Tuesday, June 16, 2009

BWB 1.0: A Saturated World of Sports Blogging?

It figures that I was getting caught in a freak rainstorm last Saturday afternoon just when the first-ever conference on sports blogging started in New York City.

Called with characteristic subtlety "Blogs with Balls 1.0", they managed to capture with state of "sports blogging" in one saying. (But really, did they have to add the 1.0 at the end of it to completely marry the idea to the dotcom bust? It makes it sound like sports blogging is soon going to go the way of the Rubik's Cube.)

Like anything, there are outsiders that try to get the whole blogging thing, but just manage to make themselves look bad. Witness GQ's pathetic summation on their own "blog":

Part networking, part discussion, the all-day conference was a live platform for big hitters like ESPN, Real Clear Sports, and Deadspin to share their words of wisdom with newbie bloggers and argue over a few pints of Guinness about the rise of new media and which athletes are ‘roid raging (FYI: the majority conceded that Raul Ibanez is probably clean).
No, really, "newbie bloggers", "the rise of new media" (featuring that "new media pioneer," ESPN) and "'roid raging"? (Where am I, 1999?) I don't expect something partially sponsored by GQ to be hard-hitting journalism, but their sad summary does obscure some of the interesting ideas that came out of the conference.

For those that don't know me, I'm a "blogger" who has been writing independently about Lehigh football (and some other things) since 2003. I do a hell of a lot of writing here and at the College Sporting News, even though I have a day job. And I've seen the whole blogging thing evolve to what it is today.

But I also have some pretty deep-seated opinions about blogging. For me at least, it's about working extremely hard about something I love, bringing some glory to my alma mater, still remaining independent, and becoming the best writer you can possibly be. I like to think I have something worthwhile to say, and, of course, I'd like lots of money for the effort if possible.

What I found funny about the conference is that much of it seemed to cover ideas about blogging that I wrote about in some detail over a year ago on this blog in regards to the Deadspin Will Leitch/"Buzz" Bissinger fracas on Bob Costas Now. (For those who aren't blogging geeks like me, that 2008 episode was the first recorded piece on the "rise of the blogger" and how the mainstream media (played by Mr. Bissinger) not-so-secretly hated their guts.)

In a way, this conference seemed like a logical outgrowth of that show. It's good, I think, that a new generation is getting some level of guidance on what folks have learned. And not that you asked, but I wanted to throw my opionions out there, too.

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For example, every blogger goes through the identity crisis that came up at the conference ("Am I a member of the media that I've pathologically hated for years - yet strangely have been dying to become - or am I just some everyperson putting my day job in jeopardy for nothing?"). Washington Nationals Blogger Miss Chatter says what she got out of it:

The line I walked away with that stuck with me was not that I should consider myself media, but rather a “professional sports fan”. I already don’t worry about being held accountable or being disrespectful. Regulars know I’m not one to spout off rants (unless deserved). I talk to people in the organization all the time, never rip players in a personal hurtful manner, and just generally (try to) keep my enthusiasm up. The point driven home that stuck with me was excel at what you’re the best at and concentrate on that. I’m trying to figure out what that is – my enthusiasm? Photography? Goofy videos? I’ll figure it out…

I'm not sure I agree with that - in my (day job) business, specialization is the first step towards extinction, and I heavliy suspect that the same goes for blogging. If the Washington Nationals one day decide to pack it in and become the Portland Pride or something, all of a sudden you're out of a job. You need to be able to do different things - ask any reporter.

Furthermore, I also think at least for me, the debate is over: I'm "media", not "professional sports fan". I mean, what sports fan gets to talk to the Patriot League commissioner? Now, if you choose to not talk to the commissioner or not go to the press conferences and still want to post opinions from your perspective that's perfectly OK - but if you don't, how are you differentiated from anybody else with a blog and a dream?

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Good blogging is, above all, motivated by determination - but determination only gets you so far. You need something else to differentiate yourself: for example, Deadspin does so by showing athletes rolling joints or adding T&A to their "sports entertainment" pieces (I still can't really call what they do "blogging"). I like to think I differentiate myself by my access to people, coupled with working extremely hard and doing the research that many folks can't or won't do. My blog is a hybrid of opinion, fan site, statistical analysis - a little bit of everything.

One of my favorite blogs is Soft Pretzel Logic (written by Jonathan Tannenwald of the Philadelphia Inquirer, and no, it's not only because I show up on their fan blogroll), and he talks about some of his more interesting conclusions from BWB 1.0:

First, no matter how many ways we find to converse with each other online, nothing matches being able to talk to someone in real life. Whether at a media conference or a ballpark clubhouse, there is something about a face-to-face conversation that Twitter and Facebook just can't match.

Second, the lines that used to divide blogs and mainstream media have been blurred considerably from where they used to be. I remember going to a conference a few years back on the conflicts between blogs and the mainstream media, and there was a sense that the two sides really were opposed to each other.

Third, you never know when something you say will get linked up on the web and suddenly explode into something bigger than you could have ever imagined.
I pretty much agree with all three observations - but, ironically, it also seems to show that sports blogging needs to show value and differentiation over opinion. Those that get those "face-to-face" time with athletes, coaches, or league officials get a perspective that can't be matched by just having an opinion about something, or "hanging out" at some athlete's bash and getting compromising footage of someone acting stupid. And it's precisely because of that that the "main stream media" is getting into the blogging business - it's the idea that "we have something that they don't, face-to-face time with athletes. It doesn't cost anything to start a blog, so... what the hell?"

Now, I don't think it's bad that the "mainstream media" is out there blogging - not at all. It was destined to happen: they have something that people want, information, and there's no barriers to them entering the "opinion business". To me, the more, the merrier. But it does mean that it is harder to get started as an independent blogger these days armed with an opinion, lots of determination, and a dream.

The big advantage of being "independent" is that, supposedly, you're not "corrupted" by trying to impress your writer friends (or new athlete friends) about how clever you are. Speaking on that argument a little, Sarah Spain from MouthpieceSports.Com puts it very well (and, like her, I'm a "blogger with credentialed access)":
I have an interesting perspective as someone who produces what most view as “blog content” but with the access of a credentialed mainstream media member. In my opinion, there’s a balance to be found between eschewing access and getting so close to the athletes you can no longer report objectively.

In an interview with Buzz Bissinger following their Costas Now appearance, Will Leitch wrote of bloggers: “We enjoy the distance that ignoring the press box gives us; it allows us to remain in touch with being an actual sports fan, and respond to sports in the way actual sports fans do. We're not chummy with anyone, and we're not out to get anybody either. The distance is (theoretically) what keeps us clear.”

Yes, seeing Derrek Lee speak to the media whether he’s gone 0-for-5 or had the game-winning home run, does affect my opinion of the guy. He’s the most respected player in the Cubs’ clubhouse by his teammates and the media, both for his attitude and his work ethic. Knowing this, I cringe when bloggers or radio callers say he’s “not trying.” Not one tiny part of me thinks his early-season slump was the result of him “not trying” and that’s because I was at the ballpark every day, watching him put the work in and seeing his frustrations mount with every strikeout or double-play ball. That doesn’t mean I don’t cover his struggles objectively, it just means I have a point of reference to speak from when doing so.
Seeing that I do the same thing, I know that it's a weird balance between eating the free food in the press box, interviewing the athletes, and being objective on your blog. There is no doubt you end up with your favorites to interview and ones you want to see succeed. Ultimately, though, there are no rules to follow - you have to make your own moral decisions and dividing lines. ("The New York Times goes to bed early!" is something I quote to my wife often in terms of blogging and sportswriting.)

But it's that "point of reference" which is the key to having a blog survive - and in order to get it, you need to have something that gives you something to say. For me, it's access and a hell of a lot of content generated over six years. For others, it's a goofy video, or T&A. That "point of reference", I think, will be talked about a lot over the coming years in terms of sports writing and sports blogging.

What everyone is learning - bloggers and media types alike - is that opinions are cheap and useful content is scarce. Ask anyone who has seen a bing.com commercial as to the need to redefine something as old as search engines to get through the ocean of (mostly crap) content to get actual good content.

Which brings me to the biggest myth of the conference. Some of the navel-gazing that BWB 1.0 seemed to spawn seemed so 2005, and also seemed to ignore the gathering forces that are happening in the sports blogging "biz". The biggest sports blogging myth - repeated by both Ms. Spain and event co-founder Don Povia - goes like this:

But who decides well-written content in the end? Your readership, based on whether they keep coming back.

Which brings us right back to the beginning. Talent will rise to the top. The panelists—and many of the attendees—at Blogs With Balls confirmed as much. The taste-makers and industry-changers are those with a unique take and the skills to express that take.
Forgive me for missing this, but the industry-changers are not the ones that are most talented, no more than it was Diana Ross that changed the music industry and not Barry Gordy. It's the new media industrialists - the ESPNs, the Will Leitches, YardBarker - that are setting the rules, and they are trying to use their clout to try to determine which bloggers are worth reading, and which are not. And those folks don't really care about talent or quality - what they care about is unique website hits, plain and simple - because unique website hits make them money in terms of selling advertising. (You can't become a part of the YardBarker ad network, for example, if your site doesn't get a minimum number of hits.)

Bloggers like to be told that "yes, we are changing the world," but the reality to me seems much different. It's not a Woodstock of free love, free Guiness and free opinions shared online. It's actually something else, hinted at by the current Deadspin editor A.J. DeLaurio:

It’s no longer just a hobby for people, it’s a kind of lifestyle, and possibly a career, too. [And] It might be at a saturation level.
It feels like sports blogging is indeed at the point of saturation - and the only ones that will survive in the end are the ones that are smartest, the ones that can manage to grab a bit of the online advertising pie, and - yes - the ones that "go to bed early". At least that's what I'm hoping.
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