Thursday, March 27, 2014
The Golden Age of Sports Journalism
There's something perversely satisfying — and maybe this doesn't say much about me as a person - about teeing off on a horribly misbegotten piece of sports punditry. I've done it many, many times over the years, and I'm hardly the only one. There's even a name for it if you do it point-by-point: fisking.
That old guard of writers — the written word's versions of Skip Bayless — are still around, guys I and others love to hate. Bill Simmons. Rick Reilly. Gregg Easterbrook. Peter King. But the sports journalism landscape is actually pretty great these days, and three websites in particular have excelled in curating great pieces. I would like to highlight them.
Sports On Earth — This baby has rich parents — USA Today and Major League Baseball — but thankfully they do not suffer from the money-driven abomination of publications where accountants and PR hacks have the last word. The quantity is thick and the quality is excellent. More than any other site, they have names you probably already know — Will Leitch, Patrick Hruby, Michael Weinreb — but probably no one you dislike.
Sample piece: I've written here about the fascinating differences between United States and European sports culture, and others at Sports Central have, as well (I can't find it, but I distinctly remember a Sports Central writer in Turkey writing about the lack of parity in soccer there), but I'm not sure we've done it as succinctly as Colin McGowan, who warns us that for the semi-Cinderellas in the UEFA Champions League, midnight approaches.
The Classical — This one has far pluckier beginnings than Sports On Earth: Kickstarter. Their writers, unlike Sports On Earth, are more from the shadows of sports journalism, writers and bloggers you thought you were cool for liking before everyone else did. They released something of a mission statement that says, in part, "We will make no attempt to be comprehensive ... (w)e will not try to be a smarter version of what you can find elsewhere."
It's true, they produce far less content than Sports on Earth or Grantland. I'm going to have to disagree on the second part, though.
Sample Piece: Here's a piece, one of a series actually, providing an on-the-ground view of Sochi during the Olympics. Specifically, it's about drinking with an Estonian Nordic Combined skier. Alexander Sugiura manages to strike an Hunter S. Thompson feel without being pretentious or affectatious. That's no small feat.
Grantland — This one is the brainchild of none other than Bill Simmons. The same Bill Simmons I warned you away from. But I really think he has an incredible eye, perhaps the best at the business, at recognizing other talent. He's essentially Brian Epstein forcing his way onto the Beatles. Grantland maybe, just maybe, be my favorite of the three. Good podcasts, too.
Sample piece: Oh God, please read this column by Andrew Sharp. I was this close to abandoning this story and put on my fisking gloves for it, while reevaluating my love for Grantland. It's a hoary rant putatively about the importance of college basketball whiz kids staying in school, especially after flaming out early in the tournament as frosh phenoms.
Then I noticed the header: "Every now and then, we will attempt to write the worst sports column on earth. Today: let's talk about Andrew Wiggins and the choices facing the one-and-done generation."
I was this close to taking it at face value and making a supreme fool of myself. I know from satire. If it were appropriate for me to write 1,000 words here about how you simply must read The Onion, I would.
But this piece is something else. I fell for it because it's so believable, such a subtle act of parody. He hits all the tropes and cliches and I'll let you pick your favorite. My own favorite was the ol' clarifying-a-metaphor-that-needs-no-clarifying: "If it'd been a magic show Sunday in St. Louis, the Andrew Wiggins disappearing act would have ended in a standing ovation. But it wasn't a magic show. It was a basketball game."
There are a couple more sites that I want to mention, but are too narrow in scope and wonky in mission to fit in a list of the above three. But if you want incredibly insightful number crunching and guys who look at sport and stats in all sort of new and illuminating ways while being able to write like a writer and not like a statistics professor, please read Football Outsiders for football and Fangraphs for baseball. Bill Connelly does the same for college football at SB Nation.