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Rise And Fall Of Goheels.com An Interesting Study In Internet World, Media Relations

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Dave Glenn, ACC Sports Journal
September 16, 2002

CHAPEL HILL - On Sept. 1, the plug was pulled on the highly popular, somewhat controversial Goheels.com website after it served almost eight years as a valuable source of information on North Carolina athletics.

Ironically, Goheels, which perpetually boasted its independent status - the words “Never Has Been And Never Will Be The Official Site Of UNC Athletics” actually became part of its front-page logo - ultimately reneged on its chosen motto. A well-known university business partner purchased the rights to Goheels, then redirected the site's thousands of daily visitors straight to its chief rival, competitor and antagonist. Today, an old Goheels bookmark automatically switches a web surfer to TarHeelBlue.com, the official, university-sponsored site of UNC sports and an outlet with an entirely different mission.

As news of the deal spread, many immediately speculated that UNC administrators somehow had a hand in the purchase of Goheels by Learfield Communications, the company that has owned the school's multimedia rights since 1998. Some Vilcom employees were absolutely convinced that athletic director Dick Baddour, who had an often-prickly relationship with Vilcom chief Jim Heavner, had his fingerprints all over the deal.

“Dick saw Goheels as an adversary,” one Vilcom official told the Sports Journal. “(UNC) didn't like how popular we became, and Dick had a myopic view of the whole thing. We were a tremendous publicity machine for the athletic department, in an overwhelmingly positive way, and Dick didn't see it that way. It was obvious. He just didn't like us. What was once a positive relationship for both sides became a difficult relationship.”

“Dick Baddour hated Goheels,” one Vilcom editor said. “(Heavner) eventually got tired of fighting with Dickie, or the people calling of Dickie's behalf, over every little thing on Goheels. (Former UNC athletic director) John Swofford was much better at rolling with the punches, understanding the media's role, and not trying to micro-manage everything. ... If John was still Carolina's AD, Jim would still be running Goheels.com.”

“That's all old history,” Heavner said. “It's obvious that things changed when Dick became AD (in June 1997). I posted my statement (citing mostly business reasons for his decision) on the site when we made the announcement about Goheels, and I really don't want to get into it more than that.”

In part of his on-line statement, Heavner wrote, “each of Dick Baddour's successive nightmares turned into Goheels bonanzas. At no time in UNC history had so many unexpected stories taken such turns. It was a journalist's dream.” Heavner declined further comment on Baddour but spoke fondly of Swofford.

“John had and still has a high level of respect for our (journalism) craft,” Heavner said. “That's why he continues to have so many good, positive relationships with the media. When he and I first met, we knew each other only as businessmen. We eventually became good friends, but only after we had developed a very strong mutual respect for one another in the business world. I understood and respected his job. He understood and respected mine. That generated a great business relationship, then ultimately a great personal friendship. That doesn't mean we always agreed, but we got along very well.”

Certainly, the conspiracy logic behind UNC's hypothetical role behind the Learfield-Vilcom deal made sense. Learfield, which also holds the media rights to 13 other major college athletic programs (including Clemson), was and remains interested in cultivating a successful long-term relationship with the Tar Heels. The company was prohibited from running a site with Goheels-style content under an anti-competitive clause in its contract with UNC, but it made the purchase anyway. Goheels editors regularly bumped heads with UNC's sports information department. Most SIDs, including those at Carolina, take their cue from their ADs on major media relations matters. Heavner, who had a close personal friendship with Swofford, clearly did not have the same type of relationship with Baddour. UNC saw the tremendous traffic generated by Goheels and wanted the same for TarHeelBlue.com.

So, did it happen that way? According to numerous sources on all sides, no. Was Baddour a Goheels fan? No. Was UNC disappointed to see the site go? Absolutely not. Did Heavner grow tired of clashing with the athletic department after the change from Swofford to Baddour? Yes. But did the university ask Learfield, directly or indirectly, to purchase the site on its behalf? No. Did Heavner sell out simply because of Baddour? No.

Baddour, who has taken an extraordinary amount of heat - some of it deserved (especially the Carl Torbush debacles), some of it the inevitable byproduct of struggles in the men's basketball and football programs - from UNC supporters during his five-plus years as AD, generally avoids public comment on controversial matters he believes ought to remain behind closed doors. He has said he would rather take unfair hits from those who don't know the facts than enter into public shouting matches that tarnish the university's good name. He never has come forth with details of Mack Brown's departure in 1997, Roy Williams' about-face in 2000 or Frank Beamer's reversal in 2001, although many insist he would take a lot of pressure off himself if he did. Even after Brown wrote in a recent book passage that Baddour essentially contributed to his departure with his approach to contract negotiations in 1997, Baddour said only that he disagreed with Brown's version of events.

Regarding Goheels, Baddour told the Sports Journal he particularly appreciated the enormous amount of coverage the site gave to Olympic sports. He called it “a wonderful vehicle to communicate with our fans” and said editors often took on some of UNC's causes, including the drive to get football fans to Kenan Stadium early on game days. He said he understands that the demise of Goheels will help the school's official site, but he said he knew almost nothing about the Vilcom-Learfield transaction before it happened.

“We have worked very hard to bring attention and focus to TarHeelBlue, and (the redirection of Goheels traffic) will help us there,” Baddour said. “There were many things (about Goheels) I liked very much, and some things I didn't like. But (the sale) was news to me. It's not something we ever pursued or even knew about until the end. I think people would be surprised to learn how little we knew about it.

“We're not out to silence anyone. This university is based on opinion and differing views, and I embrace that. I accept that. I like that. I think it's one of our great strengths. We just want (coverage of UNC) to be fair. When we felt there was inaccurate information or a misrepresentation of our comments or position - and this applies to everyone (in the media) equally - we felt like we needed to act. But we're not out to silence anyone.”

“We never wanted to do what (Goheels) did (editorially), we're not allowed (under NCAA rules) to do what they did, and we never tried to do what they did,” another UNC athletic department official said. “A lot of people are speculating that we somehow engineered their demise, but that's untrue. Were we sad to see them go? In many ways, no. But were we behind it? Absolutely not.”

“I think people forget that there were legitimate business decisions on both sides of this sale,” Heavner said. “I'm sure there were many factors on both sides, but the two biggest things that drove my decision were that Goheels was no longer a successful business model, and that I wanted to redirect my energy into helping WCHL reach its potential as an outstanding community radio station here in Chapel Hill. ... I'm not sure it would be useful to discuss the rest of it. Anything else was secondary.”

Learfield had similarly legitimate business reasons for purchasing Goheels, even though very few independent, advertising-driven websites are profitable anymore. Indeed, over the last five years, most independent free sites either went bankrupt, began charging for content or joined one of the large (Rivals or Insiders) web networks. Learfield didn't want to buy Goheels to run the site; it sought, rather, to eliminate its biggest competitor for advertising clients.

“This purchase was a direct response to the feedback (Learfield) received from their sales reps when they were trying to sell ads for TarHeelBlue.com,” one source said. “When they approached potential clients, they often heard, ëWe already advertise on UNC's site.' Over and over, they had to explain that Goheels was unaffiliated with the university, and that TarHeelBlue was really the official site. In the end, the purchase made sense for many reasons, but eliminating that confusion may have been the biggest reason.”

Goheels.com's roller-coaster ride from mouthpiece for Carolina in its early days to a powerful source of Tar Heel news - both good and bad - and back again to university sounding board was an interesting one to say the least.

The site succeeded despite the troubled economic times. In recent years, it continued to thrive despite less-than-stellar performances on the court and on the field by Carolina teams. (Who wants to read about a loser? Apparently, Goheels readers did.) More often than not, Goheels succeeded where others failed.

When it was launched in 1995, The Village Company-owned Goheels.com featured commentary from the Tar Heel Sports Network stalwarts: veteran play-by-play man Woody Durham, insightful color commentator Mick Mixon, feisty columnist (and former PooP Sheet editor) Art Chansky and knowledgeable wordsmith Lee Pace. The whole idea of Internet publishing was still a new one, but Heavner was enough of a visionary to take a chance. He owned both the website and the radio rights to the network, which gave him an untapped audience in which to promote his new venture.

“To his credit, Jim was on the cutting edge of (the internet age),” the UNC source said. “We weren't very aggressive in tackling that market at the beginning, and he filled the void. Goheels was very good at what it did, and we basically helped him build his audience by selling him access to our fans through the radio network. It turned out to be a very smart move on his part, and maybe uncomfortable at times for both sides.”

Behind closed doors at UNC, sports information veterans Rick Brewer, Dave Lohse and Steve Kirschner quietly went to then-AD Swofford and expressed their concerns about the new site. According to VilCom sources, SID officials didn't want the competition for their own fledgling Internet efforts, which were lagging far behind Goheels. According to university sources, the main concern was instead the appearance and awkwardness of an “independent,” UNC-oriented site being run by the same person who held part of the school's media rights.

“We wanted to be sure that, when (Goheels) was critical, there was a disassociation,” Baddour said. “We didn't want people to see Woody and Mick on a site and assume we were writing everything on there. (Prior to 1998), it was confusing to many people, and we were uncomfortable with that confusion.”

“It's like the old saying about being half-pregnant,” the athletic department source said. “You're either official or you're independent; you can't be both. Jim Heavner was an ëofficial' media partner, but he was running the ëindependent' website. It was awkward, confusing, frustrating at times, probably for them, too. Because of the radio ads that ran with our games, a lot of people thought we were writing what they were reading (on Goheels), and that was a problem.”

Hand it to Heavner. The Chapel Hill radio icon, who once was a radio voice for UNC sports, gradually turned a good idea into a great one. In the early days, his staff updated the site mainly with dressed-up sports information releases and some columns, mostly written by self-described homers. Eventually, though, Heavner decided that more objective, straight-from-the-hip commentary would garner more respect and more visitors than the cheerful, everything-is-great rhetoric common to the school-sponsored sites.

As Goheels' mission changed, of course, the business-wise partnership between Goheels and Tar Heel Sports Marketing became tenuous. With increasing regularity, UNC sports information staffers called Goheels writers and editors to complain about articles posted on the site. In one infamously testy exchange, Baddour called Chansky onto the carpet for his open criticism of the UNC football program.

“There were a lot of battles,” a former Goheels editor said. “(UNC officials) knew it was in Jim's best interest business-wise to maintain a good relationship with them because of the media deal. At the same time, it was also in Jim's best interest to make the Goheels site as interesting as possible, and that often meant going against (UNC's) company line. If they didn't like something, we definitely heard about it.”

“Ninety percent of our calls to Goheels had to do with two things - factual inaccuracies and attribution problems - and the other 10 percent had to do with fairness issues,” UNC's Kirschner said. “The sticking points, I think, were the attribution problems and the fairness issues. Part of my job is to point out when we think something is unfair. More often than not, (Baddour) would tell me not to worry about it. Sometimes, we called.

“I thought it was unfair when one of our people would be in the office until 11 o'clock, writing a 14-paragraph release, and it would show up on Goheels - with maybe one paragraph re-worded - under the ëBy Goheels staff' byline. We would call, and Jim thought we were being petty. We also had some complaints about the content being unfair, but that really was much less common. We only called when we felt we had to call.”

“It was complicated,” the former Goheels editor said. “We were independent, but not independent in the same way the ACC Sports Journal is independent. There's nothing an SID can hold over (the Sports Journal), and that's a very powerful thing. We had to maintain a very difficult balance. We had to deal with constant criticism from the SID office. We had to worry about getting our credentials (to cover UNC home games) pulled. It was messy.”

It also was, in many cases, solid journalism - and it remained so after Heavner sold UNC's radio rights to Missouri-based Learfield in 1998. With that transaction, writers Durham, Mixon and Pace moved to TarHeelBlue. (Because of his business relationship with UNC, freelancer Pace is prohibited by NCAA rules from writing about recruiting in his outstanding Extra Points football newsletter.) Chansky, who has covered the Heels for more than 30 years and written several books on UNC athletics, and other regulars remained at Goheels and often shared interesting analysis and reliable inside information.

Heavner's site was the first media outlet to report (in 1997) that Dean Smith was retiring. Goheels later took some well-deserved criticism for falsely reporting Roy Williams-to-UNC as a “done deal” and other errors, but the harder-hitting editorial content drew large numbers on a daily basis. At the end, the site reportedly was drawing almost 50 million page views a year. Frequent visitors always could count on something new, and often the content rubbed someone the wrong way.

On one occasion, Heavner insisted that the site run a “Brendan Haywood Watch” after each UNC basketball game. The feature showed the former center's stats from the previous game, with the underlying idea that Haywood was the root of Carolina's troubles. That sort of feature will never show up on TarHeelBlue.com, nor should it, but the contrast certainly serves as a reminder to be wary of old bookmarks.

For many UNC fans in the late 1990s and beyond, Goheels.com was the first site they went to every day and one of the only sites worth venturing to on a regular basis. Some in the media, including ACC writer Gregg Doyel of the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, openly admitted to keeping Goheels among the sites they visited daily. Even rival fans got into the act; it was not uncommon to see Duke, N.C. State and Wake Forest message boards linking to stories on Goheels.

All along, Heavner pooled his resources and put his small, underpaid staff to work. His employees were expected to put up new lead stories before 7 a.m., noon and 5 p.m. every day - including weekends, holidays and in the slow-as-molasses summer. Some staffers were expected to be on-call 24 hours a day. If a story slipped through the cracks, several editors said, there was hell to pay.

“It was not a fun place to work,” one former editor said. “Even during times when the basketball team was not doing well, the site was still getting double the visitors a day than it had the year before, or even the year before that. But it was always more, more, more. Some people are just never satisfied.”

In terms of exposure, at least, Heavner's attention to detail certainly paid off. Goheels generally was regarded as the most-visited college website following one school - official or not - on the entire web. During football and basketball coaching transitions, as many as a million visitors a day were checking in on Goheels.

Success, however, came with a price. Heavner's proven business sense, for example, often generated morale problems on his staff. In a span of about two years, eight managing editors came and went. Those who weren't forced out by Heavner, considered a penny pincher by many, made no bones about not wanting to work for him and quickly went elsewhere. Heavner repeatedly brought in quality people to improve the product and gain advertisers, then cleaned house and relied on younger, cheaper employees who thought the idea of working around the Tar Heels would be fun.

“Some rich guys buy ball teams, Jim likes to play journalist,” another former employee said. “He's definitely tight with the money, and he works his staff very, very hard. Those things alienated a lot of people, but those things also made him a successful businessman.”

One editor, who finally had a complete staff to handle Goheels.com, ACCToday.com and even Carolinasoccer.com, was told to fire everybody but himself. The editor, who had hired a new employee just a couple of months earlier to take over as managing editor of the new ACCToday, gallantly said he would rather quit than do that to his staff. Within a month, only one editorial staffer - the new ACCToday editor - was still at VilCom.

ACCToday.com, during its short life, became a respected, popular entity in its own right. The site was created in part to get around advertising problems for Goheels. In the split-loyalty state of North Carolina, many potential advertisers didn't want to alienate their Wolfpack and Blue Devil clients by advertising solely on a UNC-oriented site. Thus, ACCToday.com was born.

Dave DeWitt, a former college basketball coach and then-analyst on the Tar Heel Sports Network, was the original brain and brawn behind ACCToday, in 1999. Though he fully understood the premise behind the site - to bring advertising dollars to Goheels - he nonetheless built the site into an intelligent, timely source of all things ACC. ACCToday never did get the attention its sister site did, from either readers or management, but it wasn't for lack of effort.

While Goheels, perhaps thanks to Heavner's prior relationship with UNC, received credentials to Carolina home games, ACCToday never was given that opportunity at any of the nine league schools. Its reporters routinely submitted applications for press passes to different SIDs, but they always were denied. The (generally accurate) reason given was that the ACC office allowed only official sites to cover games.

However, the ACC itself year-in and year-out gave both sites access to the ACC Tournament and, more often than not, VilCom was given three or four press passes. Some established older newspapers were not given that sort of luxury. Even more disconcerting was the fact that not only were the SIDs in the league denying sites such as ACCToday access, but they were in effect helping build monopolies at the same time. N.C. State, for example, could deny an ACCToday reporter access to a basketball game, then sell advertising for GoPack.com. ACCToday, in the meantime, would have to make do with second-hand information, perhaps making it less attractive to the same potential advertisers.

Despite those handicaps, The VilCom Network (as it was called over the last year of its existence) had little trouble selling ads. While many other Internet sites fell by the wayside because of lack of funds, Goheels continued with business as usual. After a while, though, it seemed that every story or feature on the site had a corporate sponsor. The bottom of the barrel came when the site began running a weekly feature that was written by a Chapel Hill restaurateur who recorded what patrons said while watching - on TV - a Carolina football or basketball game.

The amount of advertising on Goheels eventually became a running joke, even among loyal readers. Of course, rival sites also got into the act. One joked that Goheels was happy to introduce the “Hardee's Choke Of The Week.”

Despite the abundance of advertisements and “advertorials” on Goheels, all was not well at VilCom over the last year and a half. Many of its advertisers were wooed away by Tar Heel Sports Marketing to put ads on TarHeelBlue.com.

In some cases, apparently, Tar Heel Sports Marketing (read: Learfield) used negative tactics in its attempt to steal clients. According to some would-be advertisers, Learfield representatives consistently discredited Goheels and what it had to offer while presenting questionable data on the page views and other measurables offered by TarHeelBlue. A Learfield source had no comment on the former charge and denied the latter.

Reportedly, it especially irked some Tar Heel Sports Marketing officials that Heavner owned the rights to the much more fluid and easy-to-remember name Goheels.com. Meanwhile, Goheels continued to provide recruiting updates, inside information and other material unavailable on TarHeelBlue. For most UNC fans, Goheels remained the site of choice.

UNC officials adamantly denied encouraging Learfield to silence Goheels.com, or even wanting the Goheels name for themselves. Indeed, the school's SID office generally avoids references to the term Heels, preferring to use the longer Tar Heels, North Carolina, UNC or Carolina on almost all references. The university, admittedly less than 100 percent satisfied with the name TarHeelBlue.com, currently is involved in numerous battles with cyber-squatters for the rights to TarHeels.com (the preference of most administrators) and other URLs.

“We never once asked Learfield to take care of Goheels for us,” the UNC source said. “Someone may have placed a call when they heard Jim was interested in selling, but Learfield had their own business reasons for wanting that name. I think they just got tired of trying to sell to people who thought Goheels was our official site.”

Another roadblock that faced Goheels was the fact that its reporters' access to UNC games always treaded a thin line. According to one editor, Kirschner often threatened to pull Goheels' access when he read something he didn't like. (Kirschner said he maintained a dialogue with the site's operators but spoke of revoked credentials only in regard to message-board policies, a stance he later abandoned.) According to the editor, Goheels almost always complied with UNC's requests, understanding that no press credentials meant no content for its readers.

ACCToday was not as lucky. Its management held out hope that it one day would be recognized as a legitimate news outlet and be allowed to cover games. ACCToday's editors tried to stay on the good side of the ACC's SIDs in hopes of not burning any bridges.

As the economy continued to tank, so did the fortunes at VilCom. Whether or not Heavner saw the writing on the wall at the time, he decided to lure long-time and respected newsman Eddy Landreth from the Chapel Hill (N.C.) News. Just four months after Landreth began at Goheels, he was laid off. He reportedly was told that there just wasn't enough money coming in to balance the budget, but insiders knew there was more to it than that.

Heavner, according to some close to him, had begun to think more and more about his legacy in Chapel Hill. Though he has contributed to the renovation of Memorial Hall on the UNC campus and built up the infrastructure of northern Chapel Hill, he still has never been warmly received in many Carolina circles. Perhaps he wanted to change that, and he apparently thought the best way to do so was to start from scratch. He also was willing to do something he rarely does: lose a fight and concede victory. In this case, he had another triumph in mind.

Heavner wanted to buy back his old radio station, WCHL-AM (1360) in Chapel Hill. He had sold it to Don Curtis of Curtis Media Group in the late 1990s in order to concentrate on Goheels, and for a while it all seemed to work. Now Heavner, who once owned numerous radio stations, a cable television company and a website, wanted to own just a radio station again and move Chapel Hill's station back to Chapel Hill. (In recent years, it was located at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.) One major stipulation was that WCHL would advertise the Tar Heel Sports Network and thus only TarHeelBlue.com. It would be a conflict of interest for Heavner to advertise both sites, so Goheels.com would be no more.

“Goheels had run its course,” Heavner said. “I've always been a radio man at heart, and that's what motivated me to make a change. I'm at a stage of life where I want to choose my challenges even more carefully and thoughtfully, and I'm passionate about making WCHL a great community radio station again. Everything else is a closed chapter.”

So beginning on Sept. 1, when fans typed Goheels.com or ACCToday.com into their web browsers, they automatically were sent to TarHeelBlue.com. UNC followers looking for an independent site these days still have several options. Inside Carolina (northcarolina.TheInsiders.com) is part of the Insiders network, Carolina Blue (northcarolina.rivals.com) is with Rivals, and Chapel Hill businessman Frank Heath (Cats Cradle, etc.) recently launched TarHeelDaily.com. But the fans' original site of choice is gone, perhaps forever.

No trace of Goheels.com can be found on the Internet these days. Most searches for “Art Chansky” or other Goheels or ACCToday catch phrases come up blank. When links do appear and are clicked upon, the viewer is directed to a TarHeelBlue.com default page.

It's as if the sites simply vanished into thin air, which is just fine with officials at UNC. Carolina fans lost an independent voice for Tar Heel news. All Carolina lost was an occasional pest.