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WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO THE GREAT AMERICAN SPORTS COLUMNIST?
As sites and newspapers desperately try to grow revenue — and survive — it’s shocking to see them de-emphasize a tried-and-true formula to spike readership: Identify top columnists and turn them loose
The best sportswriter of my generation, Rick Reilly, surfs in the ocean a few beach towns south of me and rarely writes columns. Another who could have been nominated, Dan Le Batard, sold out to gambling slime and does a podcast I’ve never heard. Both were turned sideways by John Skipper, an ex-ESPN executive and self-styled starmaker who said he was “extorted” by a drug dealer yet didn’t think he had a cocaine problem.
This is only one reason why the art of sports column-writing has cratered to cryptocurrency levels. If columnists once drove massive readership with rapidly beating pulses and made oodles of money for publishers and editors — and themselves — the current genre barely exists on a five-day, set-the-national-agenda, globally attentive basis. I can count on one typing hand the number of prominent writers who wake up every morning, identify the sports world’s most compelling topic and write the hell out of it with a razor’s edge.
Sports has mushroomed into an $800 billion industry, as you’ve noticed, careening toward $1 trillion and fed by casino and media interests. Now more than ever, potent columnists are needed to keep those interests honest, curb corruption and explain to consumers why avaricious billionaires mixed with reckless TV executives and grimy sportsbooks are a toxic cocktail, soon to spill into inevitable scandal. From sportswashing in Qatar and Saudi Arabia to the events and leagues they spawn — the World Cup and LIV Golf — voices must speak above the odor. Just the same, this could be the golden age of column material, given the magnificent moments inspired by the magnitude and money — Lionel Messi vs. Kylian Mbappé, for instance — along with the bizarre, unprecedented story lines that never stop.
So, where are all the columnists?
Dan Wetzel, at Yahoo Sports, happens to be one. Nancy Armour, at USA Today, is another. I am another. The Washington Post rotates three. Anyone else? The Athletic employs many writers worthy of such a national role — Marcus Thompson, Kalyn Kahler and Bob Kravitz among them — but a site that vows to change sports media somehow doesn’t believe in regular doses of strong, industry-changing opinion even in hyper-local markets where eyeballs aren’t responding. The New York Times, a media leader and owner of The Athletic, employs one “Sports of The Times” columnist, Kurt Streeter, and he doesn’t appear regularly. He’s among those at larger operations who, when they do write, focus primarily on race and gender. Sports Illustrated could trot out an All-Star column team — Pat Forde, Stephanie Apstein, Michael Rosenberg — but they usually are limited by the scope of their assigned subject areas. ESPN also has prime candidates, but rare is the critical piece that would piss off any of the commissioners or power players appeased over lunch by the network chairman, Jimmy Pitaro. Does Fox Sports even have a website? If so, it surely sucks up to FIFA creeps and Jerry Jones.
That said, the three finalists as National Sports Columnist of 2022 are Wetzel, Armour and me, if only by default. Because I can, and because it’s Christmas and I’m dipping into eggnog and other pursuits that don’t involve cocaine, I’m giving myself the award. As you might have ascertained during this past year at Substack, I care about a struggling profession. Rather than let it perish amid crickets and yawns, I never will stop seeking solutions. And I never will stop sending missives to those who are lazy, soft, cowardly, selling out or just clueless. I don’t have to write, mind you, as one who worked in media for a beyond-my-dreams living from 20 to 55, in print and on TV and radio. But I do like to write and feel that someone has to write the columns I write. This is one of them, even if no one cares about sports media except sports media.
To wit: It makes no sense why a modern-day collection of websites and wheezing newspapers — all looking for ways to drive revenue and stay alive, with a bleak winter of layoffs and economic travails upon them — would abandon a tried-and-true method: Feature the best sports columnists, wake them up in numerous cases and turn them loose on every topic whether it’s worldly, national or local.
Until then, I’ll explore the condition of the craft. While humming the “12 Days of Christmas,” here are 12 observations on why sports columns are crashing, while Reilly catches a paddleboard wave in Hermosa Beach:
1. Access is more important to columnists than writing the necessary columns that inform and influence. As one who has written 8,000 columns, made 1,800 national TV appearances and hosted countless radio shows, not once have I cared if someone — OMG! — didn’t like me. Gregg Popovich once went silent on me during a radio interview. Phil Mickelson hunted me down in a media tent and later ripped me on social media. Michael Jordan said he posted my columns on his refrigerator door to jumpstart his competitive anger some mornings. An entire Major League Baseball franchise declared war on me, at the behest of a vindictive owner, with the manager calling me “a f—ing fag” and the hillbilly-homer announcer calling me “a hineybird” on the air. Mario Soto, a baseball pitcher, came after me with a bat before he was wrestled away. Sam Wyche, a football coach, forearm-shivered me after a loss. Did I care? No. I write for the readers, not for Popovich or Jordan or Jerry Reinsdorf or Mario Soto or Wyche. Many columnists today are fearful of being cast out by the so-called sports establishment, as if back in a junior-high cafeteria. And their fear turns to silly peer pressure inside press boxes, where a writer who doesn’t “fit in” with beat coverage is vilified. This is so fanboy-ish. It’s also why sports journalism is dying. What happened to the ass-kickers? Few exist anymore. Some columnists formerly perceived as game-changers, such as Sam Smith, always were management sellouts. Smith still draws paychecks from Reinsdorf and his son at Bulls.com. Sam Mellinger, who wrote sports columns for 11 years at the Kansas City Star, flipped and became vice president of communications for the Royals. How are real columnists supposed to do their jobs with imposters in the ranks?
2. Priorities are out of whack. The objective is to generate traffic, sell subscriptions and create reading habits, right? Nope, too many editors are hanging on for dear life, preferring to protect paychecks than push editorial envelopes. When they should be appealing to the common sense of their upper-ups and promoting robust columnists — as seen at the Post, where Sally Jenkins holds truth to power as Jeff Bezos applauds — most sports editors shy from consistent hard-hitting opinions. Nowhere is the disease more prevalent than in Chicago, where rotten sports owners are enabled by inferior columnists who seem to think Justin Fields is the only subject on Planet Earth. The pulpy approach is fine with editors, who don’t want the hassle of dealing with irritated leagues, owners and team flacks and risking their long-term job security, since upper-ups generally enjoy currying the favor of powerful sports people and watching events in stadium suites. Nor do they want to jeopardize losing readers or advertisers, assuming they’d lose any. Wetzel’s boss at Yahoo doesn’t care. Armour’s boss at USA Today doesn’t care. They are among the few who don’t, which explains why Yahoo continues as a powerhouse and USA Today hasn’t faded away in a Gannett tailspin. I’ve worked for people who like to go home or hit the bar at 5 p.m., or don’t like to fall out of favor with other faint-hearted editors in the business, lest they lose their strip-joint companions at the APSE convention. I’ve worked for people who’ve ceded to a sports owner’s attorneys, allowing them to march into the newsroom and dictate policy. That’s why those operations have failed or will fail soon. This is a 24/7 business. Columnists should be on call 24/7.
3. Columnists have turned safe, boring and/or afraid, for aforementioned reasons. Succumbing to newsroom culture, they think the job description is to promote sports — not cover and scrutinize sports — and there is a distinct difference. As the media industry has caved, so have the aggressive instincts of passive group-thinkers who write for their bosses, each other and, worse, the people they cover. What about the reading audience, the ones buying the subscriptions? If columnists write things that — gasp! — might get them in trouble with bosses or sports teams, they think they’ll lose their gigs. If they do, um, why would they want to work there to begin with? Isn’t life too short to be a slave to a middling salary? All they’re doing is diluting the overall sports product and turning potential readers away. Now hear this: (a) you are not a bad human being if you write tough pieces and go on blistering crusades; (b) it’s OK to be known as “a negative nabob,” keeping in mind that one reader’s “negative” is another’s “positive;” and (c) again, sports is an $800 billion industry and you are there to dissect it as such, not to make friends and suck up for possible future employment. I majored in journalism. Too many writers today seem to have majored in cronyism and amateur comedy, seeing themselves as humorists in columns and on social media, a convenient way to stay in cahoots with key figures within sports franchises and leagues. They’re the kind of people who think Scott Van Pelt is a “SportsCenter” god when he’s a doofus.
4. The Athletic Effect has softened the genre. All anyone needs to know about the site — and its tilt toward “storytelling,’’ a euphemism for “we’re not going to make many people mad” and “we’re going to maintain relationships with the people we cover” — is its Best Of 2022 list. Of the 73 content pieces selected to showcase “our greatness” — and many indeed were outstanding, including enterprise and feature stories, event coverage, investigations, projects and podcasts — only five were columns. They also were good, but only two were authored by writers I’d consider columnists (Thompson and David Aldridge). It was more evidence that The Athletic doesn’t believe in columns, which is dumb.
5. The Athletic is only hurting itself. The place is still losing money. The Times will want to see a profit soon enough. Features, projects and podcasts are nice and all, but do they sell? This is what will sell until the end of time: Giving readers what they don’t know (breaking news), giving them what they should know (investigations) and giving them a reason to think, get mad and laugh (columns). Consider it a major blind spot. This is the site where the two founders, when we met many years ago in San Francisco, asked me to set up a meeting for them with Larry Baer, CEO of the Giants and then a power player in Silicon Valley and Major League Baseball. Know how many beat writers at The Athletic write like an extension of the teams to which they are assigned? Know how many beat writers at surviving papers do the same? Referencing famed sportswriter Red Smith, editorial director Leon Carter quoted him in announcing the Best Of 2022 list: “Writing is easy. All you have to do is sit down … and open a vein.” Smith was known for writing “pretty.” I can write pretty. I write pretty pieces all the time, including one this week about the Argentina-France classic. But pretty doesn’t always make for a fitting piece. Sports is far from pretty. Columns should reflect the entirety of sports.
6. Adrian Wojnarowski is an “insider.” Enabled by player agents whose clients are treated with kid gloves in exchange for big information, Woj has become an NBA sponge and a brand after a successful career as a New York-area columnist. I shudder thinking of the aspiring journalists who want to be Woj. Kids, this is not investigative reporting. What is being practiced at ESPN by Wojnarowski and Adam Schefter is a byproduct of their superiors paying megabillions to leagues in rights fees. These are text-delivered stories via established wink-wink agreements. As for Schefter, his journalistic conflicts of interest while seeking NFL scoops have reached double digits, but Pitaro doesn’t care about journalism as much as appeasing Disney Company boss Bob Iger, even if Iger’s wife is dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
7. The broadcast bug dilutes the column pool. Once Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser jumped permanently to “Pardon The Interruption,” the game changed. You could see the transformation coming when Stephen A. Smith, then a Philadelphia columnist, started typing columns on his Blackberry — they couldn’t possibly have been any good — while hoofing it to a TV studio. It has paid off for him, to the tune of $12 million a year, but it has spawned a generation of talented writers eyeing TV careers. When I was a daily “Around The Horn” panelist for eight years, I purposely ramped up my column workload in Chicago, writing almost every day and traveling constantly. I didn’t want anyone to say I was slacking in my day gig, but the column quality inevitably surrendered to fatigue. Once columnists appear regularly on a TV show, their writing work suffers. They tend to write less often and go softer in print, viewing themselves as TV stars and schmoozers with the sports industry’s power set. Other columnists head to radio, including Phoenix’s best bard, Dan Bickley. Ultimately, the readers lose.
8. Column coverage ends at the city limits. Why? Sports at the national level never has been larger in scope, evidenced by gargantuan NFL ratings and widespread interest in college football and the NBA. Too many columnists can’t pivot out of their local emphasis, which weakens readership when national stories transcend hyper-local strategies. Numerous columnists on local levels are terrific, starting with Bill Plaschke, who has mastered the Los Angeles scene at the Times with lashings of the Dodgers and Lakers and raw cheerleading as USC returns to football glory. I could keep going: Bryce Miller in San Diego, Ann Killion and Scott Ostler in San Francisco, Mark Kiszla in Denver, Steve Politi in New Jersey, Ian O’Connor in New York, Tara Sullivan in Boston. But rarely do they stray beyond hyper-local boundaries, even when the World Cup demands their attention. I’ve given up on Chicago, as you’ve figured out by now.
9. People think Bill Simmons is a columnist, and he’s far from it. He is a superfan, a commodity who created a solid writing-and-podcast site at The Ringer and sold it for a nice sum. But Simmons loses me when he still roots insanely for Boston teams, which is cute but demeaning to the business. And he lost me years ago as editor-in-chief of now-defunct Grantland — another Skipper beauty — when he approved publication of a story that posthumously outed a transgender golf-club inventor and had to write a 3,000-word apology. The story was published in January. Essay Anne Vanderbilt had died, of a reported suicide, three months earlier.
10. Columns now are written by those who cover leagues and teams. This is a dangerous practice. Bob Nightengale is entrenched in the MLB world — and that’s a problem when he’s beholden to certain owners, players and agents and allows his opinions to be swayed their way. Same goes for Ken Rosenthal at The Athletic. Only ESPN’s Jeff Passan pulls off opinion without suspicion of conflicts. In Chicago, two papers that once employed as many as four full-time columnists each — and now employ two combined — force beat people to weigh in. This works one of two ways, neither healthy. They can go off on someone and lose a source, if not an entire locker room. Or they can take a cushy stance on a controversial topic and lose readers. We’re seeing more beat writers become general columnists, too, and they take the same wishy-washy approach in columns. The two jobs must be separated if both are to be performed effectively.
11. Chad Millman is the chief content officer at The Action Network. With gambling in his blood, the former big boss at ESPN The Magazine — which dealt in actual journalism — now is “trying to make stuff that makes sports fans smarter.” Meaning, he has jumped to the dark side, the side that has nothing to do with the actual athletic competition in a stadium or arena, the side that promotes odds and over-unders and prop bets and threatens the lives and families of problem gamblers everywhere. He was followed into the gambling media by other notable editors and writers, none of whom must have been journalists to begin with, or they’d grasp what is so wretchedly wrong with abandoning truth for touts.
12. J.A. Adande is running a sports journalism department. Look, Adande was an excellent basketball writer and seemed never to grate on Popovich as an ESPN sideline reporter. But when I called him “a corporate sportswriter” one day, I think he took it as a compliment. As director of sports journalism at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications, he should invite me to sit in and tell students how I forced the university to settle with the mother of an NU football player who dropped dead on a practice field. That won’t be happening in Evanston, where I figure he’s teaching aspiring writers how to maintain access and get along swimmingly with people in sports and network TV. Recently, I e-mailed Adande and asked why NU has a campus in Qatar, where human rights violations and 6,500 dead migrant workers scandalized the World Cup. He hasn’t replied. Obviously, he isn’t grooming future columnists. Why would he? The genre is an afterthought, swallowed whole by sports.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.