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May 23, 2011, noon

Both the short and long of it: How sportswriting is taking over the web through innovation and adaptation

Readers paying attention to sportswriting for the past few months have had ample room for excitement. Not only have we been treated to great takes on the Super Bowl, March Madness, new seasons for baseball and tennis, the specter of an NFL lockout, NBA and NHL playoffs, and an upcoming Barcelona-Manchester United UEFA soccer final at Wembley Stadium — we’ve also seen the launch of several important publishing experiments on the web deliberately breaking out of sports’ traditional press box.

If you’re catching up, here’s your cheat-sheet (organized by chronology):

  • In January, ESPN.com/Associated Content alumnus Dan Shanoff started Quickish, a “real-time(-ish)” aggregator of sports-related tweets, links, and commentary. It’s designed to give readers a quick peek at the day’s biggest news and sharpest observations, powered by a combination of reader tips and Shanoff’s own curation: “Come back when big news happens, drop by in the morning or at the end of the day to find out what you might have missed or just visit the site when you have a free 60 seconds to catch up. It’s that easy.” Shanoff plans to expand the site’s reach beyond sports later this year: “Mother’s Day” and “Bin Laden Dead” are already trending topics on the site.

  • In April, recently-departed Engadget editor Joshua Topolsky announced that he and fellow tech-writing ex-pats Nilay Patel, Paul Miller, Joanna Stern, Ross Miller, and Chris Ziegler were creating a new technology vertical for rising sports blog empire SB Nation. It’s SB Nation’s first move beyond sports, but for Topolsky, what mattered most was the editorial model and developing technology: “SB Nation is actively evolving its tools and processes to meet the growing and changing needs of its vast editorial teams and their audience communities. They’re building for the web as it is now. From the perspective of a journalist who also happens to be a huge nerd, that’s a match made in heaven. SBN isn’t just another media company pushing news out — it’s a testbed and lab for some of the newest and most interesting publishing tools I’ve ever seen.”

    The yet-untitled site is slated to launch this fall out of new office space in New York’s Union Square; meanwhile, the core team has a temporary home writing about gadget and technology news at This Is My Next.

  • Around the same time, Longform.org launched a sister site, SportsFeat, spotlighting well-crafted longform sports and sports-related writing. Most of the stories are current, but others reach into the archives even as they relate to the day’s news. For the Kentucky Derby, the site featured Hunter S. Thompson’s famous “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved”; when basketball coach Phil Jackson announced his retirement, they linked to Jack McCallum’s 1991 profile of Jackson for Sports Illustrated.

    The typical SportsFeat blog post features a link and story excerpt, with minimal commentary. Recently, Bethlehem Shoals (founder of the sadly shuttered FreeDarko.com) contributed a kind of review-essay, under the column title “Three Seconds,” linking and commenting on three classic stories from sportswriters around the web. Besides Shoals and Longform’s Max Linsky, other curators on the site include Wired.com’s Erik Malinowski, PBS Frontline’s Gretchen Gavett, and Alan Siegel, who’s written popular sports/pop culture stories for Deadspin.com and The Atlantic.

  • Meanwhile, Dallas Mavericks owner and tech entrepreneur questioned whether it was worth it for sports teams to give web journalists access to players and coaches at all, calling out Yahoo and ESPN.com by name: “I think we have finally reached a point where not only can we communicate any and all factual information from our players and team directly to our fans and customers as effectively as any big sports website, but I think we have also reached a point where our interests are no longer aligned. I think those websites have become the equivalent of paparazzi rather than reporters.”

    Now, slamming bloggers (or reporters, period) for trafficking in headline-grabbing gossip is old hat. More significant is Cuban’s argument that between the organization’s PR machine, players’ use of social media, and amateur blogs, sports teams can communicate just as well with their audience, and fans’ desire for information can be just as satisfied, without the need for professional journalists as intermediaries. It’s a provocative claim, but also a signal that sophisticated writing about sports is being produced for digital media by many different organizations with very different interests.

  • Finally, later in the same month, ESPN.com unveiled Grantland, a long-awaited joint venture driven by superstar writer Bill Simmons, fresh off his best-selling Book of Basketball and acclaimed 30 for 30 documentary series, both of which successfully fused sports history, pop culture, and personal/eclectic storytelling. That’s the formula for Grantland, and the reason why Simmons’s team is packed with names not necessarily known for sportswriting: Malcolm Gladwell, Dave Eggers, Chuck Klosterman, Lane Brown, and former GQ/Entertainment Weekly editor Dan Fierman.

    The first Grantland preview stories, Katie Baker’s “The Garden of Good and Evil” (thick description of the New York Knicks’ promise and shortcomings paired with a personal history of Baker’s own Knicks fandom) and Molly Lambert’s “Summer of Robots and Reboots” (a good-naturedly snarky preview of summer movies) offer a glimpse of the site’s future: smart writing for a sports audience infinitely less obsessed with scores and stats than it is absorbed by games as a forum for witty observations and conversation.

If there’s a common thread to all of these moves, it’s hybridization and metastasis. The tools that drive compelling sports journalism on the web aren’t limited to sports. Nor are they exclusively held by sportswriters working for independent media companies.

As Rob Neyer wrote when he moved from ESPN to SB Nation, the new ethos in sports journalism, as elsewhere, seems to be breaking down the distinction between “us” and “them.” And this is a distinction that you can interpret much more broadly than one between writers and readers, pros and amateurs, sportswriting and non-sports writing. When the walls tumble, they tumble everywhere.

My bet is that this will be good for everyone — not just sports fans, sportswriters, and smart media companies, but everyone looking for new ways to read and write smart material on the web.

Give Me Something To Read

In particular, the shift towards faster and more readerly sportswriting helps correct a long-standing imbalance in sports fandom, perhaps especially online. Net-connected computers let you store and search for hitherto unimaginable amounts of data. And in any subject area, the web tends to empower a vocal population of argumentative superfans. Both amplify some of sports’ longstanding tendencies towards fetishization of the same, whether in print, on sports radio, or at a corner bar.

Sheer erudition — and erudition of a very specific type — throws up large barriers to entry. Too often, newer, younger, and more casual sports fans “can sort of get to a certain point of enthusiasm before they hit the ‘stat wall’ where discussion of sports becomes pedantic and quantitative for no discernible reason other than as a social indicator of investment/knowlegeability,” says Grantland’s Katie Baker. “In particular, I constantly see women driven away from sports because they are fed it as a zero-sum game: either you know everything about everyone or you don’t.”

Now, what defines a committed fan is much less monolithic. Quick, real-time tools like Twitter help open up a richer sense of what counts as meaningful information in sports. “To me,” Baker says, “sports has always been just as much about, say, the face that Player X makes when he fouls out of a game as it is about the argument, hashed and rehashed boringly for days over sports radio, about whether that was ‘the right foul to take in this situation.'”

Short, observational takes on sports also recognize the time constraints placed on new media formats. Even those superfans want to be able to stay plugged-in to the discussion when they don’t have hours or days to spend listening to sports radio: on the subway, at the airport, at work, on the move.

In this case, even “less” news helps feed the desire for more. In “Five reasons it’s still a great time to become a sportswriter,” SportsJournalism.org’s Jason Fry writes that “if there’s an upper limit to the desire for sports news, we haven’t found it yet.” When CNBC sports business reporter Darren Rovell tried to go a week without Twitter, he says “I felt like a guy who strangely just decided to stop talking to his friends. My followers were sending me tweets telling me to end the experiment. Translation? What I was doing wasn’t fair to them.”

And as hungry as fans are for quick takes and real-time updates, they’re equally hungry for history of the game and the stories that shaped how we see it. Longform/SportsFeat co-founder Aaron Lammer explains the hunger for old stories for a generation accustomed to tracking down and collecting the best of the past:

Everyone has that one standout piece that gets seared into their skull, so it was exciting, when someone mentioned one, to actually be able to track it down and pass it around. For me, the process echoed the early days of MP3s, when out of print and ultra-rare recordings that had been stuck in record industry purgatory all started making the rounds. Except with long-form stories, the whole thing is amplified, because most of these pieces have totally dropped off the map. [emphasis mine]

And with a hundred and one ways to get the day’s stats and highlights and deals and signings, including directly from the teams themselves, anywhere and everywhere, there’s a premium on well-curated, extended, critical profiles and analysis — especially when we have time to sit and read.

The sports-tech demographic

At the same time, there are reasons that outlets cater to the audiences they do that go well beyond feeding the news hole or the geek-premium in sports culture. There’s fierce competition across all media for high-information readers/viewers/listeners/app users, particularly men, whether teenagers or middle-aged dads. This is a prime demographic for advertisers; it’s also a choice target for media companies or sports teams looking to cross-sell products in other businesses.

That’s one reason why SB Nation’s first non-sports vertical will focus on consumer technology. CEO Jim Bankoff helps explain the logic in this insightful interview with Forbes’s Lewis DVorkin:

“First of all, we have a big male audience,” Bankoff says. “Depending on who you believe, anywhere from ten to twenty million adult males — tech-savvy adult males.” Already at SB Nation, according to Bankoff, “about 30 percent of our revenue is coming from advertisers who are tech companies.”

When the post-AOL/HuffPo Engadget exodus began, Bankoff — who as VP of programming convinced AOL to buy Engadget and its parent company Weblogs Inc. back in 2005 — found his team to bring sports and tech together.

“Our company was built on the marriage of talent and technology,” Bankoff told DVorkin. “The talent makes the technology better… The more talented storytellers we find for what we do, the better they push our product team, and the more excited our product team gets to work with them.”

Changing how (and where) news is presented

As the Lab’s Laura McGann wrote last year, by building its platform around sports teams and sports fans, SB Nation had to create sophisticated platforms to:

  • manage many sites at once
  • blend local and national news
  • blend text with multimedia
  • facilitate reader participation and content creation
  • update developing stories in realtime using “story streams”
  • whittle down a huge number of stories to find the most important/relevant while still allowing news junkies to go as deep as they’d like
  • push news everywhere and to every device sports fans want to find it

In short, it’s the same challenges every news organization faces, but arguably compressed and magnified. If tech talk/geek culture dominated the anonymous, text-heavy newsgroups and forums of the 1990s, and snarky, image-heavy media, gadget, and celebrity gossip sites represented (fairly or unfairly) the first wave of for-profit blogs in the 2000s, sports networks might be the best indicator of where news is going in the 2010s.

Back to the roots

Quickish’s Shanoff sees it a little differently. Sites like Simmons’s Grantland, he says, remind him more than anything of ESPN’s lauded Page 2 site during its “classic period” from the early-to-mid 2000s, when literary-minded writers like David Halberstam, Ralph Wiley, and Hunter S. Thompson brushed against unknown, try-anything bloggers with strong voices, including a young Bill Simmons. (Even the name “Grantland,” an allusion to sportswriting legend Grantland Rice, suggests a return as much as a step forward.)

“The connective tissue between Page 2 and Grantland,” Shanoff says, “is a notion that there is always room to push boundaries when it comes to compelling editorial in sports — most relevantly, that there are undervalued talents who can, when paired with critical resources like distribution, can emerge and create new value for readers and publishers.”

Even sports coverage on television has become increasingly web-like, both in look and tone. If you watch a sporting event, news recap, or opinion show on TV, you’ll find a screen cluttered with text and graphics, framing on-screen personalities (overwhelmingly men) who argue and joke with each other.

Shanoff thinks the influence between TV and the web is mutual:

The most “web” product in the history of sports media came from a TV show that launched even before the initial popularization of blogs: Pardon The Interruption, which launched in 2001 with its implicit refutation of windy sportswriting cliches and its marriage of accessible personalities and a user-friendly format. I cannot think of a sports-media product that is more highly regarded by fans and “pros” alike. PTI accurately foreshadowed — down to its on-screen graphics — the “stream” that would become the dominant visual metaphor for both Facebook and Twitter (and thus the dominant visual metaphor for news consumption in the 21st century).

Shows like PTI, and the countless programs it influenced, offer a graphic approach to television news perfectly suited for the sudden ubiquity of big-screen high-definition TVs and an audience increasingly accustomed to processing multiple information streams at once. But we don’t just experience sports in front of the TV, on the radio, or at the event any more. Even when we do, we’re likely to have a mobile device in hand, ready to tweet our thoughts or share video and pictures about what we see.

And we don’t only read online sportswriting in front of our desktop PCs, with multiple browser windows open giving us stats in hand. We also read it in coffee shops or in bed, on tablets. We don’t read it only to win arguments, to boo or cheer, but to relax, reflect, and remember.

Image by Bob Jagendorf used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 23, 2011, noon
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