Ryan Ballengee had what he thought was his dream job, writing about golf for some of the game’s biggest news outlets. But when he lost his job, instead of the dream dying, it only grew bigger. Much, much bigger. Today, Ballengee owns an omnichannel golf media company that reaches millions of people each month. How did he do it? At the Turn caught Ryan for a Quick 9 about his success to date, his plans for the future, and the state of his golf game.
A Quick 9 With Golf News Net’s Ryan Ballengee
Golf Creator You Should Know
At the Turn (AT): Ryan, let’s talk about what you’ve built at Golf News Net. For those who don’t know, tell us the story of when and how you began and what you’ve aimed to bring to the golf world with GNN.
Ryan Ballengee (RB): So I started writing professionally about golf in 2010. I was writing about it for fun on the side. I was writing a blog for SB Nation called Waggle Room, and NBC Sports reached out in 2010 and asked if I would be interested in covering the Ryder Cup for them as kind of a trial to see about being the primary author for a new golf blog they were going to start. And it went very well. They offered me the job. I happily took it and became a professional golf writer instead of someone who enjoyed doing it on the side. I worked with them for a couple of years, and then they had their merger with Comcast. Comcast owns Golf Channel. All of the sudden, NBC didn’t need a golf guy. They had the Golf Channel, so I was on my way out there. So I worked for a company called Back9Network for about a year. And then I worked with Yahoo Sports and ran their golf blog for almost four years.
Around the beginning of 2017, I started thinking, ‘OK, it’s time to do my own thing.’ And in the interim, since I had started working with Yahoo, I brought back Golf News Net and started writing content. And Yahoo was great. They never cared if I did stuff on the side because it was a 75 percent schedule with Yahoo. They knew my intention, but in June 2017, the week of the U.S. Open, this was after we had got word that Yahoo had been bought by Verizon at that point. And I could kind of tell the writing on the wall when the merger happened that it was probably going to be a slash-and-burn type of thing that usually happens. And the week of the U.S. Open, they were like, ‘Yup, we’re being forced to zero out all of the hours of the non-W9 employees.’ And I was a contractor. So I was out. It was a little ahead of what I had intended to do, which would have been closer to the end of calendar 2017, but I was out on my own.
So I had to work that much quicker to get an audience on Golf News Net to a point where I could make a stable living every month. And it took about two years to get to where I really wanted to be and could make good money full time. And since 2017, we’ve gone from I’d guess 300,000 people a month on a good month to about one-and-a-half million people on a good month now at Golf News Net. The website has come a long way. That’s obviously a source of pride. I do all of the coding. I do all of the marketing. I do 90 percent of the writing. And then to be able to work with iHeart to launch GNN Radio at the end of 2022 was tremendous. A lot of work went into that project, and that’s now off the ground. And our next steps are distributing our video content, which will take off this year. So all of a sudden, I go from, you know, just a guy running a blog to an omnichannel media company that reaches millions and millions of people every month, which is really exciting.
AT: The amount of content you’re cranking out is impressive. You’ve got to be an absolute golf junkie, yes?
RB: Well, maybe not as obsessed as some people, but yeah, pretty close. You’ve got to love golf to talk about golf all the time. But I think it’s a mixture for me. I love golf and everything about it. But I also love creating challenges. Probably something messed up about myself. But I really like identifying something that I think would be fun to figure out and then to figure it out. And then to see if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. And typically it’s been a good thing. Not everything works out, but typically it’s been a good thing. And being in an industry that I love makes it a lot easier to go chase those ideas because it is something that I’m interested in.
AT: You mentioned GNN Radio, your streaming station. Tell us about that broadcast schedule and what listeners would hear if they tuned in.
RB: Golf News Net Radio is the first free-to-access, 24/7 golf talk station on the planet. There’s only one other golf talk station on the planet, and that’s SiriusXM PGA Tour Radio. And they do a fantastic job. I’ve listened to their station forever. My goal with GNN radio was to be less tour-focused than they are, obviously having the PGA Tour moniker. And coming up with content that would be a bunch of different things and check some different boxes. One, be global in nature. As global as we could make it, where we could have people from different countries talking about the game that they love and the way they experience it. Also, trying to be representative of having more female and minority voices. That’s something, admittedly, we’re still trying to get a little bit better at. Part of it is finding the right people or the interested people because that’s a lot of time to commit to doing something well, and some people don’t want to do that. And I completely respect that. But we want to have a diversity of voices and a diversity of topics, and we do that very well. If there is a topic we’re not covering on the station right now, I’d be kind of shocked, outside of college golf. That’s probably the only thing I don’t explicitly cover on the station. But everything else, pretty much any topic that could be of interest to either a golf fan or a recreation golfer, I think we cover.
We have about 35 shows right now on the station, and they are a mixture of terrestrial radio shows and podcasts, and they go in a mix each day. We usually have about five to six hours of fresh content each day. And then we repeat it once. And then we try to mix in things that are either from that day or that are still relevant from that week. They could be podcasts. They could be radio shows. They could be interviews we conduct explicitly for the station. And then it all comes together in a 24-hour format. I’m very happy with the mixture. And hopefully once we get to later in the spring, we’ll have about 18 hours of content that we feel will be relevant to that day, everyday. That’s about as much as I can ask for. I don’t think people are listening to golf on the radio for more than an hour or two at a time. And the numbers bear that out. So, it’s been helpful to have these four months of the station to know, with data, when people listen. And do they listen to specific shows? What different parts of the world do they come from? And that can help me make decisions about future steps with programming.
AT: Well, you’ve definitely got a lot going on at the site. There’s a radio station, news, equipment reviews, betting and fantasy picks, videos, even a storefront with clothes and other golf lifestyle items. Which of these components is most popular and draws the most traffic to the site?
RB: I would have said, at a different point in the site’s history, that certain content areas would have done really well compared to others. At one point it would have been fantasy and betting because no one was really talking about golf betting before it was legal in the United States. Now that it has been legal, it’s not as popular as it was because there’s more competition in the space. There’s plenty of high-quality golf betting and fantasy golf content that’s out there that just wasn’t there four or five years ago. So, just as a percentage basis of the content created, we’re not as much of it. So that has kind of come down in terms of total percentage of traffic. Same thing with just basic Tour news. We’re very good at explaining to people what happens in a tournament and why it happens in a tournament. So whether that’s tee times or pursues or formats or leaderboards, all those things that we’ve done really, really well. That’s still a tremendous portion of the traffic to the site. But people have figured out what Golf News Net does. And there are some sites on the internet that literally just copy and paste what I do and change some words. So that’s changed to some degree.
What I’ve learned is that your advantage is only temporary. So if you have something that works, eventually someone is going to figure it out and try to copy it. So it’s kind of a moving target. At least every year, we kind of go through the data and go, ‘OK, is this still relevant enough to the traffic mix that we want to keep doing it?’ And for fantasy and betting, that’s absolutely yes. For all that tournament information — and we cover all the major tours around the world — that’s still very relevant. Maybe we’ve diversified, adding even more tours than we were covering previously. Like the Asian Tour, the Sunshine Tour, the Ladies European Tour. We do a lot more content on that than we’ve ever done because, again, it’s an area no one’s really doing, and there is an audience for it.
On the negative side of things, where we don’t really do as much content, at least written-wise, is equipment. And the reason is that there are so many great written outlets out there. I can’t compete with their written content, but I can compete with them on audio and video. We can utilize these platforms that we have because they don’t really do that. So if they don’t do that, let’s do something that we can do well and not have to compete with them on the written side.
AT: And is it just you producing all this content? Do you have a staff or any contributors?
RB: I do have contributors. We have probably about two dozen people who are providing content on the radio side. But on the written side, most of it is me. One of the big things I’ve really worked on in the time of running GNN is trying to create ways to be more efficient with my content. Whether that’s weekly features that I know how to do in my sleep now, or trying to approach covering a tournament as a fan, as someone watching the tournament in their living room or on their phone and wondering something about a golf tournament. Well, I’m just as curious about that as you. So, if I write to your interests, because they’re frankly mine, that achieves two things. One, I think it achieves reaching people for what they’re looking for instead of trying to give them something they might not be interested in. And it then kind of gives them good, quality information that they hopefully then say, ‘Hey, I was at Golf News Net and I found this thing out, and now I’m a smarter golf fan because of that. Next time I need that information, I’m going to check him first.’ So, trying to build a little bit of loyalty but also just trying to meet people where they are with the content has made me more efficient than trying to worry about coming up with a column idea or opinion piece or some kind of long-form piece that may not have much market interest that day or that week. I might as well just give the people what they’re looking for instead of writing what I want.
AT: What’s next for GNN? Any plans for new initiatives or expansion?
RB: Well, I think the next step is trying to get the radio where I want it. And I think we’re on the right path with that. I’m very happy with the numbers that I’ve seen, but I don’t know what good looks like because there’s no analog. So, at what point do I go, ‘OK, things are great. We don’t need to change anything.’ So trying to figure that out will take some time. And then taking some of the audio content that we do and starting to turn cameras on people and distributing some of that as video content. I would love to get to a place where we create — they’re called FAST channels — where we have fresh video content people could watch every single day. And some of it will be just video versions of what’s on the radio. And some of it will ultimately be its own unique thing. But trying to be Golf Channel is a whole lot different than trying to be a radio station on SiriusXM. The time investment, the equipment investment—all of that stuff is obviously much more elevated, expensive, difficult. So, if there ever is a day where that comes to fruition, then I have to start thinking about taking on investment, I think. And obviously not working alone for most of the day. That would have to go by the wayside. So, it’s kind of trying to plan for those things. I can’t get there right away. It’s going to take time. But my hope is that we get to a place with GNN where there’s not one significant platform where you can’t experience our content. And that we do it well on each of them. Not just kind of OK. If that’s the place where we are in 2027, 2028, 2030, whenever it is, then I think I’ve done the best I can with the concept, and I’d be really happy with probably taking a break for a little while.
AT: Let’s talk about your personal golf journey. How did you get into the game?
RB: Well, I played three or four sports growing up. And, over time, as I got into middle school, I started to walk away from some of them because I wasn’t as good at them or didn’t like them as much. But baseball was one of those sports that I played. And we used to go to the batting cages. And the batting cages were at the driving range. So I would go hit baseballs in the batting cages, and then I would go get a driver from the rack of rental clubs and go hit balls on the range. And I realized I liked hitting golf balls. So I wound up getting some lessons from the pro at the range.
I was inspired by my uncle Russell, one of the coolest people I’ve ever met still to this day. And he loved golf, was obsessed with golf and played all the time. So, if it was cool with him, it was cool with me. So we started playing Par 3 courses around the area, and our local Optimist chapter had a junior golf program. And then, by an intervention of God is my guess, I shot an incredible nine holes at the high school tryout as a freshman. It was my best-ever nine holes to that point of my life. So I made the team. Played high school golf for four years. And I’m still in love with the game all these years later.
I feel like I’m still learning about golf at almost 40. And that goes back to what I was talking about earlier, inventing challenges. There’s not a day in golf where there’s not a challenge. There’s always something to learn or do better. Or something to try you’ve never tried before. The challenge is never the same, and that’s what I love about it. Every single time out, even when you played great the last time, you might play horribly the next time. Just even the quest for consistency is amazing. And I think that’s what has me hooked about it. I think I finally figured out how to hit a cut this year, 25 years into playing golf. And sometimes I do it, and it looks great. And then the next time I do it, it’s nowhere near what I want. And I think that’s what I love about it. Just when you think you’ve got it, it changes. If you think you’ve figured it out, you can get better. That’s what keeps me so interested in golf.
AT: What kind of player are you? Strengths? Weaknesses? Handicap?
RB: I’m a +2.5 right now. I drive the ball pretty far, which sets up a lot of relatively easy and short shots. When I’m not driving the ball well, I frankly love the escape almost as much as a good hole. I love hitting shots where you have to curl it around trees or through tight windows. If golf was just that, I’d still play golf. If they made you drop a ball behind a tree for every hole and you had to figure it out, I’d still love golf. I’d love golf even more actually. But I have a good short game. I’m a good wedge player. I have a good imagination for shots, so I’m willing to try lots of different variations on things to try to get good scores. My weakness, I’m not the best scoring iron player. Like 9 iron, 8 iron, 7 iron, I could be a better striker of the ball with irons.
AT: Well, at PlayBetter, we’re all about just that: Helping people play better, regardless of their skill or experience level. Do you have any favorite tips for someone trying to improve their game?
RB: That’s a good question. This is going to sound really stupid, but just hit the green. I think a lot of people I play golf with overthink what they’re trying to do with a shot. They worry about trying to hit it close instead of just hitting the green. They’ll either chunk it and hit it short. Or they’ll maybe thin it, and it rolls off the back or the side. And then all of a sudden, you’re chipping again. Well, that’s an extra stroke. So if you can just figure out whatever shot that you can do consistently to hit the green, do that. Because then, if you two putt, you’ve taken three strokes — a chip and two putts. Instead of chip, chip, three putt, and now you’ve made an eight or a 10. So I think just doing the basics of what the game wants you to do and forget everything else. Forget style points. If you can just hit the green, that’s my favorite tip. Because for people I’ve played golf with, I’ve seen their scores go down dramatically once they realize, ‘Hey, I have a stock shot I can hit.’ And then the confidence flows from there. And all of a sudden, you’re 10 strokes lower than you were before just because you’re not making silly mistakes.