“No one’s coming to Joe Sportsfan to read a game recap or a hard-hitting analysis. They’re there to laugh,” says Matt Sebek, proud St. Louis native and editor of the alternative sports coverage website joesportsfan.com, which features fan-favorite players, coaches, and higher-ups in the St. Louis sporting world, as well as cultural luminaries such as this disturbing human-Fredbird …
… these star-crossed lovers …
… and even the Zamboni driver at the Scottrade Center. Today, Sebek takes a break from constructing headlines such as “This is How You Prevent Field Streaking,” to discuss his many simultaneous projects. Most recently, he’s been fascinated by a strange Albert Pujols-Billy Butler hybrid jersey assembled by a nameless fan, sewn together to affectionately read “Butjols.”
“Oh, that patchwork,” Sebek observes in a Joe Sportsfan post, lost in thought as he examines the craft. “It looks like this guy constructed his product with a Swiss Army knife and a few safety pins. And the two MLB logos on the collar are a nice touch.”
But for Sebek, duty calls from several different directions. In addition to Joe Sportsfan, he also serves as the Technical Sales Director for Asynchrony, a large software company downtown that has exploded from 50 to 190 employees in the past 6 years and creates software for clients such as the U.S. Department of Defense and Fortune 500 companies. He has also been developing an app with 4 other team members for the past 3 years called Rookies, which allows users to create their own authentic old-school baseball cards. While any one of his current endeavors could take up enough of a person’s life to be full-time gigs, Sebek somehow manages to do all three without cloning himself. We think.
Among Sebeks’s other achievements, his Twitter feed has garnered attention for all things hilarious, shameless, and ridiculous, with gems such as: “Beltran bunting with no men on base is like pooping after a shower: senseless.” His feed has appeared on Sports Illustrated’s list of top 40 Twitter feeds to follow and also won the title of “Funniest Twitter Feed” in the RFT’s annual web awards. If you’re at all familiar with Sebek’s written content, tweets, or podcasts, you might not know what to make of the person behind it all. Fearlessness, or an extraordinary lack of self-restraint? “Anyone that sits down with me knows that it’s tongue-in-cheek,” says Sebek. “It’s almost like an alternative persona that I play online.”
Seated on a leather couch at The Flying Saucer, nestled into the ground floor of the Cupples 7 building downtown where Asynchrony also has an office, Sebek is warm, goofy, and carries no detectable arrogance, which can’t always be said for his alternate identity as a sports commentator online. He orders a tall glass of beer and produces a stack of what appear to be baseball cards from his pocket, fidgeting with them while explaining the basic premise of Rookies and his hopes for the app.
At first, St. Louis didn’t quite know what to make of its snarky commentator with immaculately spiked hair, who lists himself on his Twitter page as “one of the world’s nerdiest metrosexuals.” And while Sebek might not consider himself as some sort of hero sent to deflate the sporting world’s ego, he has pointed out a fundamental problem in the collective mentality of professional sports and shaped Joe Sportsfan into a place where they return to their original intent: to be fun. “What people forget is that sports are entertainment,” says Sebek. “Whether it’s the steroid stuff or ESPN’s 24/7 coverage … we take sports so seriously now. We forget that we can laugh at this. We can have a good time. That’s what sports are for.”
While the same person who delivered that thoughtful rumination also has a talent for crafting irresistibly re-tweetable witticisms containing “Beltran” and “poop,” he does have a general rule of thumb. “We don’t write or say anything that would offend our moms,” he says. This is the kind of life he breathes into Joe Sportsfan, which takes ownership of its sharp humor but doesn’t alienate an audience with profanity-laden rants or obscenities, thanks to their moms. “That’s the exact balance that we want to strike,” says Sebek. “If you can’t laugh at yourself, who can? I think it’s important.”
Collective camaraderie has also been vitally important to the success of Joe Sportsfan’s latest feature: weekly podcasts featuring Sebek and two friends, Josh Bacott, the original founder of Joe Sportsfan, and Chris Files. In the team’s first podcast, successfully funded after meeting a $5,000 Kickstarter goal, the guys interview Cardinals third baseman David Freese, also a St. Louis native whose performance at the 2011 World Series continues to be hailed as superhuman. But it doesn’t render him immune to relentless teasing. “I think he plays baseball,” mentions Sebek before Freese comes on the air.
But today he speaks about Freese with sincere awe and respect. “David Freese can go out, have a cup of coffee, run into a fan and spend half an hour talking to him. He has that kind of approachability and kindness about him. To be able to play baseball in that city and understand that persona is really, really unique.” Also in the midst of the 2011 World Series in October, Sebek and his wife were recovering from their own life-changing event. Their son had been born a few days earlier, and his wife was still recovering in the hospital during Game 6. “We were in the labor and delivery circuit of the hospital, and it’s a very quiet, quiet area,” he recounts. During the game, “you heard a whole row, a whole hallway of husbands jump up and down and scream,” he says, laughing. “I think anybody that’s born here feels that. I’m anxious to pass that down.”
Believe it or not, Sebek has toned it down since his son, Luke, was born. He’s very involved in his son’s life. “He’s made me soft, which I hate to admit,” says Sebek, looking away. It’s a fleeting snapshot of his interior life, a strength which allows him to be this vulnerable. It’s something he implicitly passes along to his son: there is strength in being transparent enough to crack open and connect to someone, rather than safeguarding any emotion that might be perceived as “weak” under lock and key, even when it feels counter-intuitive. But Sebek doesn’t pretend to be invincible, which can’t be said for all of the sports legends he interviews. Some, but not all.
“I think everybody’s world view changes when you have a kid. Mine certainly did. To know that you’re responsible for raising another human being; I mean, that’s a big deal. Certainly it’s a bigger deal than a sports blog.” Sebek then talks about Luke’s middle name, Austin, which became an unintentional “mash-up of 90210 names.” His quirky humor never leaves for long.
Perhaps that willingness to tap into an emotional place of nostalgia is what has affected Rookies so strongly. The app, which Sebek will be releasing soon, makes good use of the sports world as a built-in social circle, and has been invested with equal parts humor, fun, and a good dose of heartfelt nostalgia.
In the mobile space, Sebek points out a primary difference between most social networking sites and the draw of sports which, at current, isn’t well-represented by social media. Typical social media sites connect people with those they already know, such as friends, family, and co-workers, but Sebek says, “Sports are completely different. I can be in a stadium with 30,000 people that I don’t know and have a great time. Or a bar with 10 people, and have an awesome time. There’s something unique about sports in that manner.” Perhaps this is why his love of sports, and the collective love of sports in general, has become such a cornerstone of connecting, especially in St. Louis: it’s in our lifeblood.
“I love the city,” Sebek asserts, brimming with sincerity. “I love the Cardinals … What’s cool about St. Louis now is that we’ve always attached ourselves to sports. What I think is exciting now, in the last five years, you see the city attaching itself to other things,” he says, listing off the other ways in which the city is growing, from our burgeoning craft beer and food scene to the recent explosion of technology and startups. “I’m a big sports fan, but I love the energy that’s being put in other areas now to really help define a more robust package that we offer, because there’s so many cool things to do here that people don’t know about. We have that element of an up-and-coming urban area.”
While Sebek maintains that the app “is not going to change the world,” the team has attacked the process of developing it as though it could, driven by a steadfast commitment to building an homage to original 80’s baseball cards. Once designed, the cards are printed on thick card stock and packaged in wax exactly the same way they came years ago, as though they were hand-plucked from a vault of original 80’s paraphernalia. The only thing they couldn’t recreate was including a stick of gum. “We looked into delivering it with gum, but the FDA said, ‘No.’ So it turned into a cool tagline,” says Sebek, which is, “Everything but the gum.”
While Sebek and the team devoted themselves to building out the app, they also did something a lot of other startup entrepreneurs don’t do: they kept their day jobs. “3 years is a lot longer than it would have taken us if we just quit our jobs and did it full-time. So really what we sacrifice is time to market, which is a big thing these days. But it’s not everything. I think one of the cool things about Rookies is we’ve shown that you can sacrifice time to market, and still create something pretty cool.” Rather than quit his job, which he loves, and invest all of his personal money into the startup, Sebek continued to work at Asynchrony and put in hours before and after work. And somehow managed to eat, sleep, and stay alive.
To Sebek, collaboration has become a vitally important component of understanding his own capabilities, and pushing the envelope of what is possible. “The best lesson that I learned in working on the side thing is to understand what I don’t know, and what I can’t achieve on my own. The first thing is collaboration. Rookies is a team of 5 … It’s that collective nucleus that puts ideas together.”
As to how he does it all, from all of his professional endeavors to a family, he says, “It takes a very understanding wife. Definitely. When you’re working a full day job and then working at night to create something, there are sacrifices that have to be made. I think what my wife understands is that I’m incredibly passionate about creating things. So she sees that.” At Joe Sportsfan anyway, a particular article of clothing also appears to help as well.
“We’re all wearing pants,” Sebek announces at the beginning of one podcast.
“Speak for yourself, you can’t see behind here but I’ve actually taken mine off,” mentions one of his companions. And what does he think will happen if his son ever comes across his tweets? “Isn’t that great? I think he’ll laugh about that though. And agree.”
Fan photos from Joesportsfan.com