Kentuckysportsradio.com may not look like a media powerhouse, but the site, founded by Matt Jones ’00, is one of the most popular independently run college sports websites in the country.
Jones, a political science major who earned a J.D. from Duke University Law School, started the website in 2005 with a partner, Rob Gidel, hoping to use it as an online radio show about University of Kentucky sports. The pair did a couple of shows and decided it wasn’t feasible, so Jones began using KSR to keep up with some of his Transylvania friends, including Andrew Jefferson ’04, Chris Mosley ’02, Chris Tomlin ’98, Jason Moore ’01, and Duncan Cavanah ’99. The crew had spread out from Lexington, but still had three common bonds—UK sports, Transylvania, and making each other laugh.
“Howard Dean had run for president in 2004 and used this notion of blogs as a way to communicate,” Jones said. “So my buddies and I began using the blog just as a way to communicate with each other. There was no notion that it was going to be a popular thing, but within a month we were getting 200 to 300 hits a day, and we thought, ‘Let’s see what we can do with this.’”
The site slowly began attracting more visitors, but even when it reached 5,000 hits per day, Jones still didn’t think it had much of a chance to be widely read.
That changed in 2007 after former head basketball coach Tubby Smith left Lexington and Billy Gillispie was hired to coach the Wildcats. Jones had gotten a radio show at a struggling Louisville station, mostly so he could receive a press pass to UK media events. At Gillispie’s first press conference in Lexington, which was televised live, Jones raised his hand to ask a question, and thousands of famously basketball-crazed UK fans glued to their TVs saw an unfamiliar, and oddly disheveled, head pop out of the crowd of media members.
“It was really windy that day, and I had a lot of hair back then,” Jones said. “My hair was everywhere, literally could not have looked worse. People were like, ‘Who in the world is that guy?’”
Now with his hair and his blog on fans’ radars, Jones took his opportunity to make a name for himself. He met Patrick Patterson, a prized recruit from West Virginia who fans desperately wanted to commit to Kentucky, and Gillispie. Patterson liked the fact that Jones and his crew were young guys like him who were having fun covering Kentucky sports, and he would only talk to them, coming on Jones’s radio show and granting him exclusive access to one of the biggest recruiting stories in years. When he signed with Kentucky in May 2007, KSR got 20,000 hits, crashing the site and proving that Jones had arrived as a player in the Kentucky sports media world.
Since then, KSR has exploded, now getting around 175,000 hits per day during the season, and as many as 250,000 per day on big news days, like when John Calipari was announced as basketball coach in 2009. (Jones had a good source on Gillispie’s firing and Calipari’s hiring and was the first to report both stories.) Jones parlayed his newfound popularity into a statewide weekly radio show in Louisville and a weekday television show, aptly titled Kentucky Sports Television. In 2010, he left the law firm he opened with a partner to focus full time on KSR.
Kentucky sports coverage has long been run by traditional media—newspapers, radio, and television. The fact that a fan-operated website has inserted itself as a new pillar is sometimes a controversial one. KSR’s motto is “University of Kentucky basketball, football, and recruiting news brought to you in the most ridiculous manner possible,” and its content is openly written from a fan’s perspective. Jones has had plenty of detractors decrying the merits of KSR’s journalism—which Jones passionately contends is solid, with credible sources and insightful writing.
“Back when we started, what I was doing was essentially funny commentary,” he said. “We still do that, but what makes you a powerful outlet is that you have to report. What bothers mainstream media people is that we do both. I don’t think you have to choose, as long as you’re clear about which you’re doing at a given moment.”
Jones constantly looks for the best ways to push the KSR brand. He covered recruiting when it was an overlooked aspect of college sports, and he was an early adopter of Twitter, which he says, “changed everything.” His page, which has more than 30,000 followers, was named best Twitter page in Lexington by Ace Weekly in 2011. No matter what trend is out there, Jones says KSR will be a forerunner.
“The website is our bread and butter, but we don’t even know what the internet will look like in 10 years,” he said. “We just want to make KSR the best at whatever it is. We have the highest share of any sports radio show in Louisville in 15 years. We got the KSR brand on television. And whatever the next thing is, we won’t fight it. We’ll make KSR the best.”
Jones said the site got the voice it did because Transylvania helped him and the other founders develop their own voices through professors encouraging strong discussion in the classrooms. In particular, political science professor Don Dugi made a big impact on him, following his career and offering help and encouragement the whole way.
“Don Dugi encouraged me to go to Duke, and then once I went to Duke he encouraged me to apply for a clerkship, which I never would have thought I’d have the chance to do,” he said. “Then when I told him I was thinking about quitting law to do this, he was encouraging. (Political science professor) Jeffrey Freyman and (writing, rhetoric, and communication professor) Gary Deaton were both very influential as well. I had a great time at Transylvania.”
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