TexAgs.com Grows Into Center Of The Aggie World
Story by Homer Jacobs
It’s 4 p.m. on a nondescript Wednesday, and the growling and grousing are in full bore. Gabe Bock, the lead reporter and radio host for TexAgs.com, is late to his keyboard.
Excusing himself from a lengthy interview with 12th Man Magazine, Bock must attend to subscribers, readers, listeners, lurkers and trolls.
“I had to feed the monster,” he says.
Indeed, TexAgs’ afternoon radio podcast was posted an hour or so later than normal. The nanosecond news cycle of the Internet, particularly that of the beast known as TexAgs, was teetering with unacceptable lag time.
Welcome to this Aggie epicenter, a cyberspace community whose population—and popularity—has exploded far past the old city limits.
As one of the largest and most dynamic collegiate websites in the country, TexAgs has boiled into this confluence of sports content, pop culture and opined minutia that only Aggies can fully appreciate.
“I think Aggies care, and sometimes they care about the stupidest stuff but at least they care,” said Brandon Jones, TexAgs president and CEO. “Would you rather have a fan base that doesn’t give a crap? Baylor goes and has a 10-win football season, has a Heisman Trophy winner and two nationally ranked basketball teams, and they can’t get anybody to their stadium in terms of fan support.
“Would you rather have fans who don’t care about anything or fans who are at least passionate about something? Now they might be passionate about bevels on logos or T-stars, but at least they’re passionate about something.”
That passion, along with in-depth print, video and radio content through its premium subscriber site, has moved TexAgs into the fast lane of the information superhighway.
Daily page views during hot-button times on the A&M sports calendar can reach into the millions. Just the average number of postings a day by users hovers around the 15,000 mark.
But the monster that is TexAgs was nothing but a little fur ball over a decade ago. It was a money-draining, burnout-inducing headache for Jones, partner Josh Oelze and its original founder, Peter Kuo.
In the website startup days in 1996, fans of 12 schools could intermingle and trade barbs as a new conference was unveiled in the middle of the country. GoBig12.com was an early melting pot for fans of the conference, including those from Texas A&M.
But soon there were rumors that the GoBig12 site was going to be incorporated into a Longhorn-heavy site sponsored by Austin 360 and its parent company, the Austin American-Statesman.
Kuo had heard the rumblings from A&M users on the GoBig12 site, and he thought a new, more maroon home for Aggies might work well. A finance major from the Class of ’92, Kuo suddenly had to provide the landing net on the Net.
“The Aggies were wondering where they could go,” said Kuo, who was living in Nashville at the time. “There was no Facebook. If they were to shut down that site at that time, nobody would have known how to get a hold of each other after that.
“I said, ‘Well, I guess it’s a good time to learn how to install forum software.’ I picked up Html For Dummies, and I started teaching myself how to design, write code and upload it. I played with it and got it to work…obviously, it would be a bad forum now.”
But at least there was a new site for Aggies to congregate and consternate. Needing a name for the site, Kuo wanted to avoid litigation from the university and its stiff licensing department. He looked no further than the back bumper of his car, as his Tennessee license plate proudly displayed: Tex Ags.
Kuo notified the A&M community on GoBig12 that his new site was up and running, and some core members with handles like Panhandle Slim and E K Gill quickly made the transition over to TexAgs.
Early on, the amou
nt of traffic on TexAgs (circa 1997) began to double weekly. It was equally exciting and frightening for Kuo, who was the original caretaker of the beast.
But with his new pet came monetary responsibilities during a time when his financial company in Nashville had been bought out by a Dallas firm while his wife was completing her residency at medical school.
Side ventures to appease Aggie fans thirsting for Internet banter seemed like a good idea….
“At some point, it got to half a million views early on,” said Kuo, who was now dealing with the nuances of Internet domains and server space. “But I was dumping this money in, and nothing was happening. You kind of feel an obligation to keep it running because then these guys don’t have anywhere else to go. I sold some T-shirts to raise some money, and then there were just some people who sent me $100 or $200 to keep it running. This is before ads and before the site was monetized.
“I tracked how much everyone gave me. When it hit half a million views, I signed on with 24/7 Real Media out of New York, and I just put banner ads up. As soon as I recovered my money, and it was starting to profit, I turned around and wrote checks to people for what they gave me and I either doubled their money or gave them a 50 percent return.”
Some thankful TexAgs user even bought Kuo and his family an all-expenses paid trip to the 1998 Big 12 Championship Game in St. Louis.
But with the newfound popularity of this burgeoning site, increased traffic led to increased anxiety. Always a people pleaser, Kuo was managing a website that was originally nothing more than a rumor mill and forum for fanatics.
He was also now the dartboard for unwanted and unexpected arrows.
“It started to get kind of grueling emotionally, as people started to rip on you,” Kuo recalled. “There was censoring, and the university was not friendly to TexAgs. I didn’t want the university upset with me, and so it kind of weighed on me after a while. And I thought if this thing is going to go to another level, I don’t have the ability to do it. I’m Mr. Html For Dummies.”
Kuo certainly was shrewd, however. In a victory for entrepreneurship—and fan base loyalty—Kuo and TexAgs stayed true to their roots and resisted buyout overtures from larger websites like Rivals.com and Fox Sports.
Despite Kuo’s desire to ease his burden with TexAgs, and while Rivals and head honcho Bobby Burton were prepared to guarantee payouts to Kuo of $20,000 per month in 1998 and 1999, he declined to sell the site.
“It was a nice thing, but what was going to happen was they were going to take TexAgs and put it into a cookie-cutter format,” Kuo said. “They were going to pay me loads of money, but then TexAgs would be just like any other site. People put their money into it, and I couldn’t do it to them: ‘Hey guys, we’re now at Rivals.com and our site is going to look just like the Notre Dame site, the Florida site, just like the West Virginia site.’ I just couldn’t do it.
“It was a lot of money, but I didn’t get into it for the money. It was principle over profit. I talked to my wife and just felt better about giving it to Aggies.”
Fortunately for TexAgs, the right suitor and situation came along.
BLEEDING MAROON, BLEEDING CASH
Brandon Jones fit your typical TexAgs user profile in the late 1990s, as he was still basking in the glory of Sirr Parker on the slant. He logged on to a TexAgs chat room in January of 1999, eagerly awaiting the recruiting musings of a guy named Billy Liucci.
While running a software company and designing Internet sites for pharmaceutical companies, Jones initially looked at TexAgs from a fan’s perspective. Then his business acumen took over.
“I remember spending a lot of evenings at work and wanting to get the recruiting scoop,” said Jones, a 1995 A&M graduate. “It was the first time I really followed recruiting. I came on TexAgs just as a fan looking for information and looking to experience A&M athletics with other fans.
“But then I thought I’m just going to send (Kuo) an email and see if we can redo his front page in lieu of an ad. My brother and I talked with Peter on the phone and met him in Fort Worth at a Mexican food restaurant.”
It was a fateful meeting. At first.
Jones sold his software company, and then with some investment help he bought 49 percent of TexAgs and took over as president of the company in December of 1999. He would take on more than just a fancy title.
While early ad sales through 24/7 Real Media were bringing in $7,000 a month, no one could predict the Internet crash of 2000, when dotcom bulls went dotcom bust.
“All these random companies that were buying all these ads…a lot of those were dotcom companies who were running out of funding,” Jones said. “The whole economics that were behind these sites that were ad-based fell out. TexAgs went from making $7,000 to $8,000 a month to $2,000 to $1,000. It got to the point that when our ad agency saw our traffic and demographic, we were probably going to have to pay them to run those ads.”
Indeed, the TexAgs that had been a mental drain on Kuo was now a fiscal one on Jones.
For three or four months, Jones literally wrote a check for $1,000 out of his personal account to keep servers up and running and TexAgs afloat. He reached the point of sending out a “For Sale” letter to media companies around the state.
But in a last-ditch effort, Jones and his software company ace, Josh Oelze, approached Liucci and former A&M football standout Hunter Goodwin, who were the owners of the Maroon and White Report.
“What’s crazy about TexAgs is it could have died on the vine early on,” Liucci said. “I remember having something given to me about purchasing it. What really kick-started both of us was the idea that they’ve got what I don’t have, which is a platform for delivery. At the time, I was sending out email updates and fax updates and the printed version of the Maroon and White Report. My only method of putting breaking news out was to get to a computer, write it up and email it out.
“What I had that they didn’t have was a revenue stream. With the Maroon and White Report, we had a revenue stream. Needless to say, we both benefited tremendously.”
After developing a premium subscription model in 2002, TexAgs and its approximate 700 paying followers slowly moved into the black using Liucci’s recruiting content as its money driver.
And with A&M stories and topics catching fire with coaching moves, Red, White and Blue Out, secret newsletters and the rise of Billy Gillispie’s men’s basketball program, TexAgs was finding its way into the maroon mainstream.
Yet, nothing could prepare this Internet site, based in an innocuous downtown Bryan office, for what would transpire in 2008.
The merger of Jones and Oelze with Liucci and Goodwin (Kuo would still own 6.5 percent of the company), would ultimately transform the quirky little Aggie site into a nationwide behemoth.
Adding Bock to the staff and buoyed by nine full-time employees—including recruiting workhorses Logan Lee and Brandon Leone—and several other part-timers, TexAgs churned out a cornucopia of content. Stories, videos and audios flowed daily, sometimes hourly.
Still, Texas A&M’s fan base and TexAgs had to mourn the loss to Arkansas State in football in 2008. It was a gut-punch to the TexAgs company that was trying to blanket the market with all things Aggie.
The loss in coach Mike Sherman’s first game cost the company dearly, as subscribers began to bail, bringing the premium count down to 1,800.
“In May of 2009, I met payroll by $10,” Jones added. “There was $10 left in the bank, and that was after letting an employee go.”
Thankfully for Jones and the rest of the TexAgs crew, Texas A&M president R. Bowen Loftin was about to make a 100-year decision.
SAVED BY THE SEC
TexAgs was growing quickly in 2009 and 2010, becoming one of the largest collegiate independent websites in the country. With its patented news and feature stories placed on the home page and its bevy of forums and content now available, it became the daily destination for thousands of A&M fans.
Jones says that for comparison, Ohio State’s Bucknuts.com was one of the larger sites nationally in 2008-09 with eight million page views per month. TexAgs, however, was garnering close to 30 million page views over the same period. In a coalition of 25 collegiate sites, TexAgs represented one third of all the group’s traffic.
But nothing could compare to the SEC saga over the past two years. It was the perfect pontificating storm.
“During the SEC stuff for two months last summer, we were averaging a 30-day snapshot of 14 million to 15 million page views on our mobile product,” Jones said. “When you add the main site with that, it was about 60 million page views for 30 days. It was an enormous amount of traffic.”
Subscribers and advertisers have flocked to TexAgs these days, with 8,000 users now paying $135 a year for the premium product. But with the huge increase in traffic and visibility, TexAgs and its 20 or so moderators are busy monitoring the 15,000 posts a day.
And as the Aggies go on the field, so goes the mood of the TexAgs fan base. Naturally, negativity—and sometimes downright vulgar vitriol—can spew from the site.
Banning users is part of the daily routine.
“People are shocked when they get permanently banned, too,” Bock said. “They feel like, what can I do if I can’t post on TexAgs? They almost give you an email that says TexAgs makes my life complete. Most of the time they are very remorseful.”
But as the negativity made A&M coaches and administrators wince over the years, the university as a whole has begun to embrace the power of TexAgs.
Maybe it’s when former A&M president Dr. Robert Gates divulged he was a keen observer of the site as user Ranger65 or the fact that so many Aggie eyeballs can be reached on a daily basis, but today the Texas A&M story often is told directly through TexAgs mediums.
The 12th Man Foundation, A&M Foundation and Association of Former Students are now large sponsors, while Loftin and his marketing right-hand man, Jason Cook, are regular contributors to the TexAgs platform.
The financial success of TexAgs certainly has caught the eye of national media players, as well, with ESPN, Fox Sports Interactive, Scout and Rivals continually making overtures to buy out the homegrown company.
While Jones admits that the website is “plenty solvent” and no longer concerned with meeting payroll, he and the rest of the owners have no desire but to continue to ride the TexAgs wave.
“We’re way beyond the original business plan that we did for it,” Jones added. “We took a totally different course. We’re way beyond where I thought we could ever go. What’s crazy is I think we can go a lot further. That’s the exciting part. I can see us easily doubling or tripling what we’re doing now.
“All of that (buyout talk) has been tempting, but here’s where I rest on that: The strength of TexAgs and what we’ve built would be eroded by going to a network. There’s a soul as part of our site that’s kind of embraced by the community members. It’s TexAgs, and that’s who we are.”
For Kuo, he marvels at the growth and breadth of TexAgs from afar. He just smiles when a new mega-topic breaks on the site.
“I’ll be sad if that day ever comes,” Kuo said of the idea of TexAgs ever selling off. “I don’t care about the 6.5 percent. Checks are nice, but this is my baby. I have two kids and TexAgs is my third child.
“I can’t tell you how big a grin I had when Dr. Gates gave a shout-out to TexAgs at Yell Practice. ‘Man, the Secretary of Defense just said that?’ When ‘TexAgs’ rolls out of anybody’s mouth…I coined it, and that’s nice.”