I've been able to use ReplyAll to talk to my favorite author Bill James and today I'm getting a chance to talk to the founder of my favorite content site profootballfocus.com
PFF has really become the gold standard of football metrics -- I've even seen local beat writers, not just reference PFF stats, but actually cover PFF stats as stories themselves with headlines like "PFF Says Chris Myers Best Center in NFL" (this was actually a story at some point in the Houston Chronicle).
Neil, when did you recognize the opportunity for a site like PFF and do you remember when you realized it was going to be BIG?
I initially started the site simply to begin a dialogue with "high end" NFL fans; I love football and living in the UK didn't have much of an opportunity to talk about my passion.
I unashamedly stole the idea from my favorite NFL writer, SI's Paul Zimmerman (Dr. Z). Unlike most guys in his position he watched a ton of tape and as a result came up with views that differed from the norm. I loved that he graded players and was able to provide evidence to substantiate his views when questioned. Because he was one man however, he could only do a subset of games and my thought was "How great would it be to grade every player on every play of every game?"
As for being "big" I don't really see us in those terms. In comparison to a lot of people or sites we are still pretty niche but in truth I quite like that. I never want to compromise the integrity of what we do and sometimes being enormous necessitates a more financial bent. Of course we want to grow but only in a way that allows me and the rest of the guys to enjoy what we do. People often ask "what's your exit strategy?" but making loads of money and going and sitting on a beach in the Caribbean was never even a far-fetched goal. First and foremost I and the rest of the guys just want to be involved in football in such a way that we can feel proud of our contribution but also sleep at night with a clear conscience.
It's so interesting that so many of today's smartest football writers took their inspiration from Dr. Z and yet he's something of an unknown to younger fans.
Let me clarify what I mean by big because I don't look at big purely in terms if the numbers either. Sure, the average mom in the grocery store probably doesn't know Sam Monson's name, but -- and I'm not saying this to blow smoke -- you can't find smart football fans who don't use PFF as either a starting point or at least a major factor in their football dialogue.
As an outsider looking in, one thing I think really helped PFF grow was the fact that actual NFL players began checking up on their own PFF scores.
When did PFF start attracting players as part of your audience? Was it intentional?
Dr Z. was not only a great tape guy but also one of the best pure football writers ever. The stroke he suffered which left him unable to communicate was just devastating to everyone who knew him or enjoyed his work.
It was fairly early on that we got a few players signing up - probably 2010 as that was when we moved to subscriptions - but it certainly wasn't by design. Like a lot of things I was wrong about, I guess I thought they'd have this from other sources.
By far the biggest position group to take an interest were offensive linemen - we are the only people doing any form of objective ranking - and that personally gave me a huge buzz. I love the offensive line, enjoy talking to players on the OL and generally find them to be some of the smartest (and also funniest) guys to chat with.
I'm really curious as a business founder what else in the PFF journey did not go exactly as you expected. I think if you'd ask most people who read you guys, they would probably not be aware of anything going wrong because of the amount of success you've enjoyed and the quality of the writing.
How does PFF as it is currently constructed differ from the original vision?
I don't know why but I was expecting, in business terms, for the growth of PFF to be a slow, steady climb. However, it hasn't really been like that - It feels more like bursts of very significant growth condensed into short periods of time followed by longer periods of that aforementioned deliberate, constant progression. It's not like it's been a problem, particularly as we haven't had any real setbacks, but you go from 30 to 100 in a day, get used to all that adrenaline, and then feel a bit antsy when things go back to 40.
As far as the business model is concerned I initially felt it would be more media based. Now providing information to the media is still a large part of what we do but it's been overtaken by work for the teams themselves and our consumer product. That said our revenue streams are always in constant state of flux with a couple of key sales here or there pushing one ahead of the other.
But to your point about the business side -- PFF was really supposed to be more B2B and ended up being more of a consumer facing tool and a content based site. I bet most people who read you had no idea that was the case!
Until recently I'm not sure that even the NFL realized how hard core their fan base was about football, which is why all-22 wasn't made available until last year.
What was the greater surprise for you personally? That actual NFL teams wanted your information or that fans wanted this info and would, in many cases, PAY for it?
I think players are generally happy with the internal grading they get but, at another level, it doesn't help their competitive nature too much. "So I got a 84 - does that make me better or worse than x player on another team?" That's why players, particularly those who play positions difficult to assess in plain numbers (e.g. the offensive line) use us so much.
That said, I've never once heard a player we've graded badly say how much they respect us or a player we grade well say we suck. [although we have had players we originally graded poorly and then graded well say they agreed with our initial assessment ....... in hindsight :-)].
When I was introduced to Muhammad Wilkerson at Jets camp (a player who we rate very highly and may well become this years version of J.J. Watt) he knew exactly who we (PFF) were and seemed grateful for our work in stating his case.
Wilkerson? Hmmm. I'll take your word for it but he always struck me as more of a traditional run stuffing 5-tech with less pass rush upside. Can he really be someone who disrupts and takes over games like Watt (btw I'm a Texans fan who gets sensitive with any Watt comparisons)?
You make a decent point but maybe you are making the call that Watt's level of performance is sustainable (which Texans fan wouldn't?) and Wilkerson won't make another leap. Wilkerson's level of play as a pass rusher in 2012 was equitable to Watt's in 2011 and his run D in those two time frames was significantly better. Making a similar improvement to Watt is unlikely but don't underestimate Wilkerson - he's already top 4 getting to the QB and his run D is certainly at a similar level to J.J.'s.
He already takes over some games, just nowhere near as many as Watt and where he needs to improve is against the best o-lines - his worst performances last year? Against the 49ers and Patriots.
I'll be shocked if Watt can sustain the level of play. I still am not sure how he doesn't get burned every time he tries to shut down run plays with a swim move into the backfield. Maybe you'll tell me differently but it seems so unconventional.
I will say this, reading PFF game reviews last year was a pleasure if you were a Texans fan.
I'll get you out of here with this -- you're from the UK as are a good deal of your staff. What would be the best strategy to getting the NFL into the UK? Is it a London franchise, a game in Wembley each week or something else?
First, let me be clear, I'm not a massive fan of the NFL having a permanent franchise in the UK - I think the logistics will put the team at a huge disadvantage which may make the thing untenable in the longer term.
However, unlike say 18 game regular seasons, I'm not strident in my opposition and if the NFL wants to make it work I suggest they continue to follow their current strategy; slow build, more games each year and generate momentum.
Neil, you've been very gracious so let me give you a plug -- PFF is constantly churning out free high quality content on profootballfocus.com. If you're not checking PFF obsessively during the NFL season you might want to reconsider your priorities. Seriously.
Neil tell us why your readers who subscribe to your premium package love it and recommend it to their friends (unless it's winning them their fantasy leagues in which case they're keeping it top secret).
Simply put it's information about the best sport in the world you can't find anywhere else. No one online, in the media or even within the NFL has as much data about what happens in this sport as we do.
Eleven NFL teams currently take our data and that number is growing year on year. If it's accurate enough, timely enough and simply good enough for them, you know you can trust us to provide you with all the information you need.