Sarah Phillips is an Oregon-based young woman in her early twenties who, until yesterday, wrote a column for ESPN’s The Playbook (formerly Page 2). She got her start as a commenter on the message boards of Covers.com, a sports gambling website. After developing a bit of a following on the boards, Covers reached out to her to write a column for them (in which Sarah initially used fake photos to hide her real identity). ESPN saw her work there and offered her a column with The Worldwide Leader. This entire transformation (commenter on a gambling website to columnist on ESPN.com) happened in the last 13 months.
According to reports from Deadspin, and later from Awful Announcing and The Nilsen Report, she (along with two male accomplices) allegedly stole and extorted both money and popular social media accounts from would-be business partners. It seems she did this in hopes of helping her launch a new website (Sports Comedy Network) to the widest possible audience without having to pay for the privilege.
The Major Players:
ESPN Writer. Would-be founder of SportsComedyNetwork.com (previously FauxESPN.com).
(Navin pictured above)
Nilesh: Would-be co-founder of SportsComedyNetwork.com. Close friend to Sarah.
Navin: Helped Nilesh and Sarah. No relation to Nilesh.
Covers.com reader. Former online gambling friend of Sarah’s.
College student and proprietor of the popular NBA Memes page on Facebook.
Founder of the Nilsen Report, a Canadian sports and entertainment site.
Kyle and Xavier are the founders of a series of parody Twitter accounts, including condescending Willy Wonka (@OhWonka).
A representative of EA Sports Consultants’ handicapping service.
Sarah became Internet friends with Matt, one of her readers at Covers, as the two bonded over their love of Gambling. Eventually she proposed that he join a new site she was launching (SarahPHI.com) and make a lot of money in the process. She asked for help with some money to secure ad space for the site and Matt sent $2,100 to a PayPal account in the name of Nilesh Prasad, a friend of Sarah’s.
Later Sarah began sending Matt invoices for her gambling losses that she claimed to suffer thanks to to Matt’s opinions on games. He was hesitant to pay and she threatened to send the LAPD after him to get the money.
Matt sensed Sarah was a con artist, but then she was hired at ESPN. He doubted his instincts and sent her more money. He eventually stopped responding to her and Sarah deleted the Gmail account she used to contact him. None of the money was ever used for advertising on SarahPHI.com.
A guy whom Deadspin calls “Ben” is the creator and curator of a very popular Facebook page called NBA Memes. The page has 300,000+ likes and features NBA-themed image macros. One day Ben was contacted about working with Sarah on her new venture, FauxESPN (later renamed “Sports Comedy Network”).
Ben would write for the site and make a significant amount of money. Sarah told Ben to contact the site’s main investor and editor, a man named Nick. When Ben talked to Nick he was told that Nick’s full name is Nilesh Prasad.
Prasad told Ben that he was the managing director of ESPN.com and that ESPN was planning on buying Sports Comedy Network once it launched. Prasad does not work for ESPN.
Ben was excited about his new job, but Prasad told him that there was a problem. NBA Memes was full of “illegal photos.” (Most of the photos that were used in the image macros were from photo services like Getty or Reuters.) But Prasad had an idea that could help Ben avoid trouble. He claimed that Getty has the ability to track their photos to an IP address, and that if Ben added Sarah and one of Nilesh’s ESPN colleagues named Navin Prasad as administrators to the NBA Memes page, Getty would track the IP to the Bristol, Connecticut headquarters of ESPN.
Ben agreed and was soon thereafter was deleted as an administrator from NBA Memes. Nilesh claimed this was the only way to make sure his IP address didn’t show up for Getty. When Ben began having second thoughts, Navin threatened to delete the entire page.
Once under Prasad and Phillips’ control NBA Memes began pushing users to another Facebook page for the newly launched “Sports Comedy Network.”
Aaron Nilsen claims that sometime last August Sarah tweeted about wanting to find a way to gain more Twitter followers. At the time Aaron’s 2,000 followers dwarfed Sarah’s and so Aaron thought he could help. She wrote him and said that if he could get her to 2,000 followers she’d pay him $500. Seeing as he already had 2,000 followers he decided to sell her his account for the $500. She agreed, but never paid.
Fast forward to after she got hired by ESPN. Now Aaron’s old account had 50,000 followers and he still hadn’t gotten paid, so he sent her an email saying that if she didn’t pay, he would go through Twitter and reclaim his account (netting him 50,000 followers in the process). Sarah freaked out and threatened legal action.
Then someone who claimed not to be Sarah began messaging Aaron.
Aaron never got his account back, though he insinuates at the end of his blog post that he may try now that she’s been let go from ESPN.
Sarah also set her sights on high-profile Twitter parody accounts. She reached out to Kyle Cameron and Xavier about one of their accounts @OhWonka, a condescending version of the classic Gene Wilder character. Kyle claimed that they were offered equity in a “fake company” (presumably Sports Comedy Network) in exchange for the Wonka account and its 800k followers. According to Awful Announcing, on the 29th of April @OhWonka began tweeting promotion for both Sarah’s personal account and Sports Comedy Network content. The tweets were deleted, but were preserved @AdFreeWonka) that retweets @OhWonka without the sponsored content.
This association came to light when a Deadspin reader named Chris noticed that Sarah and @OhWonka tweeted the same thing at the same time.
When Chris called her out on the association, she denied it.
But a direct message from Oh Wonka to yet another parody account @NotBillWalton (pictured at the top of this section) shows that’s not true.
Once the Deadspin piece ran, original @OhWonka owners Kyle and Xavier realized they were being scammed and regained access to their account.
A Lesser Con:
EA Sports Consultants (no affiliation to the more famous EA Sports Video Games) is a handicapping service that wanted to be in business with Sarah Phillips as soon as her audience started growing at Covers. Apparently they contacted her about an advertising agreement that would put their banner on all of the videos posted to SarahPHI.com. They paid $1,500 for a three-month agreement but the site never launched. A beta version of the site did run their banners but that was not part of their agreement. After a period of time they demanded back half of their money and Sarah sent it.
• Though we know Sarah Phillips is a real person, how involved in this was she?
• Is the real Sarah Phillips responsible for the Twitter presence and column that bear her name?
• Will there be legal fallout from all of this, and if so to what extent?
• Will Aaron Nilsen get his money or his Twitter account back?
• Who really is Nilesh Prasad and how much of the culpability is his?
• Was this all secretly a sequel to Catfish?