Our latest conversation is with Matt Brown, the driving force behind the Extra Points newsletter and a longtime writer at SB Nation. Extra Points is a newsletter that focuses on the forces that shape college athletics beyond the field, such as media rights, trends in higher education and more, and it operates in partnership with The Intercollegiate. This interview has been lightly edited for style and brevity.
BTT: One of the things that I hear a lot of writers say is there was some point when they were growing up where they realized ‘hey, I can do this, and I think I can be pretty good at this thing.’ Did you have a moment like that?
MB: This was a running joke in my family, ever since I was a little kid, that this would eventually be the career I would end up in. I remember when I was playing Little League, so I must have been nine — so I’m a nine-year-old, 60-pound second baseman — and I’m getting yelled at by my mom in the stands and by my coaches because I’m sitting there in the infield and everybody else is doing “hey batter, batter!’ and I’m doing Howard Cosell and play-by-play, like loud.
I grew up in rural Ohio where there weren’t really a ton of opportunities to get into this, and even though sportswriting and sports journalism and the behind-the-scenes stories were a passion, coming into college I didn’t really feel like that was a career you could actually do. So, I have this really weird, unique pathway to journalism. I went into school thinking I was going to work in politics.
I started my collegiate career at American University in Washington, D.C., which is West Wing as a school. At 18, I thought that was the coolest thing in the world, and now at 33 I’m like ‘oh my gosh, this is horrible.’ I went there and I was actually studying both political science and music. I was a drummer. I did that for a year.
I’m a Latter Day Saint, so I left to go serve on an LDS mission, and American didn’t hold my scholarship, so I ended transferring to Ohio State to be a little closer to home. Ohio State doesn’t have an undergraduate journalism program, so I figured I’d stick with politics. I worked for the Ohio Attorney Journal, and I remember my fourth week as an intern there, the guy resigned in disgrace and ended up going to jail.
So that should have been a sign that I was in the wrong business. I didn’t realize until my last semester at Ohio State that I wanted to be a sportswriter, and at that point I couldn’t change majors.
I just wrote everywhere I could. I covered high school football all throughout Ohio. I was a stringer for, like, four different community papers. I worked for free for Columbus Monthly Magazine. I kept doing that as a teacher, and I kept doing that in a couple of careers afterward because I had a 2.9 GPA from Ohio State rather than a Medill degree and I graduated college in the middle of a giant recession. I just figured that I was never going to get into it. Just as I was about to quit my day job and go get my MBA, SB Nation offered me a job.
BTT: Give me a quick synopsis of what Extra Points is and how it got to where it is today.
MB: Extra Points started around April of 2019, and the biggest reason was because — for some weird corporate, political stuff and because of changes at SB Nation — I didn’t have a place to write about national college football stories anymore. It was moved to Banner Society, and I wasn’t technically a part of that group. I also had a non-compete in my contract, so I couldn’t go write anywhere else either.
The stories that I’m really passionate about in college athletics are generally not team-specific stories. I went to Ohio State and grew up in Ohio, so I consider myself an Ohio State fan, but I’m not really interested in blogging about Ohio State’s depth chart or recruiting. I’m interested in this intersection of policy, history, politics, finance and sports, which has to be done nationally.
The only way I could write about this and stay in compliance with my contract was to do it for free and do it for myself. I thought this newsletter is going to give me a chance to really dig into this little niche, and I did that for about a year.
SB Nation kind of imploded and I got laid off, so I realized at that point — given the pandemic and given the way this recession has gone — I’m not going to get another media job. I have HR and marketing training, but no one is hiring for those roles either because everyone is cutting their budget. My options are to find a way to make this work with my newsletter and this audience that I built or go slice meat at the deli counter.
I figured let’s give this a shot, and thankfully the response has been strong enough that I really do feel like this is going to be my job and that I can make this work.
BTT: You’re very generous with your time and willing to talk to other folks who are in the same boat. What does it feel like to become sort of a go-to person for going out on your own?
MB: I have to give credit where credit is due. I’m not the most financially successful sports newsletter person. Lindsay Gibbs writes a really good women’s sports newsletter, and I think she has twice the audience that I do. I’ve talked with her for help, and she’s been very generous with her time. Tom Ziller, an old colleague of mine from SB Nation, has a really successful NBA newsletter.
I was one of the early adopters, I think, of newsletters on SubStack within sports, so a lot of people have reached out to me to ask for help about launching something or ask for help about analytics, and I love doing it. One of the advantages of my time at SB Nation is that I wasn’t just doing editorial — there are a lot of people who are better reporters than I am and a lot of people who are better writers than I am — and I spent a lot of time on the business side, so things like how to balance a budget and how to create strategies and how to manage a workforce, and that’s helped me a little bit.
What trips people up when they’re a writer and they’re trying to start their own thing is that you really are more than just a writer and an editor, you’re a small business owner. That’s a lot of different skills sets that can be frustrating or alienating or overwhelming to someone who just had the background of being a writer.
I’m lucky that I had a little more exposure to some of those things. I’m somebody who has learned a few things and wants to help. This is really important because this industry is in such a bad place right now financially, and we’re all trying to make things work, so it’s important for creatives and writers and editors of all kinds to work collaboratively.
One of the things that is really energizing in what is a hard gig right now is this feeling that I’m not just trying to tell interesting stories about college athletics, but I’m also trying to learn a little more to help figure out a pathway to help other people make a living doing this.
“Nobody is coming to save us.
The only thing that can save us is our audience.”
BTT: The work and analysis you do requires a lot of investigation and FOIA requests and reporting, and obviously one of the challenges of being on your own is that you don’t have that institutional support in case someone plays the legal card with you. How do you manage that?
MB: Here’s the truth — you are a one-man shop, and nobody is going to insure you in case you get sued for libel. I’m a little blessed since my wife works, and I had been saving up money from Vox Media for two years, so I have a little bit of flexibility. But do I have the money and the time to do a protracted records lawsuit against a university? I don’t. If I file a request and a university says no, even though I have the law on my side, 9 times out of 10 there is not a lot that I can do.
That was part of why I linked up with Daniel Libit over at The Intercollegiate, in part because a two-person LLC can get you a little more legal coverage for being sued and also because Daniel has more experience in these kinds of lawsuits than almost anybody else.
To your larger point, there aren’t any silver bullets. I’m against this idea of media commentators flocking to the next, new shiny thing like it’s podcasts that are going to save us or video is going to save us or newsletters are going to save us. Nobody is coming to save us. The only thing that can save us is our audience.
BTT: One of the most fascinating components of your coverage is that you are very focused on smaller conferences and mid-majors like the CAA or WAC. How did you carve out that as a niche?
MB: Part of it is very pragmatic — there is a lot of competition on those beats, and a lot of those people have been on those beats for years and have built years of institutional relationships. I realized when I worked at SB Nation that I don’t work for a company that owns television rights or is a gigantic organization that can pay for me to schmooze for a while and build some of those relationships.
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If I call up Gene Smith at Ohio State or if I call up folks at Alabama, they’re going to tell me to get lost if they pick the phone because they don’t need me. But you know who does need me? Southern Utah needs me. Denison University needs me. It’s some of those smaller places where there is not a lot of competition.
I can tell you that a real big light bulb moment in my career is when I was writing about Big 12 expansion a couple of years ago. Every school on God’s green earth was trying to get in this conference, and one of the ways I learned how to break news and find ways to advance that storyline was through open records requests so you could get some of those decks and pitches. That got me familiarized with some of these smaller institutions and learn a little bit about how Arkansas State views itself or how Northern Illinois views itself.
This whole movement happens all the way down to the NAIA, and it’s an academic story, it’s a political story, and it deals with school history and how they view themselves and how they define their institutional mission. This is all the stuff that I love about college athletics. It’s super provincial, it’s unique and it extends beyond so much more than that football schedule.
BTT: What’s your favorite place to cover or take in a game?
MB: One of my favorite places to go cover a game is East Carolina, and this is not an example a lot of other people would give. I spent a lot of time in Greenville, North Carolina. My late mother was a professor there, so — particularly in the last few years of her life — I spent a lot of time on that campus. When you go there for a football game that is a G-5 fan base that — when they are at least average — will bring 50,000 loud, angry and mean fans, and I say that out of love.
It is a place where at a tailgate people will offer you clear alcohol out of mason jars, and I’m a teetotaller, but that is a sign to me that this is going to be a fun football game. When you compare that to their peers in the American Athletic Conference, the others don’t have that level of fan engagement or home-field advantage or cultural tie-in to the area. College football is better when ECU is good and when that fan base is engaged.
BTT: What’s the best press box food you’ve ever had?
MB: Best press box food I’ve ever had, without a doubt, is Rutgers. That stadium, the campus and driving in there, it’s nothing to wax nostalgic about. But, honestly, that was the best brownie I’ve ever had in my entire life. I remember a multiple-course meal. There was extra food there late at night when you were trying to re-file after interviews. The sports information staff was extremely professional and kind. If it was a restaurant, I would have paid money to eat there.
BTT: What story have you written that you are most proud of?
MB: One of my favorite stories that I ever did was going to the Las Vegas Bowl to cover BYU and Utah and try to explain what that rivalry was to the country. I did not attend BYU — my wife did, but I did not — but at SB Nation it was kind of a running joke that I was the company’s special Morman correspondent.
Going into that game, it was Brock Mendenhall’s last game at BYU; BYU had lost, like, six in a row to Utah; now they’re meeting in a bowl game when Utah went out of its way to not play BYU that year; and it’s in Las Vegas which, one, is secretly an extremely LDS town and, two, the really hilarious contrast between the much more secular Utah program and the extremely not secular BYU fans, and you’re running into both of them in the casino late at night.
I thought that I got to tell a story that brought in my whole life experience and get some really good and interesting stuff on the ground, and tell some smaller stories leading up to that. It was a great experience, and those are the kinds of stories that I love to tell.
It was everything I was able to tell beforehand, and the context that I was able to bring in because I know these people and I know this city and I know what makes this rivalry tick, it made it all really rewarding.