The interior of the refurbished Pioneer Square office building has a bare, industrial look that reeks of unfinished business. It is apropos for the Internet startup company where Jim Heckman is staging his resurrection.
In a previous life, Heckman was a zealous, sometimes polarizing publisher who became engulfed in a 1992 scandal that shook the University of Washington football program his magazine was dedicated to covering. The aftershocks left him formally dissociated from the school and, soon, left for dead as a businessman.
But Heckman is back. He is founder of a sports Web network called Rivals.com, supported by industry giants and staffed by a veritable all-star cast of executives. The company, formerly known as RivalNet, is built to use its own forward momentum as lifeblood.
"I live Murphy's Law every day," Heckman says. "I had the worst of all possibilities - bad luck, bad timing, the wrong enemies in the wrong situations. I have an edge that will never allow me to get arrogant, overconfident or lazy. I never want to go back there again. I still operate my life in fear of what may happen."
Heckman, 33, wouldn't be where he is today, on the threshold of unimaginable success, if he hadn't been where he was before - at the bottom, busted and shamed, almost $1 million in debt, living in a friend's basement and constantly on the verge of losing a business that he launched on the few thousands he earned from the sale of his 1986 Volkswagen Jetta.
Against all counsel and logic, Heckman stubbornly refused the option of bankruptcy. He hustled and negotiated and eventually paid down the debt. In 1997, as he was about to leave the red and get back to economic nothingness, Heckman, out of desperation, came up with the notion that led to Rivals.com.
"Although it was tough on my ego to have fallen so far," Heckman says, "the whole Husky fiasco turned out to be a gift, a priceless education."
Heckman's brainchild was an upside-down model in which Web sites dedicated to specific sports teams would be weaved together in a technologically advanced network.
Rivals.com's business plan is as many now describe the company's CEO - shrewd, ambitious and undaunted. In his previous business life, Heckman was viewed by some as very much the flip side of those qualities - self-serving, arrogant and slimy. Depending on where one comes down on the issue of Jim Heckman, Rivals.com either is a logical outgrowth or a necessary revision of his turbulent 20s.
The network that launched in August is comprised of more than 400 sites, covering every NFL team and nearly every NCAA Division I school. An NBA network is scheduled to launch next month. Each site features statistics, message boards for fan interaction, chats and, increasingly, video. The college sites also are brimming with recruiting information, an emphasis of Heckman's Sports Washington magazine.
"Recruiting is our secret sauce," says Bill Sornsin, the company's chief technology officer. Punctuating that emphasis, Rivals.com recently became the sponsor of the Hula Bowl college football all-star game.
The network's recipe drips with irony, considering the inside track Heckman once took to covering the Husky football program led to both his rise and fall as a publisher.
To get a jump on recruiting stories for Sports Washington, Heckman went to the recruits. He wrote stories on star high-school athletes, often befriending them. Many of those who went to Washington then became sources of information on the team.
One of Heckman's early subjects was the late Demetrius DuBose, the former O'Dea High School star who was shot to death in July by police in San Diego. The two met in 1988 regarding a story for Sports Washington and hit it off. In the summer of 1990, Heckman hired DuBose to help produce and distribute programs for the Goodwill Games.
The relationship didn't take a controversial twist until allegations of recruiting misconduct began to surface against Washington. In January 1993, the Los Angeles Times reported that Heckman twice advised DuBose that Washington was a better place to play if he intended to settle in Seattle.
Heckman doesn't deny making the comments, but says they were in response to questions from DuBose. According to Heckman, DuBose contemplated transferring from Notre Dame in 1990. Heckman says he approached then-UW Coach Don James, who said he couldn't discuss it unless DuBose obtained a release from Notre Dame. James confirmed the claim in a written statement to the Pac-10, dated Aug. 6, 1993.
In interviews with Seattle media in 1993, DuBose said Heckman's remarks were made in casual conversations. DuBose also said in a written statement to Pac-10 investigators, "(allegations that) Jim Heckman tried to recruit me, or ask me to transfer to the UW are untrue."
Heckman subsequently was accused of trying to get recruits - Lake Dawson, the Federal Way star who attended Notre Dame, and Singor Mobley of Curtis High in Tacoma, who attended Washington State - to change their commitments and go to Washington. Heckman also was accused of employing Husky receiver Mario Bailey and having Bailey's salary paid by booster Herb Mead.
"I'm still astonished by the charges," Heckman says. "I never made any offers of cash nor was I involved in any related activity. I literally got in trouble for giving my opinion . . . which every Husky fan in the state does on a daily basis. To this day, I don't believe this was a rule violation in any way."
But his connection to the program wasn't solely as a Husky magazine publisher. In 1990, he married Don James' daughter, Jeni, and donated $150 to the Tyee Club in 1992, he says, as a requisite for purchasing season tickets. Though Heckman acknowledges his coverage of the Husky program had the edge of boosterism, he denies he was a booster of the program in any sense.
"Had I not been married to Jeni, my name would have never been mentioned," Heckman says. "Every headline referred to me as `Don James' son-in-law.' I wasn't Jim Heckman any more."
Amid the highly charged atmosphere, his name was closer to mud. In an Aug. 16, 1993, letter to then-UW President William Gerberding, Pac-10 Commissioner Tom Hansen said the conference found compelling evidence of Heckman's involvement in violations relating to DuBose and Mobley. The Pac-10 recommended that the university send warning letters to Heckman and UW boosters Herb Mead, Clint Mead, James Kenyon and Roy Moore.
"Further," Hansen wrote, "the University shall notify Heckman that while he is entitled to perform legitimate duties as a journalist, he is expected to refrain from performing recruiting activities on behalf of the University."
In a response to the Pac-10 Council dated three days later, Gerberding banned Heckman, Kenyon, Moore and Clint Mead from any contact or participation with the athletic program until 1996.
The consequences were immediate. Heckman lost a contract with NFL Properties. Advertising revenue at Sports Washington dropped from about $20,000 per issue to just $1,000. Heckman was awash in debt and divorced from Jeni James.
Heckman's decision to fight the tide of red ink was consistent with a high-school and college career fraught with ambition and achievement. At Port Angeles, he was a school-record-holding swimmer, debate team captain, and was elected State of Washington Youth Governor. At Washington, he was a Greek system activist, elected fraternity council president and outstanding fraternity male.
Electing to "live in poverty," Heckman contemplated his future. When the idea for Rivals.com materialized, he had difficulty securing backing because of his sullied reputation, Heckman and his associates say. His break came from an unexpected source - Neal Dempsey, a prominent UW alum, chairman of the business school's board, and personal friend of UW Athletic Director Barbara Hedges.
A man, in other words, "who was in perfect position to turn me down," Heckman says.
But Dempsey didn't. During a meeting in Berkeley, Calif., Dempsey, a founding partner of Bay Partners venture fund, practically re-wrote Heckman's business plan on the back of a coffee shop menu. Later, he went even further, writing the first check for $50,000 to back Heckman's new business.
"I thought Jim was a victim," Dempsey says. "They had to pin the blame on someone. He was arrogant, not liked by administration at the school and had a reputation for never delivering on what he promised - kind of the things you expect of a mindless 20-year-old."
Dempsey's support kick-started Heckman's fund-raising efforts. David Johnston, managing general partner of The Phoenix Partners, a $100 million venture fund based in Seattle, wrote the second check. Johnston mentioned the fledgling company to Ann Winblad, co-founding partner of Hummer Winblad Venture Partners and considered one of the industry's elite power brokers.
Winblad not only kicked in for $4 million on behalf of her venture fund, she agreed to sit on the Rivals.com board, imbuing the company with more credibility than any other single event in its young history. The dominoes almost immediately began to fall into place. Heckman scooped up Hummer Winblad, Intel and The Phoenix Partners in his second round of financing, then partnered with Fox Sports, bringing another $25 million in capital, plus priceless access to cablecast source material.
At least as important as the capital infusion was the quality of top-level executives Heckman was able to attract. Mike Slade, the former CEO of Starwave, joined the Rivals.com board. Then came what others in the company refer to as "the rock stars" - Sornsin, who helped develop MSN.com, the third-most visited site on the World Wide Web; Jeff Rice, who left his own company, Bay Mortgage, to become chief financial officer; David Cooper, who left ESPN.com as its No. 1 revenue producer; and John Uppendahl, who developed the music group Boyz II Men, left Humongous Entertainment.
Heckman says he went about four months - about 40 hires - without being turned down. Though he credits Winblad's backing with creating the momentum, many say Heckman was the catalyst.
They are the converts, often referring to Heckman in almost reverential tones. Theirs is an image in stark contrast with, say, the University of Washington campus, where resentment still runs high and the word "snake" is a possible addition to any sentence that includes Heckman's name.
"I had no problem taking a back seat to what he was going to drive," Rice says. "This obviously is Jim Heckman's vision, and we're all here to make sure Jim Heckman gets where he wants to go."
That would be forward, and as quickly as possible. The company culture at Rivals.com already has adopted Heckman's workaholic tendencies. Employees typically arrive near dawn and leave long after sundown.
The result, Heckman hopes, is "a sports paradise for fans, customized to their specific sports fetishes."
Because of Rivals.com's alliance with Fox Sports, visitors soon will be able to view netcasts of games. While watching the games, they'll also be able to call up statistics in real time, exchange messages with other fans about the action, read instant analysis and buy a T-shirt or cap.
Those kind of features could answer industry skeptics who have called the network too insider-oriented and too focused on recruiting. Heckman's further answer is his company's voracious appetite for locking up every attractive site available. Those include other sports and specialty sites such as Heisman.com, which conducts a weekly poll of Heisman Trophy voters. The goal is to have 1,000 Web sites by the start of the next millennium.
His company is in such a hurry partly because the high-tech industry moves more quickly than any in history. Internet startups were funded to the tune of $10 billion last year. Startup funding totaled $10 billion last quarter alone.
"The Internet is like the Boston Marathon," says Winblad, named by BusinessWeek as one of Silicon Valley's top 25 power brokers. "No one knows the names of the thousands who start the race. No one knows the runners-up. Jim has gotten himself away from the pack right now."
Heckman seems to be running away as much as he is racing to somewhere. Back in the pack is humiliation and the prospect of failure. Ahead are the big guys, ESPN.com and Sportsline.
"The media is changing dramatically," Heckman says. "The power is shifting to individual people. They're going to decide what they want to know, when they want to know it, and where they're going to go for the information. The power game is shifting from the New York Times and Turner to the living room."
If Heckman has his way, he'll end up somewhere few would have expected him to be - right there in the living room, waiting for everyone else to catch up.