The Social Sports Site That Aims to Win Over Madison Avenue

LockerDome’s direct line to fans

Beyond the serious baseball fan, Jordan Swagerty isn’t exactly a household name. But thanks to an up-and-coming social sports site called LockerDome, many more of those who follow sports are getting to know Swagerty, a minor league pitcher in the St. Louis Cardinals’ organization.

Pro athletes like Swagerty are beginning to flock to LockerDome, using the platform to connect to the growing base of 18-34-year-old sports fans—the same consumers advertisers happen to covet.

Not surprisingly, sports agencies, which represent all kinds of athletes, are also taking notice. “We’ve tried to increase the digital presence of our athletes in the past few years because we recognize the value of social media to contribute to a player’s brand,” says Paul Kuo, public relations director of Beverly Hills Sports Council, which represents Swagerty as well as such stars as pitcher Tim Lincecum and outfielder Hunter Pence, both of whom play for the defending World Series champions, the San Francisco Giants.

Swagerty connects with fans through his LockerDome profile, sending out greetings and occasionally responding to tweets.

For the few minutes he devotes to this activity, he can boost his goodwill with fans while raising his overall public profile. What’s more, the venue gives him a direct line to the sports fan—sidestepping the media upon which he and his fellow athletes once depended for their public face.

“With LockerDome, we can disseminate news and updates about a player along with off-the-field news,” Kuo points out. “We can control the message as a player looks for endorsements and appearance fees. Social media brings an added value to our marketing effort.”

Besides the athletes themselves, St. Louis-based LockerDome also offers a platform for teams and sports-related brands and media personalities to bolster their social-media presence. The St. Louis Blues hockey franchise signed up with the platform this past March, for example.

“We like the approach LockerDome has taken with this idea and how to connect the athlete with their fans and figured this is a great way for us to expand our fan base and our brand to fans from other sports,” says Michael Caruso, Blues’ svp, marketing and PR.

By forging a social connection with sports fans, LockerDome finds itself in the sweet spot of the digital revolution. The website boasts an average of 14 million unique visitors every month, with a 92 percent return rate by users. LockerDome says it expects to smash through to 25 million uniques by the end of this year. The site seems well on its way to that goal—its uniques doubled during February and March.

The brainchild of 30-year-old St. Louis native Gabe Lozano, LockerDome drifted from one game plan to another after it was launched in 2008. Once it settled on the pro-sports focus, however, its following really began to build.

“Our content is extremely relevant and the topic of sports is something that everyone wants to know more about,” says Lozano. (As for the name, Lozano explains: “Easy to say. Easy to spell. Easy to remember.”)

As rapidly as LockerDome is growing, it still remains a pipsqueak among the Goliaths of sports. Consider that ESPN, the global leader in sports media, claims one-third of all sports traffic (eBizMBA put its uniques at 62.5 million in May). And the space is getting more crowded all the time. In April, USA Today launched a social sports site called For the Win, the first venture of its Sports Media Group Digital Properties unit. On the sponsorship side, FTW is partnering with Henkel’s Right Guard deodorant. (In the strange bedfellows department, USA Today and Break Media help LockerDome offload some of its ad inventory.) Meanwhile, destinations like Bleacher Report and SB Nation also have become star players in the online battle for sports fans.

Lozano is keenly aware he faces a formidable field of rivals, but insists his mission is to join rather than beat them.

“There are many complementary partnership opportunities with [many] other sports media properties, particularly because LockerDome’s core competencies are in social media, an area that sits outside of their core focus,” he says.

Next up, the site plans to take its social strategy and apply it to other topics outside of athletics. “Precisely where LockerDome is positioned relative to competitors will evolve dramatically over the next 12 months as LockerDome moves beyond sports and more deeply into the broader interest graph,” as Lozano explains it.

That optimism carries over to the ad side as well.

LockerDome sees itself as having an especially strong pitch to Madison Avenue, given that more than 65 percent of its audience is 18-34 and 87 percent is male. The site has already built a roster of some 150 clients, from endemics like Rawlings to QSRs such as Hardee’s. Advertisers often post videos on the site and sponsor contests, quizzes and polls. In a sign of just how serious it is about growing its ad business, LockerDome recently opened its first branch office, in New York.

But considering all the competition in the marketplace, does LockerDome really have a shot at breaking through?

“Today, a digital entrepreneur can go out and find a sizable audience for stuff that wouldn’t ordinarily carry its weight in traditional media,” says Tony Wible, media analyst at Janney Capital Markets. “The most important question advertisers are going to ask is: Are you capable of continued growth? Advertisers are always going to go where you have the biggest audience and can show the potential to continue to be a leader in your field.”

LockerDome didn’t always show such promise. Founded as a site devoted primarily to youth athletics, LockerDome made only marginal progress in its first few years, signing up fewer than 100,000 monthly users. But inspired by a conversation with Jim McKelvey—a fellow St. Louis entrepreneur who is co-founder, with Twitter creator Jack Dorsey, of the mobile payments company Square—Lozano promptly revamped LockerDome as a pro sports site.

Lozano has raised about $8 million from investors since the inception of LockerDome. Considering its quick growth, some might wonder whether Wall Street will eventually come calling.

Lozano resists the urge to think about going public—for the time being.

As analyst Wible points out, “To make an impression on Wall Street, you have to have a strong management team which is always looking ahead in a market where it can show growth, especially when there are low barriers to entry.”

A proud St. Louis resident and longtime Cardinals fan, Lozano includes an inspirational quotation from the team’s legendary outfielder Lou Brock in the signature of all of his emails: “One of the trademarks of a champion is that he can outlast you.”

Lozano hopes to live up to Brock’s words as he helps players under the radar like Jordan Swagerty become household names. And make LockerDome a household name along the way.