Photo courtesy of Todd Davis
By Bennett Conlin
A beer can cracks open and Todd giddily laughs as if he’s just casually chatting with an old friend. He tosses the conversation to his buddy Rob, who gives a somewhat less excited — although equally informative — take about tonight’s topic.
Rob Abbott (‘97) and Todd Davis (‘99) developed a love for JMU sports well before the rise of podcasts or the invention of Twitter. Technically, the two alumni started forming a bond over JMU athletics last century. Since 2009, however, the two close friends have showcased their love of the Dukes through their site — the JMU Sports Blog.
The blog, podcast and social media accounts act as the central hub for meaningful JMU sports conversation among fans. Message boards provide extremely hot takes, JMU sports conspiracy theories and a lot of trash talk. JMUSports.com provides detailed information on the programs, but from the university’s biased perspective. JMU Sports Blog serves as the ideal middle ground between providing JMU news and offering a rational fan’s perspective on that news.
Regardless of the year someone graduated or their level of fandom, the blog is revered across all levels of the JMU sports community. Interestingly enough, Rob and Todd’s blogging career started before JMUSB.
You’re blogging about what??
“We tried to do like a burger blog,” Todd laughed, explaining the duo’s first blog creation. “It was really an excuse to get up together in D.C. once a month with our friends, go up and have beers.”
After running the burger blog for a bit, they hung out with their friend Jamie Mottram, who had a background in blogging. Mottram, who currently runs BreakingT, also created Mr. Irrelevant. The popular blog about D.C. sports began back in 2004, several years before the creation of the JMU Sports Blog. In 2009, he suggested his friends ditch the burger blog and write the occasional JMU guest post for Mr. Irrelevant.
“It was kind of inspired by The Daily Show,” Mottram, a 1999 JMU graduate, said. “The Daily Show would always have these somewhat obscure, super niche correspondents. They’d be like, ‘Here’s our Indian airlines correspondent!’ We would kind of introduce them in a cheeky way: ‘Here’s our Mister Irrelevant JMU sports correspondent’ — like that was a real job.”
Rob and Todd gained some traction on those posts, and they both enjoyed talking about the team’s athletic programs to a wider audience. Mottram encouraged them to start their own blog, and squelched their concerns about covering a mid-major program like JMU by saying niche blogs had a better chance of success.
A nudge from their friend, who just happened to be a blogging expert, led them to ultimately create JMU Sports Blog.
“They clearly are passionate about JMU, and they’re super well informed and opinionated about JMU sports,” Mottram said. “They just kind of took a couple hours out of one of their days and figured out how to build a platform.”
Creating a website was the first step in the blog’s journey to popularity, but it took time for Rob and Todd to build the following they have today. The team celebrated small victories at first.
“We’d get like three comments and be like, ‘Oh man, that was the biggest day!” Todd said.
While gaining traffic was fun, it wasn’t ever the primary focus for JMU Sports Blog. The bloggers wanted a platform to discuss JMU sports in an informative manner. Whether that yielded dozens of followers or thousands was never really the issue.
“I never wanted this to be like a job,” Rob said. “For me, it’s always just been like a fun outlet. When I’m having a rough week at work or I’m stressing out about anything, it’s nice to just kind of have this outlet for creativity and to connect with people who are like-minded and enjoy the same things we like.”
Although they didn’t have goals to monetize the content or build the traffic to a certain number, Rob and Todd did set a few ground rules from the start. They wanted to ensure they were fair, rational and never turned into a site that bashed young athletes.
“Our rules will always be that coaches and administrators at JMU are fair game,” Todd said. “They’re professional and they’re paid to do a job, and if we have something to say, we’re going to say it about them. But student athletes at JMU, we’re going to try our best to keep them off limits … These are 19-year-old kids, who most of the time are trying their best out there.”
The pair has stuck to that mantra throughout their time running the blog, even when players have particularly bad games and the message board or social media communities pile on. After he tossed five interceptions in JMU football’s 2018 playoff loss to Colgate, Ben DiNucci’s name was mentioned in JMU sports Twitter circles for much of the night and following day. The posts were largely negative, calling for him to be benched and citing that “this is why he was benched at Pitt!”
Throughout all the commotion and noise stood JMU Sports Blog. Rob and Todd pushed aside the negative emotions of their favorite team losing in the playoffs and gave a reasonable, thoughtful take. They basically said that while the five interceptions didn’t help the cause, there were a lot of reasons JMU lost the game, and it’s never worth it to rag on a college student doing his best. While DiNucci had a bad game, he helped the team reach the second round of the playoffs with solid play throughout much of the season.
“A lot of fans, bloggers, like people on social, whatever, they’ll kind of swing to extremes,” Mottram said. “You know, ‘Fire this coach, go to FBS, bench the quarterback.’ [JMU Sports Blog] is very even-keeled. I feel like they’re not super reactionary, and they don’t really care about growing the audience or maintaining a profit margin or whatever. They’re just doing this for fun, so they’re going to stay true to what it is they think, and they’re not trying to be outrageous and attract attention.”
It’s this reasonable and thoughtful approach that has turned JMU Sports Blog into one of the most popular sources of JMU sports information.
Part of engaging the fan base and developing a loyal following is opening yourself up to fans. Rob and Todd have never shied away from a conversational writing tone, and it’s that style that engages readers and listeners of all ages. Whether you’re a JMU freshman or a 75-year-old alumni, it’s easy to relate to the content. It’s also that kind of style that turns first-time readers into die-hard supporters.
“It was an entertaining kind of getaway,” said Michael Evangelista, a 2012 JMU alumnus and die-hard JMU fan who started following the blog in 2011 during his junior year of college. “I was trying to find things online when I was in class to keep me occupied, and the Sports Blog guys honestly just came up on Google.”
Evangelista found his love for JMU Sports Blog content quickly blossoming after initially stumbling upon the site in a simple Google search.
“I would be sitting in one of my computer programming classes and checking out the Sports Blog page while my professors talked, and I would actually refresh the page,” Evangelista laughed. “Sometimes I’d be a bit bummed out if there was no new content up … I used to just comb that thing. It would be a highlight of the week.”
For Evangelista, it was Rob and Todd’s ability to relate to the readers that made their content must-read material.
“At the end of the day, they’re one of us,” Evangelista said. “When you think about the die-hards or just people that love sports, that’s who Rob and Todd are … I think it’s a cool venue where we get to listen to the people that are just like us that have the same interests as us talk about the same institution that we all are so passionate about.”
Since its inception, JMU Sports Blog has used its relatable and conversational voice to engage the JMU community. Just on Twitter, which thrives on generating conversation, JMUSB holds more followers than several media outlets and key JMU sports media figures.
While the blog has held a Twitter account longer than many of these credible and reputable JMU sports accounts, it’s clear fans resonate with JMU Sports Blog’s voice.
The community that Rob and Todd have helped form takes more than a voice, though. Their likeable personalities and consistent posting played a role as well. In addition to dozens of podcasts and hundreds upon hundreds of articles, the duo has sent over 26,000 tweets since 2010.
“That’s kind of rare,” Mottram said. “For this to be their hobby and for them to do it for 10 years and to do it so consistently.”
Evangelista shared a story of gaining significant insight into the importance of Athletic Director Jeff Bourne through JMU Sports Blog content. He said he, and other JMU supporters, were skeptical of Bourne’s importance within the athletic department. After taking the time to read more content and listen to the takes from JMU Sports Blog about Bourne’s strengths, Evangelista and others changed their stance. They were able to let things play out and see the fruits of Bourne’s decisions, including the initially controversial choice to not jump ship to a lower-level FBS conference.
“It’s really cool to see the Sports Blog guys, who are relatively connected also compared to most of us, kind of shed some light and give the common fan that inside scoop,” Evangelista said.
In addition to consistently posting informative articles for a decade, Rob and Todd have a built a community of engaged JMU supporters through in-person interactions. Whether it’s hosting a podcast recording at Pale Fire or throwing a tailgate for hundreds of fans in Frisco, Texas, the JMU Sports Blog founders never shy away from a chance to connect with JMU sports fans in person.
“When JMU played West Virginia at FedEx field … the JMU Sports Blog rented a party bus, like a big bus, and everyone met at some bar in Falls Church,” Mottram said. “It was all JMU Sports Blog readers, and some of their friends, but mostly just people that followed the site, and they filled up a whole bus. Rob and Todd handed out Virginia craft beer in JMU Sports Blog koozies and we all went to FedEx together and had like a big JMU Sports Blog tailgate. It was just awesome.”
“You’ve got something happening that’s really fan driven, but you’re being informed and entertained like it’s real media,” Mottram continued. “At the same time, it’s not. It’s just this community of JMU people, and they kind of built that. It’s very cool.”
Rob and Todd’s success comes from more than a captivating voice, it stems from their ability to work together as a team. Despite occasional differences in opinion, the duo finds a way to not only work past them, but thrive on the discussion created during those disagreements. Rob credits their ability to discuss more serious and controversial issues as a reason for successfully running an opinionated sports site.
“Politically, Todd and I don’t really see eye-to-eye,” Rob said. “We do more so nowadays, but we both have a relationship, and we’ve talked about this many times in the past. Todd and I are not offended, like I’m not offended if Todd disagrees with me because I trust him. He comes to his conclusions logically and rationally and accurately. I respect how he draws a different conclusion. If we can do that over politics and stuff like that, it’s really easy to do that over sports.”
“The respect we have for each other’s opinions, just being able to talk to each other whether it’s about JMU or anything else, kind of carries the day every time,” Todd added.
That respect carries over into the sharing of the workload and overall content strategy of the site. Both Rob and Todd credit Rob for cranking out much of the written content, especially the more standardized posts.
“I understand my role, and sometimes I’m like, ‘I just need to plug away and do these little things,’” Rob said. “Todd will get big ideas. I will not. I will sit down and be like, ‘I just gotta crank something out.’ And occasionally it’s good, but I just try to keep it steady so when he has one of these inspirational stories or when he has a big idea, there’s people there to read it.”
It’s that consistency and teamwork that’s allowed JMU Sports Blog to attract and influence readers like Evangelista, who’s contributed JMU football recruiting content for the blog and podcast since 2014. If you want JMU sports information, the blog has been one of the most consistent and reputable voices for much of the last decade, largely due to the alumni playing off each other’s strengths. Rob takes the more mild-mannered approach on podcasts and in articles, while Todd is usually the more animated of the two personalities.
“I tend to be a bit more high and low given the day,” Todd said. “Going into something I think JMU’s going to win everything, and coming out I’m like, ‘Everything’s terrible!’ Rob’s always been good about being pretty level-headed about things.”
Interestingly, the roles switch when they attend games as fans.
“I try to be very even-keeled when we write and when we do a podcast, but I’m the guy who’s a nervous wreck every game,” Rob said. “And Todd goes to every game and just laughs.”
“I just keep thinking about the ‘08 team, and I’m like, ‘Dukes never disappoint,” Todd added. “It’s gonna work out, and that’s how I’ve always felt.”
Cracking a can
In recent years, the sound of a beer can cracking open has been a staple on the JMU Sports Blog podcast. A two-second moment that started as an accident quickly became a fan favorite.
Initially, Rob and Todd were just trying to enjoy a beer during their podcast. As the sound continued to appear on the podcasts, they started getting flak from friends. According to Todd, this only made them want to crack more beers on the podcast. Some nights they’ll crack a LaCroix if they’re not in the mood for a beer. Whatever the drink of choice, the old friends are happy to keep the new tradition alive.
Rob wraps up his point and kicks things back to Todd, who adds his thoughts with a slight giggle. It’s not so much a laugh, but more like the sound someone makes when you can tell they’re smiling.
“It’s the best part about it,” Todd said of their relationship. “Our friendship has grown over the years and stayed together in a way that some of our other college friends probably haven’t.”
Todd’s drinking a beer — or maybe a LaCroix — and talking with a friend of two decades about their alma mater’s athletic programs with hundreds of engaged supporters listening intently. Of course he’s smiling. Wouldn’t you?