KINGSPORT - After three decades as a newspaper sports editor and writer, Ron Bliss started an online sports site in 2004, soon to be followed by an every-other-week sports newspaper.
Bliss said he hasn't made a lot of money since then but has had the most fun of any two years in his life.
And the business, TriCitiesSports.com, late last year won the media/communications category in the 2006 KOSBE ShowDown Small Business Contest, conducted by the Kingsport Office of Small Business Development and Entrepreneurship.
"What I've tried to do with this is make a local Sporting News," Bliss said.
"Everybody said I was crazy when I started this. It's the best idea I ever had. It's there. It's a matter of going after it," Bliss said. "It's all been a labor of love."
The Bliss business and three other 2006 winners received $3,000 each and will get 16 hours of advice from an advisory panel of experts specializing in law, marketing, finance and management.
Each winner also will receive one year of free membership in the Kingsport Area Chamber of Commerce; a quarter-page advertisement in the Kingsport Times-News; business promotion from the KOSBE program; speaking opportunities at KOSBE events; and pre-approved use of the KOSBE Small Business Award emblem on marketing materials for one year.
The contest is sponsored by the Kingsport Times-News and Kingsport Economic Development Board. Contributing sponsors include Express Signs, IntelliThought and Warranty One Mobile Mower Repair.
KOSBE is a program of the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce in partnership with the city of Kingsport.
How To Spend $3,000
Bliss said he had no problem coming up with a way to spend the award money.
"I'm going to use it to hire an advertising person. I have people calling saying they want to advertise with me, but I can't get to everybody," Bliss said. "We've got to get some more help."
He also is advertising for more writers and photographers.
Bliss said the online and print versions can offer in-depth coverage daily newspapers can't, and said the online version can get stories and multiple photographs online in hours.
"We're taking advantage of what's there," Bliss said of using Web technology to put out a product he said is making a profit.
Bliss also said TriCitiesSports.com was the first online sports page in Tennessee and the first online sports page with an accompanying newspaper in the state. He said he's been able to get media credentials to every event he's wanted to cover except for a University of Tennessee football game at Florida, which limits credentials to those representing daily newspapers with at least a 35,000 circulation.
Genesis Of Business
Bliss said the idea for the new business came to him while still at the Times-News.
"Really the whole thing was spawned right here," Bliss said during an interview at the Kingsport Times-News, where he was executive sports editor for about 20 years.
Bliss launched TriCitiesSports.com in August of 2004 with a focus mostly on sports at Dobyns-Bennett, Gate City, Sullivan North, Sullivan South and Volunteer high schools.
DB, Gate City and Volunteer have radio shows which Bliss said showed community and advertising support, and the other two schools have community and potential advertising support.
"The idea was to sell advertising to the supporters of the schools to ensure in-depth coverage," Bliss said. "There's a real market for it."
The Web site, and print edition paper which started in March of 2005, also include UT football, area golf and East Tennessee State University basketball, as well as bowling, women's softball, hunting and other outdoors sports and sometimes paint ball. And it covers area high schools beyond the core ones.
The Web site also includes links to golf and college football sites.
"It wasn't to the point yet where everybody was online," Bliss said of the print version of paper, which like the online site is free and supported by advertising.
The online and print versions include celebrity pick panels, as well as television, radio and video.
On the Web site, TriCitiesSports.com has simulcast local radio stations' broadcasts of DB, Tennessee High and Science Hill football, basketball and baseball.
It also has done video casts in the fall of 2005 and this fall of area football games, but he said that won't continue unless he finds a way to make it profitable.
A Staff Of One
Bliss is the only full-time employee of TriCitiesSports.com and is a two-thirds owner of the business, but he depends on dozens of part-time employees.
A 1969 graduate of the University of Iowa with a degree in journalism, Bliss became assistant sports information director at the school before spending four years in the Army, being discharged as a captain in 1973.
He joined the Times-News sports department that fall and became executive sports editor in April of 1974. He left in April of 1983 to become sports editor of the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser, but left that job a year later to do publicity for the Alabama Sports Festival. He rejoined the Times-News as executive sports editor in the fall of 1984 and left in August of 2004. He served as president of the Tennessee Sports Writers Association in the late 1990s.
He and his wife, Rachael, have five children. She recently took a job with the Tennessee Clean Water Network in Knoxville.
Eric Parr, who is semi-retired, owns the other one-third of the business. Parr publishes the newspaper and helps sell ads. The print version is printed in Shelby, N.C., at the Shelby Star, and Steve Wilmoth is the Web master and assistant editor. Ron Clark, who once owned a third of the business, set up the initial Web site.
The paper distributes 10,000 print versions every two weeks to Kingsport, Bristol, Johnson City, Elizabethton, Church Hill and Gate City.
Bliss said the online version from August through December of 2006 drew an average of 217,000 hits a month, up from 147,710 for the same period of 2005. Bliss began tracking monthly Web hits in October of 2004.
In The Future
Bliss this year plans to co-host a Volunteer High School coaches show on a local radio station, WMCH in Church Hill, and last year he co-hosted the Big Orange Roundtable on WJCW.
"My goal is to have two people covering every school," Bliss said of future sports coverage plans. "You start small and you build up. We're still adding writers and photographers."
Among the part-timers are Garvey Winegar, retired outdoor editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and a Gate City native, and Jim Moore, a former Times-News sports correspondent who also does work for the Bristol Herald Courier. Photographers include Jim Padgett, Earl Carter and Larry Sanders, chief photographer for the Elizabethton Star.
"We can run galleries (online). We're not limited space wise," Bliss said.
The business is operated out of the former home of Bliss, who sold the house to Parr, and from wherever sporting events occur through laptop computers.
"We're eventually going to have an office," Bliss said.
For 2007, Bliss is working with Knoxville-based Target Media Partners to do a glossy magazine on UT football as he did in October of 2006.
A 2006-07 UT basketball pre-season guide also was published in the fall.
Those publications are distributed in the greater Knoxville area, but he said a proposed NASCAR magazine set for this spring probably will be distributed in the Tri-Cities.
Also in the future, Bliss said he hopes to publish newspapers focusing on golf, UT and maybe outdoors.
The golf magazine has particular interest for Bliss, who is director of the Greater Kingsport Golf Association and often carries golf clubs in his car, including his recent trip to Florida for UT's play in the Outback Bowl against Penn State.