I had planned this week to cover Atlanta United’s visit to Toronto FC, but found myself at the emergency room on Saturday night instead (parenthood!). The game at BMO Field of course resulted in an exciting 2-2 draw, a showcase for two of the more attack-minded sides in the league.
Then on Monday, I read Deadspin writer Lindsey Adler’s vicious takedown of New York Times public editor Liz Spayd’s retrograde call for her paper to ditch general interest stories for old fashioned box scores and game reports. Needless vitriol regarding Spayd aside, Adler’s take was mostly spot on. Why in 2017 would a newspaper print day old box scores or stale gamers when any resourceful reader can get video highlights right on their phone even before the final whistle?
Adler also adds this:
Traditional beat writing is on its way out, and the Times recognized that early and got ahead of the curve. It shares a mentality with its competitor, the Wall Street Journal, whose writers focus on the wacky, personal, and trending areas of sport. ESPN appears to be moving away from traditional beat writing and into features, profiles, and trend pieces as well…
Despite my attempt to play around with the beat writing form in covering Toronto FC all season, I am clearly in agreement with most of this. A trip to any major North American team press box today can feel stale these days, particularly the post-match press conference with the same drain-circling boilerplate—(“Talk about the Morrow injury, what did you think of the conditions out there?”).
But I think the prescription offered by Adler and one criticized by Spayd—more general interest fluff—isn’t necessarily the right solution, either. I know this from experience, because I am on the nihilistic leading edge of sports media consumption.
Here are some difficult confessions to make: I find most ‘color’ pieces in sport—the stuff the Times is pushing these days backed by Adler—to be about as uninteresting as the old timey gamers. It turns out that not all personal foibles and afflictions are inherently captivating just because the subject happens to be a well-paid athlete (however, write something on how something from sport mirrors current awful trends in late stage capitalism and I am there).
Moreover, I think the form of sports writing matters less than the fact that there is far, far too much of it in general—both good and bad—and perhaps not nearly enough demand (he writes nervously as editor of Paste Soccer).
I for example am a professional sportswriter, and even I have a Pocket feed that I fill up daily with interesting, well-researched, captivating soccer articles that will never get read because I have other things to do. Lord knows how others who have full-time jobs and lives of their own cope with the daily sports content avalanche.
And so gradually over time, my default mode for consuming sports news is to habitually check my Twitter feed, and to generally read anything written by a select group of football writers I like and trust (Marcotti, Phillips, Liew, Ingle, Hyde, Lowe, and many others including my lovely contributors here at Paste, natch).
I suspect I am not alone in this. If the NYT hires any one of those writers, I will read it regularly no matter if the coverage involves includes the gamers and fluff pieces in the world (and I do now regularly because Rory Smith writes there, who thankfully writes neither).
That’s because newspapers don’t write sports columns—writers do. This is both good and bad. It’s good in that, in the internet age, it gives (or should give) certain writers leverage over the publications that employ them, and bad in that it follows a traditional power law: a few select winners will take all, leaving a mass of perfectly talented sports writers fighting over the scraps, whether crummy beats, listicles and other assorted SEO fodder.
There is, however, a couple of very small silver linings for any prospective sports writer who wants to actually try to make a living from i. One is in investigative reporting. There are precious few skilled snoops out there in the sports world, and those who do it well get consistent work (thinking of your Sam Bordens and Nick Harrises, though I’m sure there are others).
As we are seeing in a post Trump universe, compelling scoops are good for the media business, and they require time, editorial direction, a healthy travel budget and libel insurance—all things newspapers can and should provide. They can lead to pieces that are both informative and popular, as with this Buzzfeed profile on Chuck Blazer, which has since been optioned for a film. Perhaps papers should forget the personal interest stories and follow the money instead.
The other is in niche writing, lesser known perspectives, viewpoints, experiences, and aspects of the game. It’s sad that the football world is so vast and yet there is so much that goes uncovered—it was only when Janelle Peters submitted her pitch to me this year that I first learned about the Clericus Cup, the Vatican’s annual cup tournament!
But maybe the conversation we need to have is less about what kind of sports writing we need in the future, but whether we can sustain having so damn much of it. Except for Paste Soccer, of course—everything we do here is completely original and totally golden, I promise.