Mike Koehler, founder of the newly launched Sellout Crowd, started out as a sports reporter at The Oklahoman years ago. And that was before he went out on his own to create Smirk New Media, a digital branding agency that has flourished in Oklahoma City for more than a decade.
He couldn’t kick his love for sports journalism, so he decided to put all his experience together to create a new kind of sports media outlet in Oklahoma. He threw away the wall between advertising and content that exists in traditional media and embraced the idea of sponsorship, like so many other industries and entertainment providers already do.
“I’m trying to marry these two worlds that I’ve lived in for the past 25 years,” he said. “If a lot of content is still being consumed, which it is more than ever, and brands are still interested in reaching audiences, which they are just through different ways, then people who have expertise and value and creativity in the content that they put out, have a place in the market.”
With his work at Smirk, Koehler saw the rise of short-form videos, relevant podcasts and digital-based content and how well his clients could leverage it to reach desired audiences. He also saw influencers start earning significant paychecks for sponsored content. He knew the content still being created by Oklahoma sports reporters could find a similar audience – and paycheck – as others. Same work, different sponsor structure.
“Those people were being undervalued by the traditional places that they were working,” he said. ”They were more valuable in marketing these individual brands than they were being seen internally by the companies that they were working for.”
His idea: Hire the top talent in the market – in this case, longtime Oklahoman sports reporters Berry Tramel and Jenni Carlson. These two well-known names in Oklahoma sports reporting with decades of experience between them pivoted to become, in essence, sponsored sports content influencers reporting on the Sooners, the Cowboys and the Thunder in Oklahoma for Sellout Crowd.
“And so that’s the model: Take these traditional folks who have a built-in audience, who have years of experience, who are great at their craft and give them the freedom to do that work while having a support system that helps them distribute and monetize their content,” he said. ”It’s just like someone who’s doing Tik Tok at their home or who has a great YouTube channel.”
This new kind of sponsored reporting will still rely on an advertiser support model, although Sellout has secured significant funding sources to help get the endeavor solidly off the ground.
“The pay wall model is really broken, especially when it comes to individual content creators,” he said. “We just feel like instead of having salespeople talk to advertisers, about supporting a big corporate entity, we have salespeople who are reaching out to local companies about supporting individual creators, or individual types of coverage and being really friendly to them, sort of escaping some of the rules that traditional media or journalism rules that handcuffs us a little bit.”
What kind of support are they getting? The scale of support for Sellout Crowd tipped when country star Toby Keith, among others, came on board as a founder.
“What the investors enabled us to do was recruit the best team that we could possibly get and enabled us to go to market and start selling before we had something,” co-founder Kris Murray said. “There are other monetization structures that we will implement over time that have been successful for other networks. There’s other things that we will implement in the future, so that is a growth area that we’ll be looking at. But right now, this is the way that we felt would be the most authentic way to launch.”
The investors secured the launch of Sellout, allowing time to establish more content sponsors.
“We’ve built the business plan into a three-year business plan,” Murray said. “And we expect to be self-sufficient by the end of this year according to our projections.”
This new model, the founders are quick to point out, works because Sellout’s coverage is all sports. It’s a shared community of already built in-super fans that want content.
“The reason this works is because of focus,” founder Mike Sherman said. “Everybody markets themselves to us. They wear OU hats and say ‘give me content’ without even saying anything. That’s the kind of teamwork that was and is seldom seen in the so-called traditional media.”
Sellout Crowd founders are hoping it’s a better funding model that provides better content, exactly when and where they want it, allowing the audience to interact with the reporters directly and immediately.
“It’s an invitation for community,” Murray said. “It’s an invitation for the audience to engage at a level with the creators and with the sports that they love in a way that they haven’t been able to do in the past. We’re inviting people to join something better. It’s not just pushing content in front of them and hoping for the best you’ll get.”
For Koehler, he’s capitalizing on a movement that has been building and providing content where the consumer already is – and not pushing them to find it.
“It’s the trend towards the interest economy on social media,” he said. “If people tell you what they want, keep giving them what they want, in terms of content.”