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Interview: Lawrence Donegan, founder of ByTheMinute Sport

By: Golf Shake | Thu 05 Mar 2015

Golfshake's Kieran Clark recently sat down with the founder of ByTheMinute Sport and former Guardian golf correspondent Lawrence Donegan to talk about his plans for the future. 

If you are a sports fan with a Twitter account, then it is highly likely that you will have stumbled across ByTheMinute Sport during the past couple of years. Started as something of an experiment by former Guardian golf correspondent Lawrence Donegan, ByTheMin’s unique brand of sports updates have proven to be immensely popular with an internationally varied public. There are now 59 Twitter accounts running under the ByTheMin banner – with a combined followership of 95,000.

Many of those followers have become contributors to ByTheMin themselves – running the accounts, and providing minute-by-minute updates from a whole variety of sporting events. This has perhaps been the most startling aspect to the ByTheMin - the unearthing of hundreds of knowledgeable and gifted writers - who wouldn’t otherwise have a platform to express their talents.

However, it’s not just limited to witty and stylish updates on Twitter. In recent months, ByTheMin has expanded into the growing world of podcasting. Headlined by the popular ByTheMinGolf Podcast (hosted by Donegan and veteran golf writer John Huggan), these regular broadcasts have illustrated an impressive level of versatility from its contributors.

And now after two years of steady growth, ByTheMin is ready to elevate itself to the next level. Soon to establish its own platform – a monumental leap – this merry band of witty sports fans look set to dominate Twitter timelines for years to come.

But how does the founder, himself, view the success of ByTheMin? The California-based Scot very kindly took some time with Golfshake to reflect upon on the development and future of his inspired creation.

Firstly, Lawrence. Where did the idea come from? What inspired it?

Lawrence: “Very simple idea. I had just left the Guardian. And I decided to stay at home. Be a stay at home Dad. I was following golf tournaments on Twitter, and it really annoyed me that people were tweeting their emotions. It would be: “what a great putt”, and you would be like: ‘by who?’

You follow people on Twitter because you’re interested in their interior lives. But for sports, if they’re tweeting about events I wanted to know what was happening above all else. Then with their opinion afterwards. That bugged me. So, I was doing nothing else, and it was the first Masters I hadn’t been to for six or seven years. So, I sat down and live-tweeted the Masters on my own for three and a half days. I think that I got almost 3,000 followers. Pretty good. What was more interesting – and still is about what we do – was the amount of interaction from followers. They were obsessive about it. Lots of conversation. It was really quite an eye opener.

Funnily, I got suspended from Twitter. I spent three days live-tweeting the Masters and then Twitter suspended the account on the Sunday afternoon because of over-tweeting! So I wasn’t able to tweet the last two hours.

And that was it. So, I thought; ‘that was interesting’. Manchester United were playing West Ham in the football on a ByTheMinuteSportTuesday night – English Premier League – so I thought ‘why not set up an account for that’. So I set up ByTheMinEPL, and, again out of nowhere, I think got about 300 followers during the course of the game. So it took off from there, really.

Even in that such short period of time, I realised that were was a real level of interest in this kind of stuff. And this was long before some of the sports ‘clubs’  - if you want to call them that – began doing their own minute-by-minute updates. So this was a little bit ahead of that.

Shortly after that, when I started asking people if they could help. I discovered that there is an incredible amount of brilliant writers out there – who aren’t actually sportswriters. I reckon that we have a dozen people – maybe 20 – who would walk into a national newspaper and not look out of place.”

I was going to ask you about that. The people you’ve had involved in the past couple of years, and as you say, so many of them are knowledgeable, quite amusing, articulate, very talented. Has that surprised you – the depth of talent that you have unearthed?

Lawrence: “It’s been shocking to me. Absolutely shocking. I can’t believe it. One guy who helps me, Roddy Graham. He is a primary school teacher. And he is astonishing. A 24-year-old primary school teacher from Hawick. He is so talented, funny, articulate, knows his sport.

The recent Australian Open (tennis) we did 12-14 hours a day for the entire two weeks. Better than any media organisation in the whole world. Better than the BBC. Obviously they have live pictures, but not everyone can get live pictures. Our coverage was unbelievable. Tennis coaches were doing it, these informed people who are so enthusiastic and were able to explain in such a concise space what was going on. It was mind-blowing. It shocks me every day. I am astonished.”

You mentioned the BBC. Do you feel that they, and other media organisations have fallen behind in terms of social media coverage and how useful that can be for them?

Lawrence: “Well, they’re working to a different model, aren’t they? They are slightly behind. But I’m not going to slag them off for that. Part of the reason is that they have certain restrictions and parameters within which they have to operate. It’s the same with club feeds.

It always amuses me. If I’m on the ByTheMinCeltic and I’ll be live-tweeting with the official Celtic feed doing it at the same time. And it always makes me at laugh at how they would write a particular incident, compared to how we would write about the same incident. We can say exactly what we’re really thinking. I have noticed a slight change in tone in big feeds. The model for tone for me was always the Guardian Minute-By-Minute from maybe four or five years ago. To me that is the gold standard. It’s changed though – it’s nowhere near as good.

We’re much more nimble. We can be more free-wheeling with our comments and remarks about things that happen during a game than the BBC, Guardian or Telegraph. We do have certain rules – if you write for us – we’re not like schoolteachers, but we send you a set of guidelines. Some people get it straight away, while others just don’t. You tend to find that if you’re not getting it – you don’t really enjoy it and you drift away – but if you’re on it.

There’s a guy who does our golf coverage – a guy called Emmet Keane. I don’t know what he does. I think he lives in Ireland, but he just gets it. He’s brilliant. He has great fun. And he gets the information across – it’s just perfect.”

You mentioned people like Emmet. What do you think is the appeal for them – the contributors - in doing a ByTheMin?

Lawrence: “I know what the appeal is for me. I’ve been in journalism for 20 years – seven as a sports columnist at the Guardian. I’ve always had an audience, for what it’s worth. I’ve always had that thrill of people reading my stuff in a place that is quite prominent.

So take someone like Emmet, they’ve got an audience of informed and engaged readers. I would imagine that the audience for ByTheMinGolf is bigger than golf on the Guardian. It might be close. Considering the Guardian has been around for 150 years – we’re doing not bad in the space of two years.

And if you’re good at something it must be thrilling to have an audience for your thoughts. Also, if you are good at something, how satisfying to actually have a place to show off your talent.”

On that subject. I’ve canvassed the opinion of a couple of people who have contributed to ByTheMin in the past. And one guy said to me that it was the Twitter equivalent of performing stand-up comedy or a live play on stage. You have 11,000 people potentially reading your tweets making it a real adrenaline rush.

Lawrence: “We’ve had Andrew Cotter on the golf feed, Tweeter Alliss and even Gary Lineker! And to me, and there’s a lot of great people, but Emmet is awesome. If it’s the climax of the Masters, and it’s McIlroy against Tiger Woods, there’s no one I want to read more than Emmet Keane. That, to me, that’s the joy of thing. There’s Becky Harte on the Tennis, Danielle who does the Chelsea feed, and she is brilliant. One thing – I would love to get more women on it.”

I want to talk about the podcasts. You moved into that area last year. Did you always see that as an area that you would get into?

Lawrence: “Yeah, I’ve been a fan of podcasts for years. I think it (podcasting) is great, particularly niche podcasting. There’s a tech podcast network – I think it’s called TIVO – it’s a collection of 25 or 30 podcasts on various topics of tech culture – and I think there is room for that in sport. I love podcasts.

And again – it’s a place for people to express themselves. We have a podcast – ByTheMinute Motherwell. I don’t know how many fans Motherwell have around the world, maybe 5,000 in total, and I think the last Motherwell podcast had 1,200 downloads. There was one with the chief executive on. So, we basically had 20% of Motherwell fans in the world listening to our podcast.”

When you look at podcasts as a whole, Lawrence. They’re obviously very accessible. You can listen to them on the way to work, on your phone, computer. Is that a big advantage?

Lawrence: “Totally. If you were to listen to TalkSport or FiveLive radio, and were a Celtic fan, or St. Johnstone fan. Or a golf fan. You’re never going to get – Iain Carter is great on the BBC – but during the golf season he has one show a week. And it’s constantly interrupted by updates, the news and so on.

Take our golf podcast. It’s 35 or 40 minutes of pure golf delivered by people who really know about the game. Total nerdsville. I’m not saying there is a massive audience – we’re not going to have 500,000 downloads – but we’ll get to 15,000 and on Motherwell we might get to 2,500 and on Celtic we might get to 20,000. We want to get a tennis one up. We’ve dabbled with a cricket one.

We’re not going to challenge the Guardian’s football weekly for English football, but what we can do is individual club podcasts. A lot of clubs aren’t that well served by podcasts. Just a question of seeding the idea – letting people see that it works – and if you want to do one – then on you go. We try to hit a certain level of professionalism – some are more than others.

If you look at it cumulatively, and we have six or seven podcasts and have probably reached 75,000 downloads. It’s pretty good.”

Looking at the golf podcast specifically. You co-host that with John Huggan. From what I’ve read and heard from people, they love his contributions. They enjoy listening to him. What qualities does John bring to the podcast?

Lawrence: “Huggy might be in the top three most knowledgeable golf writers in the world. He does a weekly column in Scotland on Sunday that should be in Golf Digest. He is a very smart, articulate guy who knows so much about golf. He has played at the very highest amateur level.

For instance, he was in Abu Dhabi recently and he estimated that he talked to at least 40 players in the field. That’s the level of contact and knowledge that he has. And for him not to have a place for his voice to be heard is just absurd. So, it’s great to give him that platform.

I love it as well. I love doing it. I know a tenth of what Huggy does. It’s good fun. We’ve been lucky enough to have some quite good guests. Between us, our contacts, we’ve had Chubby (Chandler) on, Paul Lawrie came on and he was brilliant. In a year’s time – if you look cumulatively – our podcast network will probably have 35 or 40 thousand downloads a month. That is not insignificant.”

You mentioned the guests that you’ve had on the podcast. Paul Lawrie, Denis Pugh, Chubby Chandler. Do you think that standard of guest separates you from anything else on the airwaves for golf?

Lawrence: “I don’t really listen to any other golf podcasts. A little bit. State of the Game is a great one. With Rod Morri and Geoff Shackleford. I really like that one. The European Tour one I haven’t listened to – but I would imagine that they have to careful about what they have to say. We’re careful in having credible opinions, but we actually criticise the European Tour, and I can’t imagine their podcast would.”

You talk about giving John Huggan a platform. You’ve also done that for the likes of Scott Michaux, Steve Elling, and Doug Ferguson – American writers. Do you think they’ve been a really good foil for John – offering balance on the podcast?

Lawrence: “They’ve been great, actually, yeah. Doug is the most read golf writer in the world. He really is. His AP reports go into – who knows - 350 newspapers in America every morning. Scott Michaux is a total star. If you give people chances, Scott doesn’t need that from us obviously, he’s a well-respected journalist, but he’s a brilliant broadcaster. He’s got a great voice, he knows a lot, he’s very funny, comfortable talking – unlike me. They’ll be vested in it.”

Now to the big question, Lawrence. The future of ByTheMin. Is there a way to monetize it? What is the plan for the future?

Lawrence: “Well, we’re just about to start beta testing our new platform. It’s going to be like the Huffington Post with Twitter built in. So our writers – when they’re writing – will write on our platform and it will come out simultaneously on Twitter. So that allows us to control our own content. And curate it in one place.

So, for instance, last night we had 12 feeds going. And they will all be there on our platform. So, rather than opening your Twitter app, you would look at your ByTheMin app. We understand that Twitter will be our main audience. If you follow us on Twitter, you’ll still get the stuff at exactly the same time through the wonders of modern technology.

We’ll start curating it like a Huffington Post site. And we’re just basically going to try and scale that. We have certain static editorial plans – not to get too technical - we’ll have the podcast network on there. We’re going to have a slot for one high quality piece of editorial. For instance, if the McIlroy trial had gone ahead it would have been great to have somebody who was in there for the whole thing to write the definitive 10 or 15 thousand word piece of journalism that just doesn’t get published anymore.

Basically, our calling card is just live updates. With our own, unique editorial voice. And we want to scale it. Some Saturdays you’ll go on the BBC and there might be two live feeds updating live. And if you go to ByTheMinuteSport you’re going to get 20, 25 or 30 all going at the same time.

Part of the launching the platform. The way we’re going to set up the company. We already have a core of about 50 writers. They will own part of the company. Have shares in the company.

The model is Bleacher Report (who were bought for $300,000,000 last year). I don’t like, but I’ve always observed it. It was a user content generated model. Essentially what we do. But the issue with them was two things. One; they published crap for a long time. And the second thing was that they treated people badly.

Difference here is that if you write a minute-by-minute for us – bang – straight away you are a shareholder. We would have a top level of people who have been with us from the start – who have been significantly invested in the company by now. We’ve had a total of 1,500 writers. There’s going to be churn but people are going to stick. Core of 50 and another 150 who are on the periphery. But that will grow as we scale it up and do more teams and events.

We’re like a community and that’s how we want to run it. Of course, there’s going to be a hierarchy of sorts to be in the centre to organise it. But, let’s say that we’re all vested in this as a community.

If we start raising revenue. And you do something for us, a podcast and it was sponsored, we’re not going to keep the money. We’ll host it and put it up there, but you made that money. We’re trying to be cool about everything and cut everybody in and see where it takes us.

This is a big step moving onto our own platform. But from talking to people – and I’ve had conversations with some pretty serious people – they believe it to be a pretty good idea.

The big fear is always that someone else will just replicate it. Well, good luck, the barriers to entry are pretty high. A corporation isn’t going to do it. We are what Twitter Sports should be. Right now it is “Happy Birthday, LeBron James”, but what we’re doing is taking that Twitter ethos and putting it to useful ends.

Establishing our own platform is a big moment.”

And that’s coming around in the next fortnight?

Lawrence: “Yes. We’re basically going to get it up and mess about with it for a while. Not really shout about it, just put it out there. And then operate it through the summer. And then after the summer, we’ll see where we are and the hope is to start employing some kind of core full-time. Just to run it. As it is getting slightly out of hand.”

Two years ago, when this all began and took shape, could you have ever envisaged that you would be at this stage of setting up a platform?

Lawrence: “No! Not really. But pretty quickly, it grew. When it started I thought it would only be a social media thing, but I think that day has passed. I’m not sure it’s quite relevant anymore. If you look at Twitter – it’s just a big, amorphous lump. There is a website that is a model – it’s called StockTwits. Essentially a real-time platform for the New York Stock Exchange. It’s a bunch of stockbrokers putting out quite useful information. Very early on, it occurred to me that we could be a sport version of that.”

So, looking back at the two years, is there a personal highlight?

Lawrence: “Absolutely! It was the day that Gary Lineker came on ByTheMinGolf! We couldn’t believe it. He wanted to come on the golf feed. Can you imagine? He’s brilliant, Gary Lineker. Love him. Top guy and everything. I think he was on the Sunday of the Ryder Cup.”

We didn’t say anything, or do anything, or boast about it. We just put a tweet with our line-up with him in there. Just left it there. I suppose, if we had shouted about it, we could have gained 50,000 followers, but we thought that we would be cool about. It was brilliant. Really funny.

Here’s another highlight. We still don’t know who did it. On the Liverpool feed. They did a tribute to the Hillsborough victims. I swear to God. We still don’t know, some guy, just one of the writers, came on and he did and it was absolutely beautiful. It was magnificent. Those are my highlights.”

You have to expect that there will be more highlights to come in the lifetime of ByTheMin. As it now prepares to progress from adolescence into adulthood, it will be fascinating to see just where this journey continues to take them.
Witty and stylish? You bet. Add yourself to the ever growing ByTheMin family.

Or for more information visit the ByTheMinute Sport website - Click here


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