Josh Gates isn’t afraid to climb a mountain.
Lounging on a sofa in the front room of Musgrove Country Club, the CEO of Saturday Down South looks like he stepped off the cover of GQ in a crisp, cornflower blue button-down shirt, jeans, tan loafers, and sans socks. His freshly barbered hair sports a razor-thin side part capable of slicing through a ribeye. He smiles often, pearly whites gleaming amid a thick beard.
“I just got back from climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro,” Josh shrugs, as if the Tanzania peak was just over the county line. “That’s the beard. I don’t normally look like this.”
The oldest of four brothers and one sister, Josh primarily grew up in the mill town of Valley, Alabama, just outside Auburn. “I’m a preacher’s son, so we moved around quite a bit,” he says.
His family relocated to Jasper in the summer of 1999 when Josh’s dad accepted the minister’s position at Mt. Vernon Baptist Church. Having recently signed with the Army to be a Ranger, he finished his senior year at Curry High and departed for training.
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Josh and his band of brothers were deployed to the Middle East in support of the Global War on Terror, at the time when that area was a volatile powder keg. Ask him about that period and the answer is a nervous smile. “I’m not your guy to tell war stories. That’s not really my style,” he laughs.
He will admit the experience changed his life. “The structure, responsibility, and accountability in the military was very impactful for me, plus I got to jump out of airplanes and train with some pretty impressive guys,” he says. “The context of Josh Gates before the military was somebody who grew up in Small Town America in the South and played sports. There’s changes you have to go through psychologically when you’re in an environment where you or people around you could die. It increases your appreciation for what we have here. It’s one thing to be patriotic, but when you’ve actually fought for it, there’s a heightened sense of value of what we have and what’s important.”
Josh became involved with Orlando-based Saturday Down South in 2014. Back then, the SEC football-focused online publisher wasn’t a business. “It began in 2010 as a sports blog, just a hobby for one friend and three other guys,” he says. “My best friend, one of the founders, worked out a way to grow the audience and monetize that traffic. We brought in some capital to get things going, and it worked.”
In the wake of the company’s rapid growth, Josh, who became CEO and Chairman of the Board in 2015, remained optimistic, yet cautious. “When we started as a business in 2014, we immediately went from a few thousand followers to millions,” he says. “By football season of 2015, we were exceeding 35 million page views in a month, which puts you in that upper crust of sites. That’s great, but I was looking at, how do we maintain that? I’m an efficiency guy, so I wanted to look at, is this a sustainable business, and what’s our reputation? How efficient is our business model? Do we have a clear vision? I wanted to make sure we were producing responsible and professional content, and that our house was in order as far as how we were operating, how we were treating our employees.”
While some online businesses obsessively track page views, Josh emphasizes his focus is on engagement. “We have an audience that we love and appreciate, and we want to respect that,” he says. “We’re trying to appeal to your average SEC football fan and give them the content they would enjoy, and the kind of special interest pieces that they deserve. We’re small enough and kind of a niche-focused brand so we’re able to focus on these special interest topics and going a little bit deeper into the weeds with the stories and the people that are the fan base in the SEC. It truly is a unique fan base. I’m just very appreciative of the opportunity to be able to make a living talking about that.”
Avid followers of Saturday Down South’s Facebook page can attest that he isn’t just paying lip service. “I try and stay connected, and go through the comments and respond personally,” Josh says. “Also, we do tailgating events periodically through the season, and we have a retail arm that sells products like T-shirts and hats.”
While visiting Chamonix on a European backpacking trip during college, when he and his wife Talia were dating, Josh discovered a love for mountaineering and climbing. “It’s this little ski mountaineering village on the France and Switzerland border,” he explains. “It’s one of my favorite places in the world.”
This June, Josh accomplished Stage One of his goal to climb the seven summits, an eight day ascent up Mt. Kilimanjaro. “It was a blast,” he says, almost gushing. “It’s 19,000 feet, the tallest freestanding mountain in the world. I went with nine other people and we took soccer cleats and soccer balls to some orphanages there. It added some substance to the trip to be able to do something for the local population.”
With Kilimanjaro under his belt, Josh has his sights set on a new conquest next February. “My next plan is to climb Aconcagua, which is in Argentina,” he says. “It’s just under 23,000 feet, the tallest in the Western and Southern hemisphere, and will take 22 days to climb.”
Whether he’s discussing the SEC or scaling Kilimanjaro, it’s impossible to miss the ardor in his voice. If enthusiasm is the fuel of success, Josh has a full tank of nitro. “If I’m gonna be involved with something, I kind of have to embrace it and be all in to really get anything out of it. It’s something I can really be proud to hang my hat on and be associated with. To be able to have a career that involves SEC football, which is a passion of mine, and that’s what I get to immerse myself in every day, it’s a blessing.”
What’s ahead for Saturday Down South? “We’re looking at getting into podcasting and things like that,” Josh says. “Again, my focus is not page views, it’s on finding ways to further engage with the audience that we have. That’s the direction that I want to go.”
That’s Josh Gates. Army Ranger. CEO.
King of the Mountain. 78
Originally published in 78 Magazine in Aug/Sept 2017
Images by Blakeney Cox