Berry Tramel is not a man who makes rash decisions. But he had taken a risky leap. 

Last September, following more than three decades at The Oklahoman, the legendary sports reporter had quit his job to launch a sports journalism startup called Sellout Crowd alongside 16 other writers and editors. He’d signed a contract with the fledgling outlet and had already published his first three stories.

There was just one step left to go. Mike Koehler, the outlet’s CEO as well as Tramel’s longtime friend, told him the site’s investors wanted Tramel to have equity in the company. Tramel was hesitant — he said just wanted to write. But if the investors wanted it, who was he to say no. So he went and signed paperwork giving him a 2.5% stake in the company.

“I went over there,” Tramel told The Frontier, “and made the biggest mistake of my life.”

It was as much a celebration as it was a document signing, he said. People were passing out cigars and he was caught up in the excitement of the endeavor, the creation of a new outlet that could cover sports in Oklahoma better and deeper than ever before.

But Tramel said he later learned Sellout Crowd hadn’t raised the millions of dollars in cash to get the site off the ground that Koehler had claimed. What the startup had gotten instead was a $1.5 million loan from Toby Keith, Keith’s business partner Hunter Miller, and former University of Oklahoma Coach Bob Stoops that carried a 12% interest rate. And now, unaware, he was on the hook for it. 

“What we did was we started a startup with zero investment capital,” Tramel told The Frontier

That realization had put him in a tough spot. 

“I’ve often wondered what I would have done had I known that (the company was primarily funded by a loan,)” Tramel said. “But what was I supposed to do? I’d already signed a contract with these crooks and quit my job of 32 years. And now I’m working for a company that has no money except a $1.5-million line of credit.”

It wasn’t until four months later that he learned that he was liable for the loan as a part-owner of the company. By then, the house of cards Sellout Crowd was built on was already starting to collapse. Nine former Sellout Crowd staff members told The Frontier a story of dysfunction. Reporters were not getting paid on time, if at all. Stories and podcasts were not getting published as scheduled. Reporters were either not getting reimbursed for travel, or had simply stopped traveling altogether, sometimes opting to cover games by watching television at home.

“We were all flying by the seat of our pants,” said Eli Lederman, who covered the University of Oklahoma for Sellout Crowd. “I don’t think any of us knew how bad it was though.”

None of the site’s founders would agree to interviews with The Frontier.

Koehler said he “wasn’t planning on doing any interviews about Sellout,” and urged The Frontier to speak with Kris Murray, another of the site’s founders. Murray also declined an interview with The Frontier. Michael Carnuccio didn’t respond.  

The site abruptly laid off seven people in March and Koehler was out as CEO. By mid-May, Sellout Crowd was finished.

Tramel is still picking up the pieces. He worked at the site for eight months and said he received a full month’s salary only once, and even then it arrived late. Even his first paycheck was less than he was owed. But that all pales in comparison to what he risked without even knowing it.

“How much am I on the hook? I’m liable for all of it,” he told The Frontier. “I have 2.5% of the company and 100% of the debt.”

All nine of the former Sellout Crowd reporters who spoke with The Frontier said Koehler approached them with audacious dreams of six-figure paydays. Now they say they’re owed thousands of dollars. Many of them now share a group chat and call each other “The Sold Outs.”

Sellout Crowd was Koehler’s brainchild. A former newspaperman for the Muskogee Phoenix and The Oklahoman, he left journalism in 2009 and transitioned into marketing and public relations. Koehler had remained friends with Tramel and two of the site’s other founding journalists, fellow Oklahoman employees Jenni Carlson and Mike Sherman, who declined interview requests from The Frontier.

In 2020, Koehler called Tramel and Sherman and pitched them an ambitious idea, the creation of a sports website that would focus on covering college sports and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Tramel was skeptical, but this was during the coronavirus pandemic and sports were shut down. There was nothing else to do and he especially liked talking with Sherman, a close friend who’d previously been his editor at The Oklahoman for 13 years. But the idea seemed like such a longshot. Koehler told the duo that the site would need $3 million to launch and guarantee a three-year runway.

“That sounded like quite a bit of money,” Tramel said. “I talked to some people I knew, some wealthy people, and they thought it was quite a bit of money to raise. So that made me think it wasn’t going to be easy. But at the same time it wasn’t $30 million.”

The more he thought about it though, the more enticing it seemed. The opportunity to work again with Sherman, who had left The Oklahoman years ago, was alluring. Tramel told Koehler he wouldn’t leave The Oklahoman without Carlson, a close friend and longtime columnist, and Koehler agreed. Before long they were all hashing out a business plan.

“This was a chance to get the gang back together,” Tramel said. He’d never gotten comfortable working for corporate media after the Gaylord family sold The Oklahoman 2011, and while any startup venture is a risk, he figured so was staying in print journalism. The paper, like many, had faced several rounds of layoffs in recent years and had instituted furloughs. There was no timeline for coming out of the pandemic and no guarantee of what the paper would look like when it did. 

“We knew there was some level of risk,” Tramel said. “But in modern journalism there’s also a risk in staying.”

By 2020, Tramel and Koehler had known each other for 20 years and Tramel considered him a friend. Taken by Koehler’s knowledge of the internet, Tramel had actually hired Koehler at The Oklahoman as assistant sports editor in 2000.

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Koehler was a whiz at everything online, but Tramel quickly learned Koehler was not without faults. He didn’t have great attention to detail and often rubbed people the wrong way. Tramel recalled one man was fired after “threatening to kick Koehler’s ass.” When the rest of the staff found out about the transgression, Tramel said one woman replied “well they’re gonna have to get rid of all of us if that’s the case.”

But Tramel said he, Carlson and Sherman took a liking to Koehler and “for some reason” looked past his issues. Koehler left The Oklahoman in 2009 and started his own marketing company, Smirk Media, which still exists today.

Ultimately, the discussions with Koehler of launching a new outlet slowed, Tramel said. Fundraising was always going to be daunting and the pandemic had made it even more difficult. But in 2023, Koehler told Tramel he had big news. Not only did he have investors, he’d reeled in some big fish.

In an email sent July 25, 2023, Koehler told the staff he had “some great news.”

“Our investors have agreed to fund Sellout Crowd, with Toby Keith leading the way,” Koehler said. “That deal will be signed this week.”

Things started coming together quickly. The original business plan called for a small staff — Tramel, Carlson and what ended up being Lederman, Thunder writer Brett Dawson and later two fresh-out-college brothers Sam and Ben Hutchens who would cover OSU. But now Tramel learned they’d hired Todd Lisenbee and Sam Mayes too, guys with backgrounds in radio, as podcasters. They’d also hired Jon Hamm as a second Thunder writer and Guerin Emig, who had been a columnist at the Tulsa World.

“It gave me a little pause, but at the same time I thought, well this just means we’ve got more money than I thought,” Tramel said. He thought the staff size was a sign the site was on solid ground financially.

But it was a mirage.

“He wanted to live on fantasy island,” Tramel said of Koehler. “He wanted to have confetti fall on his head … he didn’t care about anything except launching.”

Sellout Crowd was a big dream, but a believable one in this sports-obsessed state. Koehler even teased a vision of taking the site national.

On Sept. 4, 2023, Carlson launched “the Jenni Carlson Show” on YouTube alongside Koehler with an episode titled “The secret origin of Sellout Crowd.” 

Carlson and Koehler teased a big future for the broadcast, promising “coaches and players, leaders and trendsetters, and movers and shakers.”

But for the first show, they “wanted to go big” with Koehler.

Carlson started by asking Koehler if he would prefer to go by “poobah, or puppetmaster” for his title. Koehler, perhaps ominously, replied “my title lately has been ‘the guy whose fault all of this is.’”

“Some people have praised me and some people have blamed me,” Koehler said in the podcast. “But at the end of the day, I did this thing and I’m glad it’s a thing.”

For many of the reporters who signed on, the allure of Sellout Crowd was freedom from strict print deadlines and the grueling nature of daily newspaper coverage. That industry is famously fraught, and Koehler told Carlson he hoped his new outlet could offer not just respite, but also a place where journalists weren’t “treated like crap.”

In a social media post last August announcing the site’s launch, Koehler was outspoken.

“I keep dancing back and forth between whether I’m tearing down the world of print journalism that raised me or saving it,” he wrote.

Sellout Crowd would be an ad-driven site with news stories. The focus would be podcasts, newsletters and short, viral video clips that would reach enough readers and viewers to pull in big advertising dollars. The goal was to revolutionize sports journalism and make a lot of money along the way — in addition to their salaries, which for many represented a hefty boost over what they were making before. Creators’ contracts reviewed by The Frontier called for revenue sharing. Former staffers said Koehler told them their cut could eventually reach more than $100,000 a year. 

Koehler told them he hoped the site would launch each person’s personal brand, leveraging platforms like YouTube and TikTok to drive revenue and eyeballs to the site, the former staffers said. 

Koehler said on the podcast with Carlson that “one day” he found himself at a golf course in Norman opposite Keith and a business deal quickly took shape.. 

“He decided to help us with this initial seed of investment and ongoing help as long as we need it,” Koehler said. “He’s a great business person, he’s not just a guy singing a song, he’s smart, so he decided to partner with us.”

In a podcast in August 2023 with former Sports Illustrated and Athletic writer Richard Deitsch, Carlson said she didn’t “know how funding works … but three years of finances is what we have sought and been provided.”

Tramel and other staff members told The Frontier they felt misled about the nature of the site’s funding. Many were operating under the belief there was $5 million in the bank, enough to guarantee three years of operations, Tramel said. He was surprised to learn the primary source of money was a $1.5-million loan.

Keith died of cancer in February. Stoops and Miller did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Much of Koehler’s pitch to the writers seemed outlandish. They were told their salaries would be higher, sometimes even much higher than what they were currently making. And there were even discussions in text messages shared with The Frontier where Koehler offered to pay three years of salary up front. 

“I know some of the promises Koehler made to us seem absurd,” said Hamm.  “I guess I kept coming back to the fact that Koehler has a 20-year relationship with some of these people. He’s not going to screw them over. The promises have to be grounded in some type of reality.”

Koehler referred to the site as a “leap of faith,” but his ambition was clear and it was something the creators bought into. And for a brief moment things seemed to be going well. After three months, Koehler boasted on Facebook that the site, through web traffic, social media engagement and video views, had garnered “15 years of attention online.”

“We’ve got big plans for new shows, more content and innovative community building in 2024. No media company has more momentum than Sellout Crowd,” Koehler wrote.

But the launch was not without hiccups. 

The writers signed letters of intent before they were given full contracts. During a July 2023 meeting, Murray pitched what would become the Sellout Crowd staff on the vision. Short, digestible videos the site would find advertisers for and monetize. 

“He basically gave us a speech of ‘you guys just be you and we’ll handle the money,’” Lisenbee said. “It made sense.”

Before the meeting ended, Carnuccio, who Koehler told staff in an email was helping “shepherd us through our investment funding,” stood up to discuss finances.

“I’ll never forget this because I wrote it down,” Lisenbee said. “He made a comment of ‘there’s been discussion of payscale and how and when you’ll get paid. But you have my word, you will get paid every dollar on those contracts.’” 

The contracts came just weeks before launch, but when they arrived, the creators were told not to sign them. New ones would be issued soon.

“When they finally came, it had a clause that said either side could terminate them after six months with 90 days notice,” Hamm said. 

That was a new wrinkle, given that the reporters said they’d been promised three years of employment.

“Some people were really upset,” Hamm said. “They just told us the investors want to see that. At that point, we kind of didn’t have a choice.”

Lisenbee was working at sports talk radio station The Franchise when Koehler reached out to him on social media in March 2023. Lisenbee termed the conversation a “soft pitch,” saying Koehler told him he was still working on the funding, but if it came through, he wanted him on the team.

Eventually, Lisenbee said he and Koehler began to discuss salary. Like Lederman, Lisenbee said he was feeling burned out in his current job, making him more willing to take a risk. But the proposal Koehler laid out for him made his head spin.

“He made it a point to say ‘I want to give you what you think you’re worth, shoot as high as you want,’” Lisenbee said. His contract, which he shared with The Frontier, showed he would be paid $225,000 over three years. “I gave him a number and he never countered. And he said all three years would be paid up front. I would think about it and be like, how is this sustainable? But at the same time, I couldn’t turn it down.”

By late summer, text messages between Lisenbee and Koehler show the discussion of up-front payments had been knocked down from three years to just one year. Lisenbee said Koehler told him it was because the investor money wasn’t coming in all at once, so it made more sense to do a payment each year as the money came in. Eventually the plan changed again. Instead of yearly payments, everyone would be paid on the 15th of each month.

When Sellout Crowd launched at the start of the 2023 college football season, it was focused on the state’s two flagship football programs, the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University, both of which started their seasons that month. And the Oklahoma City Thunder were about to embark in mid-October on what turned out to be a thrilling march into the playoffs. There was no time to spare.

Sellout Crowd was meant to provide high-quality sports journalism, and it succeeded on that front in many ways, the reporters said. But the outlet started falling apart almost immediately from the inside.

 As the writers got started, they often found their work stuck in a bottleneck. Stoops, who was producing video content for Sellout Crowd, would have his work appear almost instantly on the site. So would Tramel and Carlson. Everyone understood that — Stoops was the biggest name attached to the outlet by far, and he often had the best guests in his former players. Tramel and Carlson were the big hires. It made sense their content was the priority. 

But everyone else sometimes felt left in the dark. The creator contracts all included content minimums for the number of podcasts and newsletters produced each week. Before long, management asked them to slow down, creators said. There was just too much content being created and the editorial team, who everyone The Frontier spoke to praised, couldn’t keep up.

“We were told not to meet our content minimums early on,” Lisenbee said. “They told us ‘We can’t handle it.’ Honestly, A lot of times I felt like I wasn’t doing enough and I’d relay that to Koehler and (Sherman.) They would just tell me I was doing great, keep it up.” 

Emig, who was covering the University of Oklahoma as a columnist, was supposed to produce two newsletters a week after being hired. Instead, his newsletter didn’t launch until after Thanksgiving.

“When I asked what was taking so long, I was told it was an oversight,” Emig said. “My jaw hit the floor. By January, we were all submitting content and looking at each other like, ‘Hey I just wrote a 2,000-word piece and did my second podcast of the week. Is it ever going to post? What’s going on?’”

For many of the writers, Sellout Crowd was supposed to be a lifeboat in a difficult, shifting industry. But it was full of holes.

Lederman had spent two years covering college football at the Tulsa World after a nine-month stint in Arkansas and said he was already burned out by the newspaper grind. Lisenbee said he knew he didn’t have much time left in daily radio. Emig, who’d been laid off from the Tulsa World in December 2022, said he was debating whether sports journalism was even a viable career path anymore. Brett Dawson, too, had been through a layoff. Before joining Sellout Crowd, he was working in public relations for the Love’s gas station chain. Carlson said in a podcast she and Tramel often wrestled with earlier newspaper deadlines after media industry cutbacks that struggled to accommodate even an afternoon football game. 

Dawson got his start writing about the University of Kentucky for a small weekly magazine and later Yahoo Sports, and eventually covered the Thunder for The Oklahoman. After being laid off from covering the Los Angeles Lakers for The Athletic in 2020, he said he kept finishing second in interviews for other NBA writing gigs, and felt adrift. Dawson said Koehler approached him by praising his work and telling him that Sellout Crowd needed him.

“I had made it all the way to the Los Angeles Lakers beat, and it got taken away from me,” Dawson. “It had been such a journey for me at that point, and here comes Mike (Koehler) saying, it’s wrong what happened to you. I think you’re so good at what you do and I want you to do it again. It felt good.”

Hamm had gotten his start writing about sports by posting on internet newsgroups about the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement in the 1990s. Now Koehler was offering him a job writing about one of the league’s most exciting teams. It was a dream come true.

After three years in print journalism, Lederman was ready for a change. But he knew newspaper jobs were scarce, particularly ones covering a nationally relevant Division 1 program. Suddenly a lifeline appeared. Koehler reached out in March 2023 with a pitch he could barely believe.

He offered to double Lederman’s pay. Additionally, Koehler said the outlet would connect Lederman and other reporters with advertisers who would pump so much money into his newsletters and podcasts, the eventual payouts might exceed his actual salary.

“In retrospect I’m laughing about it,” Lederman said. He said Koehler offered him a deal where Sellout Crowd would take 75% of the advertising revenue for his reporting, leaving Lederman with a 25% cut. In return, Sellout Crowd would pay Lederman’s travel and lodging expenses, some of which he says he’s still owed by the company. 

“He’s saying in three years, your split could be $100,000,” Lederman said. “I’d get off the phone and say that sounds fucking crazy, but if it’s even 10% of that, I’ll be more than happy.” 

The advertising revenue never came in. The site was seeking as much as $35,000 for sponsorships of some of the creator’s shows and podcasts, but before long the asks were tempered. 

Dawson said at one point he suggested to Murray and an ad rep that a local coffee shop he frequented might make a good sponsor.

“They were like ‘What about a trade out, where you get free coffee for working there?’” Dawson said.

Hamm said the advertising meetings often made him feel uneasy. Koehler had pitched Sellout Crowd as a record label rather than a news outlet. The creators were the stars, Koehler told Hamm. It was Hamm’s job to create content, and it was the site’s job to promote it and find advertisers.

“He would talk to us like ‘We know where the advertising dollars are at.’ I remember him telling us that advertisers wanted to move away from television and radio, and they want to give it to us,” Hamm said. “Then shortly after launch, Koehler sends out a (form) asking us to give him leads. In my mind, a record label doesn’t sign Taylor Swift and then say ‘Hey do you know anyone at Coke we can reach out to?’ That’s not at all how it was supposed to work.”

Still, the early days were tense, but fun, Emig said. The staff was close and morale was high.

“We were getting contacted by other media members, athletic directors, coaches, you name it, saying ‘this is great what you’re doing, it’s amazing,’” Emig said. “I think we were all looking for something to pin our hopes to.

Meanwhile, travel quickly became an issue. The writers all knew that college football would dominate Sellout Crowd’s early months, a pivotal period where they would be attempting to establish the new brand as a serious source of sports news. To do that meant travel —  the University of Oklahoma played five games out of state that season, including the loss to Arizona at the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio, and Oklahoma State left the state seven times. Emig said the only trip he was repaid for was OU’s 20-6 win over the University of Cincinnati on Sept. 23, 2023, just three weeks after the site’s launch. He says he’s still owed more than $2,000 in unreimbursed travel expenses.

“I would reach out to Koehler, because we had this online form we’d have to fill out and attach receipts to,” Emig said. “I’d message him like ‘Am I doing this right? I’m not getting reimbursed.’ And he’d just say ‘We just have a backlog, it’s coming.’”

While a college football team might only travel outside of the state a handful of times each season, a professional basketball team, especially one with playoff aspirations, like the Oklahoma City Thunder might leave Oklahoma 50 times. 

Dawson said when Koehler approached him, he said they would be traveling to every Thunder away game. But Dawson told The Frontier his first trip, a late October jaunt to Chicago where the Thunder defeated the Bulls 124-104, was the only time he was ever reimbursed. Eventually he pulled the plug on travel himself, having paid for several trips on a personal credit card.

“They never told me to stop traveling, I just stopped,” Dawson said. He eventually began covering the team’s road games from home.

Eventually, the paychecks became unreliable as well. In December, Hamm said Koehler told him his paycheck would have to be delayed, that it was tied up in an accounting snafu — some investor money was in the bank, but it couldn’t be touched until the new year started.

“I was so naive, and I wanted to be a team player,” said Hamm, who maintained a regular day job in addition to writing for Sellout Crowd. “I felt like ‘Yeah, take care of everyone else and then get back to me, no worries.’ I believed it would be a brief delay, so I was willing to take a hit in the short term if it meant everyone else would get paid.”

But his December check never came.

In January, as worries among staffers mounted, Murray called a meeting. Three people in attendance said Carnuccio told the staff Sellout Crowd was at “an inflection point.”

Tramel, who carried a level of gravitas with the staff and was privy to more behind-the-scenes insight than the rest of them, interjected. 

“Guys, let’s cut to the chase,” he said. “We’re in deep trouble.”

Tramel had just learned the truth. Days before, Koehler had told him he believed Murray was trying to take Sellout Crowd away from him. Tramel, in a phone call with Murray later that day, sought to defend Koehler. 

“(Murray) said ‘Well did he tell you we’re in financial disaster? Did he tell you there’s a loan and your name is on it?’ I got scared fast.”

From that point on, Tramel said he had two full-time jobs, he had to write for Sellout Crowd and also find investment to help keep the site afloat. But it was a difficult task and by February, the coffers were almost empty.

When February’s check hit, everyone was surprised to find it was a half payment, but that wasn’t the end of the bad news. Less than three weeks later, seven people — Dawson, Hamm, Lisenbee, Lederman, Emig and brothers Sam and Ben Hutchens — were let go.

“We all got a message on Slack saying ‘Hey, we need to meet one-on-one tomorrow,’” Dawson recalled. The night before the meeting, the Thunder were scheduled to play the Phoenix Suns. Dawson said he asked Sherman, his editor, if he needed to cover it.

“He just said ‘You can if you want, but don’t feel obligated,’” Dawson recalled. “Suddenly I knew exactly what the meeting was going to be about.”

Murray, informed the writers they would be laid off immediately. There was an early termination clause in each writer’s contract stating they would be paid for 90 days if the contract was violated. But no one ever saw that money.

“I asked (Murray) flat out, ‘What about my 90 days? What about that money?’” said Lisenbee. “All he would say is ‘All your questions will be answered.’”

Lederman brought up the contracts, too.

“(Murray) said ‘Well, Koehler made a lot of promises,’” Lederman recalled. “I was like ‘Those weren’t promises, it was a contract.’”

Koehler was out, too. But while the writers were devastated to learn the outlet many had left jobs for was letting them go after only seven months, the site’s founder was pushing a different narrative.

“After an exhilarating and successful launch, I’m stepping back from the day-to-day operations of Sellout Crowd,” he announced, after more than half of the site’s initial reporting hires had been let go.

“Sellout succeeded in many ways beyond our expectations,” Koehler said, noting he now had “the benefit of choosing my next step.”

Tramel eventually announced on X that Sellout Crowd had shuttered, saying a “faulty financial structure from the start meant we had no chance at success.”

“The sad thing is, it probably could have worked,” Lederman told The Frontier. “I do think the actual idea, of improving sports coverage right as the Thunder are getting good again and OU is heading into a new conference, had some merit … but one lie turns into a thousand lies.”

As independent contractors rather than employees, those let go faced a daunting challenge. They were unable to file for unemployment and were denied attempts to receive unpaid wages. Lederman, who says he’s owed $30,000 in unpaid wages, a payout for the early termination of his contract and unpaid travel expenses, filed a case in small claims court. But the most money he can recoup there is $10,000. His case is ongoing.

Other reporters have kicked around the idea of suing, but they’re faced with potentially spending thousands of dollars for lawyers only to sue a defunct business with no assets. Tramel said if Miller and Stoops come after the $1.5 million loan, he faces bankruptcy. 

Several of the writers have landed in new spots. Lederman recently announced he would be covering college football for ESPN, and Tramel took a job as a sports columnist at the Tulsa World. Carlson has recently launched a Substack where readers can pay her directly for her coverage of local sports. Lisenbee has dipped his toe back into radio, occasionally filling in at The Franchise. Dawson took a job at Oklahoma State University in the journalism department while Emig told The Frontier he was likely leaving journalism.

Sellout Crowd still weighs on the minds of many who uprooted their lives for a chance to do the work they loved, Lisenbee said. The experience came at a personal cost.

“I’ve struggled with it,” Lisenbee said. “It hurts. I have bills that I have to pay off and I’m owed money I know I’ll never see. I guess at the end of the day I just want people, when they google Mike Koehler’s name, to read what he did to us, what happened to all of us, so the same thing doesn’t happen to them. I’m not out to ruin anyone’s life. But you can’t do to people what he did and there not be any consequences.”

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