In 2002 a newsletter and a message board became partners. The former would provide content, the later distribution. What they shared was a passion for Texas A&M athletics and a commitment to Aggie fans.
Fast forward to 2015 and their venture, TexAgs, has become one of the most popular and respected brands in college sports media. Independently owned and operated, TexAgs has evolved into a multi-media powerhouse boasting more than 11,000 monthly subscribers and on pace for 40 million page views this month.
You read that correctly: 40,000,000.
How did this happen?
“I was doing a print publication that was fax, email alerts,” Billy Liucci recalls. “I was living in this tiny, dilapidated house when I got out of college (at Texas A&M).”
Liucci, now TexAgs’ senior writer and part owner, was writing and reporting about Aggie sports for his “Maroon and White” newsletter, launched in 1998. “TexAgs” began as a message board in 1997 or 1998.
“There’s still some discrepancy,” Brandon Jones, TexAgs President and CEO and another of the company’s owners told me recently for this profile. “I bought half of it in ’99 and was put in charge at that point. It was a message board and (founder) Peter Kuo would go out and link articles from around the country. Those two functions are what really popularized the site.”
Jones said TexAgs was receiving three or four million page views during the football season in 1999, generating advertising revenue through agencies which would pay him to place ads on the site. Then the Dot Com Bubble burst and advertising revenue dried up.
“I tried to get rid of (TexAgs) for a year and a half, two years,” Jones said. “At the end of that whole period (spring 2002) I reached out to Billy and said, ‘hey, is there something we can work out, you have good content, we have a good audience. ’”
The partnership made sense to both sides.
“It was kind of the perfect match,” Liucci remembers. “There was no product for anyone to pay for. I said, ‘hey, I really like what you guys are doing, but how long can you do it without money and how long can I do (the newsletter) with the landscape changing.’”
Here’s how it worked.
“We forged a revenue share agreement for putting the content (Billy) was putting into his newsletter into a digital form and putting it on (TexAgs),” Jones said. “We opened up a premium forum which is basically a discussion among subscribers. That gave us the revenue to keep the servers on because there was a time when we were like, ‘we just have to shut the whole thing down, it’s costing me money, it’s a pain in the butt.’”
Bad Times, and Good
The two companies merged in 2008. Liucci and Jones own TexAgs along with Liucci’s “Maroon and White” co-owner Hunter Goodwin, a former Texas A&M and NFL tight end, and Jones’ TexAgs partner Josh Oelzee, who oversees the site’s technical aspects.
2008 would prove an unlucky time for making money covering Aggie sports. The football program had experienced five disappointing seasons under Dennis Franchione and 2008 opened with a loss to Arkansas State.
“We made payroll by $15 in June 2009,” TexAgs staff reporter and Host of TexAgs Radio Gabe Bock said. “We lost a couple hundred subscribers after that first weekend (in 2008). A&M had just had Dennis Franchione and then – BOOM – lose to Arkansas State. I think (fans) had had it with Aggie Football. I think they were tired of spending a dollar – any money – on information about this football team.”
TexAgs was forced to make difficult choices.
“I remember our first meeting where we had to let somebody go who we really thought was good,” Liucci told me. “As a guy who ran a one-man business before that, it was like, ‘man this is real world, real life stuff now.’ But I never thought it wasn’t going to work, not one point during the whole thing did I think this wasn’t going to work.”
And work it has.
As much as events in 2008 conspired against TexAgs, events in 2012 conspired for it. Fervor for Aggie football had been rejuvenated by the program’s move to the SEC when Kevin Sumlin coached his debut season in Kyle Field with a quarterback named Johnny Manziel.
“The move to the SEC helped a ton, but to say that Johnny Football hasn’t been very, very good to us would be gross omission,” Bock said.
“A&M could win a national title and unless it’s completely unexpected (it wouldn’t match 2012 for fan excitement),” Liucci said. “You can’t bottle up the magic of that 2012 season. That was a time period that I don’t think will be recaptured.”
Whether the football team wins or loses, TexAgs’ secret ingredient to success won’t change.
“TexAgs has soul,” Liucci said. “The people who are on it, they feel a true sense of ownership.”
“Community” is an oft-repeated buzz word around the TexAgs offices and everyone I spoke to credited the community of Aggie fans who have embraced the brand for its success.
“(TexAgs has created) a tribe mentally,” Jones said. “I’m part of this tribe and I’m going to fight for this tribe. I think (TexAgs fans) are generally proud of what we’ve been able to do as an organization.”
Bock told me efforts are routinely made to strengthen that feeling of community.
“Bringing your listeners, your viewers, your subscribers – that community that reads you – (together) turning it into a brand community where they’re actually meeting each other. Putting user names with voices and faces. You know what their mother’s name is and their brother and their dog. That’s really important too because then you create a value system to where when times are bad, they’re going to be here with you.”
The TexAgs brand left the confines of a website long ago. TexAgs now features a two hour daily radio show aired in College Station and simulcast on local television. There is a pre-game football broadcast, tailgates before home football games, charter flights for fans to away games and a video arm that would be the envy of many major market TV stations.
Following the release of its groundbreaking “SEC Ready” documentary, a project which Jones told me generated over $100,000 in revenue, TexAgs has doubled-down on video. The day I visited its office, September 11th, TexAgs was putting the finishing touches on a project more than two years in the making: a look at Kyle Field’s renovation.
“I purchased the rights to do a documentary on all the reconstruction and we’ve been embedded over there for 2 years,” Jones told me. “It’s a commitment to excellence in content. It’s about not being scared to do content that might be really, really hard, and take a long time, and be expensive.”
TexAgs has committed itself to becoming more relevant with current Texas A&M students and now offers free subscriptions to enrollees. A video series following football recruits will launch shortly. Additional television projects are being considered.
Outside of the content-generation space, TexAgs has developed a comprehensive web publishing suite which includes a content management system, subscriber management, billing, forum creation and moderation, video display and more. TexAgs intends to license the product to other companies struggling to overcome the considerable technical challenges of managing a user-friendly, multi-platform, digital brand like it does.
As someone who has launched independently owned and operated websites in the college football space I can appreciate the incredible amount of time and effort everyone at TexAgs has put into its product. Success in that area is not as easy as it seems. I admire the business they have built; I wish them all the best in the future.
You can follow Chadd Scott on Twitter @chaddscott
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