miles per hour on a tractor between groves, his future back in Arkansas was sounding a siren call.
“The farm life in Georgia just wasn’t a fit for me,” he says. “I spent a lot of nights at the office on the computer reading Razorback message boards like the old Pigpen and writing these long game breakdowns and opinion pieces that I’d send to my friend, old roommate and pledge brother Chris Russell, who had recently moved to Washington, D.C. He created this huge email chain and was forwarding what I wrote to tons of people and calling it, ‘The Biddy Report.’ I had no idea he was even doing this until I didn’t write him one week and then started getting emails from people asking when it was coming out.”
The events of Sept. 11, 2001, motivated Biddy to “rethink some things,” he says. “I felt like I’d developed a following with my writing, and since I couldn’t get enough of Razorback sports as it was, I thought that might be the way.”
The next spring, he was back in Arkansas and enrolled at UALR. Freshly minted as a journalism student, Biddy recognized an opportunity in late 2002 when he responded to a recruitment pitch on Rivals.com for someone to run the network’s struggling site devoted to the Hogs.
The timing was perfect. “Other than those who came into the network as older magazine people initially, they weren’t really seeking seasoned reporters for their new sites,” Biddy says. “They were after young, eager people starting out who they could teach and develop in this unique area of sports media.”
As will the next head Hog, Biddy took over a rebuilding project at Rivals. Technically part-time but working full-time hours while finishing up the credits needed to graduate, he inherited low subscription numbers but a wide open road on which to forge ahead.
“I had the job I wanted, but I was going to finish the journalism degree,” he says. “I didn’t even own a computer the first nine months. I would spend mornings and nights working at the computer lab at UALR until I saved up enough to buy my first laptop. I worked for $10 an article. When they realized I didn’t need much incentive to do the work, they paid me a $500 a month, flat rate. I’d go back and forth from staying at my mom’s house in Sheridan, to staying at my grandmother’s in Maumelle, to staying with my friends Ruston and Emily Smith in Little Rock.
“I don’t guess I really lived anywhere specifically, though they all carved out a space for me. I was just focused on learning the craft of journalism and building the website into something I could turn into a career that I was passionate about, and I certainly appreciate all those people for being there for me while I started at the very bottom.”
Biddy earned that journalism degree in 2003, and after a few months was named publisher of the Arkansas site. Eventually, Rivals brought in Otis Kirk, the godfather of Razorback recruiting news then writing for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, to post an article a day and interact on the site message board. The site saw a nice bump in subscribers, and Biddy was rewarded with a pay raise to $1,500 a month with built-in incentives based on increased subscriptions.
“We really took off soon after that though and that next summer of 2004, I moved back to Fayetteville.”
He returned to Northwest Arkansas in McArthur-like fashion with a degree in hand and renewed purpose. By 2007, following years of more growth, Biddy was offered the chance to buy the rights to the site, which he did, creating HawgSports.com LLC. From that slow Georgia roll, Biddy’s pace had accelerated, and it was about to get faster still.
The new sports media
Chris Etheridge, assistant professor of multimedia storytelling in the School of Mass Communication at UALR, says the biggest challenge for team sites like HawgSports is to resist the temptation to be a fan site, and maintain a commitment to balance, transparency and accountability.
“Sports journalists are bound by a code of ethics that prevents them from accepting gifts or special treatment from teams,” he says. “They are expected to be fair to the team and to the players. Are specialty sites following those same ethical principles of journalists who went through years of training? In many cases, they aren’t. There’s certainly a market for more coverage of teams and conversations about sports, as is evidenced by the growth of specialty fan sites, but it’s buyer beware from the audience perspective. It’s my hope that fan sites are challenged by their audiences to be transparent and open and that they hold the sites accountable for fairness and an understanding that athletes and coaches are people too.”
Etheridge’s concerns are validated by those fan sites that serve simply as exhaust pipes for frustration and even derision. But Biddy, and many others in the team site business, deliver journalism backgrounds.
“Sports fans are generally pretty smart and will see through phony content or empty rants,” Etheridge notes. “If there isn’t substance to the content, audiences won’t stick around long.”
Under Biddy’s leadership, HawgSports stuck. Biddy says team sites have transitioned from niche to mainstream and now represent a “serious component” to sports journalism. But when he started, the industry remained dominated by print and the traditional roles associated with it. For more than 60 years, Arkansans recognized legendary sports columnist Orville Henry as a consummate professional, renowned nationally for his work. But they also knew he was pulling for the Hogs.
Shannon Terry founded the 247Sports network after launching Rivals and ultimately selling it to Yahoo for an estimated $100 million, according to Adweek. He’s a believer in the college team-site model fueling his business, and last summer told Clay Travis on the Wins & Losses podcast that sports journalism in its current iteration is alive and well. Team sites may openly display their colors, but they can’t afford not to practice actual journalism, he says.
“If you’re not breaking news and then adding to the content supporting that breaking news with solid sources, you better really be good in a lot of other areas,” he told Travis.
Terry says the things he looks for in a site publisher like Biddy are three-fold: own the news in your market, wield peer influence and be a multi-tool team player. Biddy sees himself and others like him as the new breed of traditional journalist, and he’s not apologizing for being a fan who reports on the Hogs.
“That’s kind of what I have evolved into over the past 17 years, despite people telling me what I’m supposed to be as a journalist. I’m not a traditional newspaper writer, nor am I a radio guy, a TV guy, a blogger or a fan. I’m all of those things,” he says. “I’m not going to sit here and patronize you by making you think I have no interest in whether the Hogs win or lose after living in this state almost my entire life and going to school at the UA just because I’m in the media. Am I supposed to pretend like I didn’t rush the field in 1999 against Tennessee? I don’t wear it on my chest, but I do carry it in my pocket.
“Newspaper people try to come off more objective and neutral, but radio and TV people have no problem showing excitement or disappointment over a win or loss. Every person you know in sports journalism got into the business because they were a fan first. Then in journalism school, they told the print guys that they could no longer be fans. I’m not covering politics here; I’m covering sports. But even in politics, you’re going to tell me those journalists aren’t obviously a fan of one team or the other? C’mon now.
“I think some people feel that’s the only way they can be taken seriously as an objective journalist, but I think I have proven that to be false. I hope I have, at least. I can set that aside and cover the team objectively when I need to with a full appreciation of what a fan is experiencing. I think I know how to be what I need to be and when I need to be it without ever thinking about it. I want answers just like fans do, and I’m in a position to ask the questions for them. That’s an important responsibility, and sometimes it needs to come from their perspective and other times more objectively.”
Biddy believes HawgSports and other team sites have proven that it’s possible to strike a proper balance. But he admits it took a while for him to be taken seriously.
“When I first started, if you told someone, ‘I read it on the internet,’ they would laugh at you. I had people telling me to be careful getting into the internet business because it was fly-by-night,” Biddy says. “When I moved to Fayetteville after graduating and expanded coverage with practice reports and complete game coverage, I sent a letter to Kevin Trainor in UA media relations introducing myself and telling him of my objectives. He allowed me to cover practices but would not credential me for games. The UA had a written policy that you had to work for a print, radio or television media outlet to be credentialed, and they did not allow website-only reporters.”
But Biddy was resilient. In 2004, he worked the football beat by sitting through practices (which were open back then) and covering games from the stands. Following the season, he wrote another letter and again was denied game-day credentials.
“I just kept working, and eventually I think Kevin and others in and around the sports information offices started to view me differently. It wasn’t anything on them, this was a policy at most every school across the country,” Biddy says. “The third time, in 2006, I went and spoke with Kevin about it, and at that time I believe he had already made up his mind that he was going to credential me. I was there every day just like any newspaper or TV guy for two years at that point. And to Kevin’s credit, many teams across the country were still clinging to the old policies, but he saw the need for reform.
“And so, they rewrote the rules for me, and I became the first internet reporter allowed inside the University of Arkansas press box. Now I look down press row and see my three team members sitting up there with me, along with reporters from other websites in there as well. Sometimes I wonder if anybody knows what all I went through trying to break down that door because it certainly wasn’t always as easy as completing an application.”
Media delivery evolved to meet market demand, and Biddy was ahead of the curve. Hawg Sports was first among Arkansas sports media outlets to upload videos of press conferences and practice videos to the internet. “It would take forever for the video to upload in those days, and when it came out it was like 240p quality,” Biddy says.
Even as recently as 15 years ago, Biddy remembers the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (ironically) still not having a strong online presence. The old Hogwired.com, which then served as the online home for Razorback athletics, wasn’t doing much with videos at the time either and local TV stations had no online video content, he says. An opening was there, but it required some work.
“I would be holding an audio recorder in one hand, a still camera around my neck and a video camera in the other hand during breakout interviews with Houston Nutt,” Biddy says. “I would do TV spots for KNWA and radio for DriveTime Sports. I would upload practice and press conference videos along with photo galleries and also write practice reports for the website and cover recruiting. Today, we have a four-man team that does all of that stuff. I’m not sure how I did it all back then to be honest, but things moved a little slower in those days.”
The business model
Podcasts and videos are becoming an increasingly popular component to the success of the team-site model. The HawgSports Live podcast is posted on Mondays and Thursdays and for breaking news such as the recent firing of Morris. Biddy even built out a small studio in his house, complete with a brick background, from which to stream. In addition to the 20-minute segments on Drivetime, Biddy and West appear with R.J. Hawk on the Hawg Hustle podcast, aired weekly on The Buzz network. Both the Drivetime segments and the podcast are among the Buzz’s most popular features. And then of course, there’s the Walk and Talk. All HawgSports podcasts and videos are available through several platforms including Facebook Live, Apple Podcast, YouTube, Spotify and Stitcher.
“It’s definitely something the 247Sports network has pushed and is something they see as a big deal in the future as we continue to grow the podcast network,” Biddy says. “Pretty much all the major team sites have one now. I think what makes things like our podcast popular is that we also cover the team, while there are some out there who really cover the media that covers the team.”
These days, Biddy can afford to entice readers — potential subscribers — with more free content.
“Very rarely would I have written a story that wasn’t for subscribers only back in the day,” he says. “Now, I write a lot of free content. The way I look at it, other organizations out there are creating content anyone can get for free just for ad revenue. That isn’t very premium, is it? If it came out of a press conference or it’s a story about what has happened already, then that is going to be everywhere, so we typically do it free. If it’s a story about what is going to happen based on our inside sources, or if it’s something we put a lot of research into outside of something as simple as a press release or press conference, it’s for our subscribers only.
“We save that good stuff for our VIP people. We actually publish the same number of VIP stories as we ever have; we just add more free stuff on top of it now, since we have a larger team.”
Biddy wants that extra free content to have substance; no clickbait. “That has never been our style. I want to run compelling headlines, obviously, but I want a reader to click on our stories and feel satisfied with where they land.”
And Biddy would rather be right than first. During the coaching search just two years ago that resulted in Morris, message boards and even some news outlets flung rumors to the wall hoping one would stick. But HawgSports waited and got it right — Morris seemed to come out of nowhere, but he was the guy. Of course, turns out he wasn’t really the guy, but Biddy and crew opted for accuracy over clickbait. Last spring when many sources had Kelvin Sampson penciled in as the Hogs’ new basketball coach following the dismissal of Mike Anderson, HawgSports was the only media outlet advising fans to pump their brakes on the Houston coach.
Customers appear to appreciate the approach. So far in 2019, HawgSports has added more subscriptions than any other team site in the entire 247Sports network, and Biddy is confident that it’s added more than any site on any network over the past 18 months.
“And if I had to guess, I’d say we’ve added more subscribers than any team site on any network since we moved,” Biddy says. “That might be true over a longer period than that because we had a really big year in 2017 as well, before we moved. That includes other massive team sites across the country too, like Texas, Georgia, Penn State, Ohio State and USC, for example, and we have done it here in Arkansas during a time when the football team simply has not been very good and the basketball team failed to make the NCAA Tournament and changed coaches.
“That to me just shows how passionate Razorback fans are even though we all come from a smaller state in terms of population.”
As any small business owner could attest, proprietorship requires salesmanship and Biddy understands the value of promotion. His first go-round as a college student included selling Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette subscriptions. Biddy begins and ends most every video, podcast or radio appearance with a pitch for the site and its frequent promotions. He can relate to Razorback coaches who say they can recruit any athlete to Arkansas if they could just get them on campus. Biddy believes if he can just get readers in the door, they’ll be hooked.
“We’re always offering specials because we find the challenge is to get people through the door in the first place because they don’t realize what we offer,” he says. “So often, people tell me they can get such-and-such for free. But once they subscribe, they realize they were wrong and typically stay subscribed. So, we offer all sorts of specials. Sometimes, we’ve offered the first month for $1; sometimes we’ve done three months for the price of one. But one deal that doesn’t go away is a commercial-free subscription to CBS All Access at no charge for existing and new subscribers who are paying the full price of membership, which is $9.95 a month or $107.40 annually. That’s an added $99 annual feature for free as long as you’re subscribed to HawgSports.com.”
Blatant sales pitch? Sure. But it’s part of the story, part of the formula Biddy relied on to grow. Once he made the decision to join 247, the specials came to represent a fairly significant leap of faith because the logistics of the transition meant subscribers would have to rejoin the new network.
“I couldn’t just take anybody’s subscription or credit card information with me from Rivals to 247Sports, nor could we let everyone know that we were making the move,” Biddy says. “When a subscriber signed up with HawgSports.com, their credit card information went to Rivals, not us directly. So, when we moved, we were doing it on the hope that people would follow us. On top of that, we knew Rivals was going to hire a new team and do everything they could do to keep what we had built there over the last 15 years going.”
Biddy says the folks at 247 told him it would take a couple of years to get his numbers back to where they were before the move, and even invested in the site to carry it over until that time.
“But in my mind, I fully expected to blow them away and for it all to happen within a week,” Biddy laughs. “After the first few days of the switch many people came over, but we were only about 60 percent of the size we were before. So, we kept grinding. After a few months, we were at 90 percent. Two months after that, we were at 120 percent, and a year later we were at nearly 150 percent, and now 18 months later we’re well over double the size. I still hate that there were people who had been with us who were still locked into subscriptions, but there literally was no other way for us to do this, and it was a move I felt we had to make. We’re certainly grateful to the ones who came with us anyway, whether it was right off the bat or a few months later, and of course grateful to those who joined us for the first time.”
Biddy was sold on 247’s plans to update and redesign the network and improve the overall user experience. But his audience had no way of knowing such a roadmap existed. Now, the 247 network is “state of the art in every category” and his readers can benefit from their loyalty, Biddy says. He appreciates their own leap of faith.
“While I knew what was in the works, our members did not because to them it all happened very quickly. Initially, many just saw us leaving for a site that needed an upgrade in technology.”
As vice president of business development for CBS Interactive and 247 Sports, it’s Joel Cox’s job to recruit site publishers. Two years ago, he recruited Biddy to join his soon-to-be revamped network. HawgSports had grown into a leader in the state’s fractured market and was starting to solidify its place in the state’s sports media hierarchy. In Biddy, Cox saw a natural fit who could help the network achieve its goal of becoming “the face of college sports.”
“We want every one of our sites to be the market leader,” Cox tells Arkansas Money & Politics. “But you’ve got to make sure you’re getting the right person. With Trey, the minute I met him, I knew I that’s what we had.”
In 20 years, Cox has never seen a site switch networks and double its numbers. “Trey’s got a really good sense of this business,” he says. “He’s the hardest worker, and he fits what we do. In this business, you’ve got to be so good at what you do. It’s no easy feat, and he’s done it.”
But business acumen alone didn’t grow the site. Cox believes the way Biddy interacts with subscribers played a big role. “He’s extremely conscientious and loyal, he cares about his subscribers, and he fundamentally understands what Arkansas fans are looking for,” he says.
It takes a community
For Biddy, HawgSports is as much as community as news outlet. He and his staff interact with members on the site’s message board, and the Walk and Talk series was launched as a way to help members feel more connected.
“We are a sports-media outlet, but we are also a community,” he says. “There have been many startups over the years that cover Arkansas and don’t understand the importance of having both aspects, content and community. Most of the breaking insider news we have, we first break it on our VIP message board, the Razor’s Edge. It’s hard when things have been so bad with Arkansas football lately, but we want our user experience to be fun, interactive and more informative than anywhere else.”
Biddy strives to report and connect. After all, there’s perhaps no more unifying force connecting Arkansans than the Razorbacks. Biddy believes the structure of HawgSports amplifies that connection, whereas other forums can bring out the worst in folks who are supposed to be on the same team.
“I want to speak to and engage with the fan,” he says. “We find that members who are paying subscribers also tend to be more civil overall than you might find on Twitter or on a free message board versus our VIP Razor’s Edge Forum, which makes for a more enjoyable experience. Some of my best friends, I have never met in person. They’re a Razorback fan from south Arkansas or Arizona or Nashville or are stationed in some other country. There might be a 20-year age gap. We want our members to know they’re a part of what we’re doing and make sure they feel invested. We try to create the type of content that they enjoy and present it in new and entertaining ways.”
This emphasis on content and community has delivered a healthy return.
“Not only do we break a lot of news, like first announcing Chad Morris’ hire and the dismissals of John Pelphrey and Mike Anderson, but we want to make sure our subscribers feel like they know what is about to happen, like when we guided them through the coaching searches of Morris and [Eric] Musselman, and we want them to have a good time with it, though we know that can mean the expression of a wide range of emotions.
“People ask me all the time, ‘Why should I subscribe to your website when I can get it for free elsewhere?’ Or they’ll suggest that we can’t survive in this day with all the free content. I’ve literally been hearing that for a decade. They don’t know what I know. More and more, people want premium content and an informative and engaging community, and it is shifting more and more that way now because people have grown tired of clickbait and sifting through the trash and rumor mill for reliable news.
“I’m nearly 17 years in now, and we just keep growing despite the occasional troll who tells me we can’t. And it’s not because we do the same things as everyone else or simply the things that have worked in the past. We’ll always have the same foundation, but we’re focused on innovation in our coverage, and that is one reason we moved to 247Sports after years with Rivals. We felt that was a necessary move to continue growing and improving.”
Biddy’s been on the front lines of this media evolution. It’s been an interesting ride, he says.
“It’s changed a great deal since 2003 when I started,” he says. “Social media sites like MySpace and Facebook hadn’t even come out yet when I got started. I used to be able to call a bunch of recruits one night and then hold the stories and run them throughout the week. We would hold off running a commitment story until the newspapers went to print and the local news went off the air, so we’d be the only people who had the story that evening and then in Otis’ column the next morning. Back then, the recruit typically wouldn’t announce his commitment. We would break that story to our subscribers and then everyone else would follow the news.
“That isn’t VIP news anymore because the recruits announce on Twitter. The VIP part now is guiding readers through the process, what is happening behind the scenes leading up to that decision, projecting what is going to happen through insider information and then discussing the impact of the commitment and of course, painting the big picture for our members. Obviously the more popular the internet has become, the more it has changed the industry. There’s no holding back information anymore. You just have to get it out.
“With everyone having a presence online and with social media like Twitter, there is a lot more competition, but HawgSports just keeps growing and taking a bigger piece of the pie.”