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From left: Jacie deHoop, Roslyn McLarty and Ellen Hyslop.Supplied

On a February night in 2017, over wine, dinner and an animated conversation about the Toronto Maple Leafs, three women stumbled upon an idea for a female-led sports-media startup that would ultimately shift their careers.

Jacie deHoop and Roslyn McLarty found themselves intrigued by the Leafs' push for a playoff berth because of some lively commentary from their sports-savvy friend Ellen Hyslop about why it would be a big deal. It sparked a deeper conversation among the three friends, all recent graduates of Queen’s University’s commerce program in their mid-20s, then working at finance jobs in Toronto.

Sports knowledge can be a respected currency in social and business conversations – McLarty and deHoop certainly witnessed that around their offices, but rarely jumped into the banter. The two had always played sports, but traditional sports news didn’t appeal to them the way it did to Hyslop.

They observed a void of sports news directed at women and people who are more casual sports fans, explained largely by the male-dominated sports media. The trio came up with an idea to deliver sports content with a distinctly irreverent, fun and female voice, geared at those who feel alienated from certain conversations at offices and social gatherings because they didn’t “watch the game last night."

They were stirred by some startling statistics: less than 14 per cent of sports journalists are female and less than 4 per cent of sports-media coverage is on female athletes.

Late that year, the three friends launched The Gist. By the following spring, Hyslop, McLarty and deHoop all quit their jobs to pursue the venture fulltime. Their idea landed them in coveted spots in three business-accelerator programs, where they shaped the company with mentorship from Facebook, Comcast, Ryerson University and Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment among others.

Today, The Gist has 100,000 subscribers for its free e-newsletters that promise “the gist of what’s going on in the sports world in less than five minutes, every Monday and Thursday morning.” They also run pools and brackets, and they curate and contextualize sports news in daily Instagram posts and a weekly podcast co-hosted by Hyslop, called The Gist of It – all delivered in a digestible, conversational way for the busy, casual fan.

The three co-founders were chosen for the Forbes 30 Under 30 media list for 2020.

They now have newsletters and other content specific to eight sports cities – Toronto, Ottawa, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Washington, Philadelphia and Boston. The three worked day and night and did all the writing and editing themselves at first. Once they solidified The Gist’s voice, they hired part-time staff of 14 women with specialty skills – all sports fans – to write, edit, fact-check and manage social media.

“We’ve grown our team a lot over the time that we’ve been in the pandemic, so all the new positions that we’ve been posting have been remote,” said McLarty, whose title now is head of finance and operations. “So we’ve actually been able to source the best talent across the continent, rather than having to limit it to only Toronto and to get some different perspectives, which has been especially helpful on the American side.”

The Gist says 85 per cent of its newsletter subscribers identify as female. Although it doesn’t share specific web metrics, it says its engagement rates are more than double the industry average for sports-based e-mail newsletters. They survey their subscribers (Gisters) regularly. When they ask them to grade themselves on their confidence in their sports knowledge, the most common answer they see from subscribers is two out of five.

“We really felt like we represented our target market and understand what people are talking about at the office, when having drinks with their girlfriends, at their intramural soccer games,” said Hyslop, now head of content at The Gist. “So we created the minimum viable product for The Gist and constantly iterated on everything, tested different things, and collected as much feedback as we could from our Gisters.”

The initial startup money came from The Gist’s first incubator program, in Toronto in 2018, directed by the Facebook Journalism Project, Toronto’s DMZ tech accelerator and the Ryerson school of journalism. That program gave the women $100,000 in seed capital and $50,000 in Facebook marketing credits.

Then they got into another incubator through Ryerson called Future of Sport Lab, a sport tech accelerator collaboration with MLSE, where they had mentorship from several leaders from Canada’s sports and media industries.

In 2019, the three women made the temporary move to Philadelphia when they earned a spot in the Comcast NBCUniversal LIFT Labs Accelerator. They lived in student dorms for the 13-week program and worked alongside 10 other startups. They had access to investors, plus chief executives and marketing executives of big companies in media, sports, tech and entertainment.

That’s when they launched in the United States, starting with a Philadelphia-specific newsletter.

“All of these connections really helped us push the envelope in the way that we thought about the future of The Gist, while also helping to hone our focus,” Hyslop said. “It was a game-changer.”

For all digital-media companies, monetizing content is a huge challenge. Now acting as head of growth and partnerships, deHoop says they have paid partnerships with corporate brands who want to interact with The Gist’s subscribers.

“When we think about it, there aren’t a lot of ways to access women who are sports fans … and especially to do so in a place where she has that trust and engagement like we have,” deHoop said. “Now that our audience is at that really meaningful 100k mark, there’s there’s lots of different brands that are really interested in engaging with our Gisters.”

The Gist content is light on traditional stuff such as stats, game details and banter about trades and free agency. They deliver just as much women’s sports content as they do men’s. They even have guides on every sport, including rules of play and glossary of terms.

“The product is for anyone who might have felt underserved from the sports-media landscape in some capacity before,” deHoop said. “Anyone who really just wants The Gist of what’s going on the sports world, and so it really has transcended being like specifically for a female fan.”

Their goals remain high.

“100k today,” McLarty said. “Hopefully a million soon.”

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