From left to right: Roslyn McLarty, Ellen Hyslop, and Jacie deHoop, Co-Founders of The Gist.
Jacie deHoop, Co-Founder of The Gist, shares how the accessible and inclusive sports-based newsletter came to be and what it plans to do with the funds from its $1 million seed round.
It’s no secret that sports bring people together. The community culture that comes with attaching yourself to a fandom is unmatched—but it can also be polarizing. Just as much as sports can bring people together, it also draws a divide between those with a die-hard passion for sports and those who are casual viewers. What, you don’t know your favourite player’s height, blood type, and date when they scored their first goal?
Historically, sports media coverage has catered towards the die-hard fan with constant coverage of the field, court, ice, diamond, and everything in between. But what about the fans who just want to stay in the know about what’s going on? Enter The Gist.
Co-founded by Jacie deHoop, Ellen Hyslop, and Roslyn McLarty, The Gist is disrupting the way sports media is consumed. Its free tri-weekly newsletter offers subscribers bite-sized, engaging content with the latest news in the sports world. With a focus on more accessible and inclusive coverage, The Gist has quickly become the go-to way for many sports fans, particularly women, to get a well-rounded look at what’s going on.
“A lot of sports content was very much so created by and for an avid male fan,” says deHoop. “Thus, making it just a little less engaging to a fan like myself, who was looking for more progressive storylines and looking for what’s going on with female athletes and women’s sports, and looking to center more women’s voices in the sports space.”
Since launching in 2018, The Gist quickly picked up steam, recently surpassing 200,000 newsletter subscribers. And with a $1 million seed round this spring, deHoop says she and her co-founders have big plans to continue growing their online community.
But getting to this point wasn’t always easy. As three female founders looking to disrupt a male-dominated industry, they met some skeptics along the way who didn’t see a point in curated sports content for casual and underserved fans.
“In the early days, it was really difficult to hear from important people that you really look up to, ‘Oh, there isn’t an opportunity in this space,’” says deHoop. “But we’ve progressed and learned to focus on those that are already going to be supportive of everything that we’re building”
In addition to providing content for underserved fans, in a world that has seen a push for more inclusion on all fronts, The Gist sits at the intersection of a unique opportunity to be a voice for sports topics that typically get swept under the rug. The three co-founders have no problem taking a firm stance on social justice issues, like fair coverage of women’s sports and supporting Black Lives Matter.
For this week’s Women Who Lead, Bay Street Bull spoke with The Gist’s Jacie deHoop about how she and her co-founders, Ellen Hyslop and Roslyn McLarty, are carving out a new market in the sports industry, building an online community of underserved fans, and changing the way we think about sports media.
What was that moment of coming together and deciding to start this female-focused sports media brand like?
The idea for The Gist came about quite organically. The three of us were friends from university, we all went to Queens and we met in business school. And then we were working in different areas of financial services here in Toronto. So, all of us, in very male-dominated, corporate kind of roles. And we were just catching up on a random night with some takeout and Ellen was just like going off about the Leafs game the night before. Just from being Ellen’s friend, you always know what’s going on in sports because she’s such an avid fan [laughs]. There was something about the way that she was kind of explaining it to us and telling us what happened that made her passion for sports really infectious and it made Roslyn and I really engaged.
We started unpacking and trying to discern why for [people like] Roslyn and me, who grew up playing so many sports and ingrained in the sports world, it didn’t really translate to being a sports fan. And then we started unpacking how, especially in that kind of corporate environment, whether you’re a really avid fan like Ellen or a more casual fan, like myself or Roslyn at the time, it’s really easy to feel on the outside of that sports community, on the outside of that sports conversation.
Unfortunately, sports can still feel like this kind of boys club. And we thought that’s ridiculous. It was 2017 and we thought there needs to be more progress in this space. What if there was something out there that made sports feel a lot more accessible, a lot more inclusive to all types of fans? So that if you were a casual fan you could have somewhere to go where you would get the gist of what’s going on for each sport or for a big event. We also wanted it to be somewhere that had an inclusivity aspect to it. Something that we found too, was that a lot of sports content was very much so created by and for an avid male fan. Thus, making it just a little less engaging to a fan like myself, who was looking for more progressive storylines and looking for what’s going on with female athletes and women’s sports, and looking to center more women’s voices in the sports space.
So, we really came up with the idea that night. It took us a few months to look at this industry and where it’s going. And we’re all business students, so we were like, ‘it feels like there’s a business opportunity here.’ About eight months later, we actually launched The Gist amongst friends and family. We had a launch party and that was the start of our newsletter list and of creating content that’s really by and for that underserved sports fan.
At that time, the business model of a newsletter list, putting out content on a bi-weekly or tri-weekly basis, was just starting to take off. Were there any challenges in having a newsletter-based model peak interest?
From day one, we felt like a newsletter model made a ton of sense. At the time, theSkimm was very popular and we were all subscribers to it. It seemed like a newsletter, in particular, was a really interesting channel for building community and building a real relationship with your audience, while also owning your audience and controlling how you’re communicating with them. You’re ensuring that the content you send to them is such a purposeful read because they’re opting-in to the conversation, versus on Instagram, which is still really impactful in many ways but is an entirely different kind of content channel.
We found that the newsletter would be the best way for us to really build a relationship and trust with our audience, which was super important to us. We’re really the first ones that are addressing and catering to the female fans specifically or to that underserved fan. And so a huge part of why we wanted to go with the newsletter route too, is because we would have that relationship where they would tell us, ‘This content is super interesting.’ ‘These references aren’t hitting for me.’ ‘This was too long.’ Having that relationship with our Gisters where they tell us what they’re most interested in was really important to us.
Newsletters have taken off quite a bit since, but theSkimm and Morning Brew were two of the early ones that we were really paying attention to. And we’re really excited to see what we can do next within newsletters, but also in other channels. Our ultimate vision is to be that go-to source for sports for underserved fans. So whether that’s across newsletters, across a podcast network, social channels, etc. Even in addition to digital media, there’s commerce, community, and membership [opportunties]. There are so many other kinds of business models and products that we’re interested in and testing out all the time.
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And at the beginning, did you face any backlash or doubt that there was a need for something like The Gist, that serves the underserved fan? If so, how did you overcome it?
There was a lot. It’s been really interesting, even from when we first came up with the concept in 2017 to now in 2021, raising our seed round, there has been a huge shift in just the mentality towards this space. I think in the early days, people from the sports industry, in particular, were like, ‘I don’t really see how there’s a need for something like this.’ They didn’t really see how it was different than the more traditional sports content that you would consume. So yeah, we got a lot of that.
We were also part of a lot of different startup ecosystems. We were part of The DMZ very early on, we did several accelerators with Techstars and Comcast NBC Universal down in the States and also VCs. In that space, they’re looking for very certain criteria around companies. So, even outside of the sports industry, on the professional side, some people really didn’t have a sense for underserved fans out there and that it’s a really untapped market.
I would say now, especially, with the fundraising conversations we’ve had recently, and just even more broadly, there’s been a ton of progress and a lot of momentum in the space. I think women’s sports are really at the forefront. We’ve seen the growth, we’re seeing the numbers showing how female fandom is growing incredibly. So, in the early days, maybe we were slightly ahead of the curve, but now it feels like there’s a lot more progress being made. And I think there’s been so much social justice progress in general in the last year or so too, that has contributed to a lot more emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion as well.
Through the years of seeing that shift within the way we talk about sports—and why something like The Gist is needed—do you have a favorite memory where you felt like “we made it” or that The Gist was making a real impact on its audience?
That’s a good question. I would say we haven’t “made it” yet because there’s still so much to do, so much growth that we see. There’s just so much potential in this space and so much potential with this audience we’re serving that we have very far to go still.
A really impactful moment for us was honestly this last year. When everything was happening around the Black Lives Matter movement in June, we were really in a position where we could have a lot of impact as part of that conversation, where we could really elevate a lot of athlete voices, particularly from the NBA who are just doing so much around the entire movement. We found that we can have a voice and have a platform that people are going to go to and that can like really have a lot of change and impact change. So that was really cool. It was a big part of our journey too and knowing our voice and how we’re going to speak to a lot of those issues. That’s part of why a lot of us have felt like we’re underserved sports fans, because a lot of other outlets aren’t going to take that approach and aren’t going to have an opinion and really state what’s right and what’s wrong.
And then I would say the other aspect has been more so in the last year, how there will actually be people who are like, ‘Oh yeah, of course, I’ve heard of The Gist!’ It’s awesome. And it’s so far removed from anyone that we would know, which is really cool. I think as a founder, you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, people have heard about us!’ and from people that you would just never expect. So, that’s been really cool too.
And speaking of being a founder, as three women founders going into these meetings with venture capitalists and into these tech ecosystems, did you ever feel that you were underestimated or that people didn’t take you seriously? And if you did, how did you deal with that?
None of us comes from a sports background or a media background, a tech or startup background. So, we were very much so figuring it out on the fly. There were definitely times when we felt super out of our element. I think we’ve been so fortunate to have each other. As three co-founders, we lean on each other so much. And I think in those moments where you’re second-guessing yourself, having two other co-founders that are also your really close friends has made a huge difference in feeling well supported. So, that’s been important.
I do think, in some cases, we were definitely underestimated. We’re three young women. We had questions about things like, ‘You guys must fight all the time?’ and you would never ask that to male founders. We also try to take an approach—and it took us some time to learn this and get there—but if somebody is underestimating us or is like, ‘I really don’t understand why there’s a need for something like this.’ It’s not worth our time and effort to try to convince them when there are so many people that do believe in what we’re building and see the opportunity there, both from a business and society perspective. In the early days, it was really difficult to hear from important people that you really look up to, ‘Oh, there isn’t an opportunity in this space.’ But we’ve progressed and learned to focus on those that are already going to be supportive of everything that we’re building
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And with this latest seed round how did that come about? What was that experience like and what are you hoping to do with the funding?
So we just closed our seed round, and it was a $1 million round. Our funding journey has been primarily through angel investors so far. We were really fortunate because so many of our investors from our pre-seed round came in for the seed round as well. And then we also added in a few more strategic investors, especially across the States—we launched in the U.S. in 2019—so gaining investors and advisors across the U.S. has been really important to our growth and development.
We are super excited to now have the money in the bank! Most of the funding is going to go towards audience growth, really doubling down on growing our Gist community across Canada and the U.S. Then the second piece of it is on making some key hires. We’re expanding our team pretty quickly. Our very small team is at capacity. So we’re really excited to bring on some additional team members, to help us really scale things up, create more awesome content, experiment with new content, channels, and products, and also monetize and bring on some of those larger brand partners as well.
And you have had some great brand partnerships to date. Was there any partnership or deal that you secured that you were super stoked about?
I oversee our revenue and partnerships, and so we really didn’t focus on monetizing until the end of 2019, once our audience was at a good size and we could actually meaningfully monetize. So, it’s a new space for us. Two of the biggest partnerships that really elevated or helped us in a lot of ways are with the NBA and with FanDuel. With the NBA, we connected with their team and they immediately saw so much opportunity in what we were building and what is to come for like diversifying fan bases in general. The NBA is obviously such a progressive league and has always been at the forefront of innovation and progress too. So we were super excited to be partnering with them for this current season.
The second partnership has been with FanDuel. We’re seeing a ton of opportunity in the gamification of the sports betting space. So it’s been really cool to partner with them and to really bring fantasy and gaming and these exclusive contests to our audience. Again, it’s been cool to just see the impact that we can have on our audience, catering something specifically to somebody and seeing how they’re going to engage with it. So that’s been another big partnership that we’re super proud of.
In your wildest dreams, if you look out five, 10 years into the future, where is The Gist at?
We really want to be a household name. If you’re an underserved sports fan, which many of us are, The Gist will be your go-to destination to know what’s going on in the sports world. That might mean different newsletters, and maybe that’s across different verticals, like in the college sports or in sports betting or in the wellness space, or an entire podcast network and a whole digital media ecosystem.
But again, the community aspect of what we’re building is so important to us. So, finding ways that Gisters can also connect with one another, whether that’s like trash-talking or joining together in their fandom, and some sort of like membership model is something we’re really interested in too. [We want to build] Someplace where Gisters feel that sports are really for them and that sports are an inclusive and accessible space they might not have felt previously.
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If you were to look back on that night when the three of you got together over takeout and were talking about this idea, what advice would you give to yourself back then that you’ve learned now?
Oh gosh, we’ve learned so much since then! It’s funny because we were just looking back on the Google doc that we first created and some of the notes we had in there were hilarious. I would say that it’s going to be a very difficult journey. There are going to be tons of challenges—which we knew too at the time, when you’re starting up anything, there’s going to be so many challenges—but it’s so much fun at the same time.
Something that our team has been really working on too is recognizing that our team—us three founders and our broader team—is the most important contributor to our success. So, prioritizing ourselves and making sure we’re all really supporting each other and have an excellent kind of culture amongst ourselves is so important to the actual output that we’re creating. I think that when you’re starting something out, you don’t really think about the team as much, but that is one aspect that I think is so important and has been really foundational to our success too.
As this is a Women Who Lead article, is there a woman who leads in your life? Or is it multiple women that you look up to and inspire you every day?
Oh gosh. There are a bunch! We have several advisors and mentors that we work with and speak to very regularly that really help us through some of the more difficult times, both female and male. There isn’t one individual that really comes to mind.
And honestly, each other. We go to each other so much for advice on everything. And that really helps us as well. Just having somebody else’s take that’s kind of going through something similar, even if it’s like in a different area of the business.
Keep up with Jacie and This Gist’s mission to make sports accessible for the underserved fan by signing up for the free tri-weekly newsletter here.