Sunday, January 27, 2008

Raising the Level of Discussion

I don't have much of a stake in this whole new sports media landscape. I don't even know how to find out how many page views I've had. I assure you it's not very many. I haven't a told a single person I know that I took up writing a blog - until today. 

I've been living in New York City almost two years now. I'm not sure if I just got lucky, but immediately, I took interest in two web sites, The Big Lead and Deadspin. Today, I think most would describe them as the two most relevant sports media sites out there that aren't owned by a massive media conglomerate (Nick Denton's Gawker not yet qualifying). I've got a very modest writing background – it’s not my profession – but I felt compelled to offer my services to the editors of both sites. I wanted to be involved. I got polite responses from both: an offer to write a San Diego Padres season preview from Deadspin' s Will Leitch (I didn't take him up on it), and a short time later, I guestblogged for TBL. Guestblogging was an enjoyable experience, and offered me an opportunity to revisit one of my most favorite subjects: what would happen if the NFL and NBA squared off in a football game (the NBA would win, naturally). I read both sites often; I still comment occasionally on The Big Lead.

All this introduction is a way of saying: I'm disappointed. This week - the week that Leitch's book was released and TBL gets a mention in the first paragraph in the lead story on by one of the best writers currently writing about sports - the most popular subjects on the respective sites are Dana Jacobson's poor decision-making at a silly ESPN function, and whether or not a particular Univ. of Florida co-ed is dating Heisman winner Tim Tebow.

I got hooked on Deadspin and TBL because I was pretty much spent on ESPN's perspective of sports. They just didn't seem relevant anymore. My mornings are now spent with a bowl of cereal in front of my computer, not my television. ESPN isn't presenting stories that my friends and I talk about. The topics that interest us most are usually ignored or covered poorly. Stories brought about on TBL or Deadspin closely resemble the conversations I've always had with my friends. In high school, it was Jim Rome's "takes" being broadcasted locally on San Diego's now-defunct XTRA Sports 690 (we're talking 1994, people). In college we emailed Bill Simmons’ writing around when it first started showing up on - when he was "Special to Page 2", and not an over-worked variety entertainer stumping for Disney. That stuff resonated.

Given the response that compromising photos of athletes and journalists alike have created on Deadspin, I'm now positive that I'm not the only person out there who finds a picture of an obviously sloshed Eli Manning funny. I can't help it. Somehow it resonates, also. Maybe this reaction is my generation of sports fans' (I'm 27) collectively asking themselves "What the heck are we doing with all this information?" It seems an appropriate response to being so invested in something you (seemingly) cannot possibly change. You can only spend so much time rehashing Dusty Baker's destruction of the Cubs pitching staff because of his inability to grasp the finer points of PAP before wondering what the heck Kyle Orton does with his free time. 

A decent portion of the content on ESPN is a joke; it's the product of the 24/7 news cycle. Both print (on-line) and television. I don't think anybody disputes that. Probably not even higher-ups at ESPN would fight that point very vigorously. To witness five minutes of banter between Skip Bayless and the unfortunate soul seated across from him is to know that ESPN is not in the business of presenting a high-level discussion. And Bayless is a bright guy. He knows his role.

Observing the de-construction of these people: Bayless,
Woody Paige, and Sean Salisbury, brings with it a certain amount of satisfaction. I can't say I wasn't pleased to find that somebody was covering the worst behavior of ESPN's most poignant personalities. Accountability, at last! Though after a few years of observation, it seems that this coverage just feeds the machine. ESPN's current ombudsman Le Anne Schreiber - she took the reins from the decidedly less tenacious George Solomon - has turned into one of the only must-reads at Strangely, for me, reading about office politics and the journalistic misses of a sports network have proven more interesting than reading about the sports themselves. And I don't think I'm alone. 

That's not to say I don't enjoy sports. Through HGH, NCAA recruiting violations, Bud Selig, the BCS Championship, and everything else, I find myself caring about the outcomes and storylines. And I find myself wishing that TBL ran more interviews with media types. Got more "journalisty" more often. And that Leitch would lend his much-needed perspective on the absurdity of the NCAA and the on-going steroids controversy more often. The first sports website I check every morning is still The Big Lead and I don't see that changing any time soon. Nobody gives me a better rundown more quickly. But I think it’s worth remembering that chasing eyeballs is what got ESPN to where it is today. Listen to this interview with Leitch,
aired Saturday on NPR. Towards the 3:30 mark Leitch is asked to explain a glossary entry about Tony Dungy in his latest book. The interviewer found it to be in poor taste. Leitch backpedals a little saying the bit about Dungy "may be a bad example" and that it was a "cheap joke". The interviewer then goes on to suggest that Leitch is perpetuating the same stereotypes he is presently roasting advertisers for in the text of "God Save the Sports Fan". 

The pressures one faces when trying to sell something (a book perhaps; or advertising, whether it be on a television channel, or a popular sports blog) to an expecting audience are nearly universal... and we are the audience. The same people that used to watch the 11 o'clock SportsCenter religiously and found Jim Rome's Fax of the Day to be the cleverest of commentary. And don't get me started on the Ewing Theory. 

I'm going to keep hope alive that Will Leitch is right. That we (sports fans) are not all as dumb as Anheuser-Busch thinks we are. But, if we're not, why are we so captivated by Jacobson swilling vodka?

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Bonds, etc.

So the overwhelming feeling I had after staying up to watch Bonds' homer last night was... this is so much cooler than it's been made out to be. I'm usually pretty good at judging things for myself. But I've just been so bummed about this Barry Bonds thing. I've felt for a while the public/media has been sleeping on the steroids issue. Somehow the attention has been focused on one man (or a few, if you count Sosa, Palmeiro, McGwire, Canseco, etc.), when there are literally dozens of fascinating directions we could be going. Like, for instance, how on earth Bud Selig can claim to be surprised about this development. And there weren't many people trying to present another side of the story - at least not those with the prime real-estate in sports broadcasting.

I felt robbed. And more than anything, I don't want to get robbed again. We've got more choice about the content we view than ever before. I have a blog. But I don't like the blog medium. I want my content to be neatly packaged, and I don't want to have go find out it every night. So how do we get that?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Still a Classic

I'm advocating truth in sportswriting. Less opinion. That's why I started a blog. To impart less opinion. Okay. Maybe not. But with all this data out there - and yes, there are different ways to interpret the same data - it bugs me when the facts aren't presented fairly.

No, the MLB All-Star game isn't quite what it was in 1958 when it was one of the few televised sporting events. When there weren't 200 games available on television or the internet every week. But this is the most relevant "exhibition" game this country still knows. I don't even have a problem with the winner hosting the World Series. Yeah, it's a little arbitrary. But alternating years isn't? Just about everybody would agree that the American League has been the stronger league the last few years, and they've also had the honor of hosting the Series. I'm not Selig's biggest fan, but his response to the "tie game" was an appropriate one. This game does and should mean something.

The ratings aren't the same as they were 40 years ago. Or 20 years ago. But as anybody in television will tell you - ratings are fractured. Network executives are clamoring for programming that can hold an audience. And while the price of televising big league baseball is through the roof, the All-Star game is still the summer's best bet.

Truth, served.

Friday, June 29, 2007

It's official, a new title already

So this draft is less than a week old, and this is just the second completed post, and I've got a new title. It's going to be Applied Sports. I love baseball. It's my favorite sport to watch and follow. But I find myself often wanting to write about things other than baseball. And lately, I'm finding myself being most interested in the things going on behind the scenes in sports. The new television contracts. Bill Simmons, maybe you've heard of him, wrote last week that the NBA has become more interesting to follow - the subplots, the salary cap, the draft, Kobe - than it has to watch. I think this is a totally valid point, but one which Simmons laments. I, on the other hand, think it's a necessary condition for a league/sport gaining a foothold in the greater spectrum of sports.

There's nothing wrong with an MLS game. I mean, it's soccer. They kick the ball back and forth, expend absurd amounts of energy, the score winds up 2-1 (a real barn-burner), and all 9,500 fans at the venue, and all 40,000 watching on TV leave happy. They have games in the MLS just like they do in baseball and football. It's just that nobody cares what happens in a game. One solitary game is just a way to pass 3 hours. It's good fun, especially if you're there. But what will keep you coming back - assuming you're above the age of 15 and have a choice in the matter - is whether or not you buy into the league as a whole.

What I think is happening in sports is - and the latest TV contract the David Stern just inked is evidence - the number of sports fans isn't really growing in this country. We've tapped out. If anything, it's shrinking, as the number of kids who grew up thinking Tony Hawk or Shaun White are just as cool as Derek Jeter and Peyton Manning is quite large. And advertisers know this as well. The existing leagues are going to spend an increasing amount of their time catering to those who already are passionate about their sport. I guess that's what made MLB's decision on Extra Innings earlier this year so puzzling. They came around after cable met their price. But I think the point still stands. For probably the first time in the history of sports as big business (I'm not sure how long this history extends, though I think it's the 1960s, when football and baseball landed on TV), these guys are in a fight for market share among advertisers.

So how big is the market for sports in America? I think that's what I'm going to spend my time thinking about in here. With some baseball mixed in.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A Work in Progress....

I've never had a blog before. I didn't think I would, and I'm not sure where I'm going with this. I'm not even sure I like the format. But my hope is that after spending about eight years writing on baseball for a relatively small audience, that maybe I could relate some useful things to a larger audience (fingers crossed).

I love baseball. I have been in the business - the big leagues, the minors, and the indy leagues. And I've been in the stands, a lot. I think it's over 700 games now.

I still love the game. But I don't love the League right now. And while I've pretty much kept my interest at my usual, absurdly high level, I'm having second thoughts. Is it worth it? So maybe this is will be kind of a therapeutic experience. I want better things for the sport at its highest level, and I'm sure a lot of fans do as well. So I guess I'm going to give it a shot.

Bud Selig's direction has been a joke. I'm embarrassed for the lack of critical analysis in the media, and public opinion, of numerous failures in leadership - not to mention the number of challenges still left to face. This isn't going to be a daily barrage. I'm just not going to ignore the obvious. So when it's relevant, I'm going to discuss it. Attendance records are broken nearly every year, television ratings are healthy, especially at the local levels, the national tv contracts have continued to grow at exponential rates, and BAM is one of the biggest success stories in the country. But it's not all working.

I'm hoping this space can be a place to talk about the good and the bad of the game. I've got more of a skeptic's perspective, always have, but there's still a lot to discuss. I'm hoping I can get to some of the good stuff.