sportsmediaI don’t really think about it all that much, but I’ve spent most of my life being obsessed with sports. I come to this realization from time to time when I reflect back on my childhood, my adolescence, my teenage years, my early twenties, and then yesterday or the day before, and sports are always there. When I was a kid, I remember waiting with controlled anxiety for the newspaper to be delivered. Upon it’s arrival, I’d dismiss the rest of the paper, isolate the Sports section, and unfold it on the living room floor, where I’d lean over it on bended knee, a supplicant to the gods who determined the previous night’s results.

These days, I’m a little more well-rounded, but I still read about sports more than any other topic. There’s no longer a single religious observance, though. I’m aware of the night’s happenings as they occur thanks to websites, Twitter and mobile applications. I read articles, check scores, watch coverage of games, and even communicate with other fans all over the world via social media to learn new perspectives and gain insight. What I don’t do is wait with anything approaching anticipation for the game summaries that I used to worship.

I already have the information.

It took a funny moment during the World Series in 2011 to help me realize this. Following a Game Two defeat in which the St. Louis Cardinals blew a 1-0 lead in the ninth inning to lose 2-1 to the Texas Rangers, a large portion of the veterans on the team had no interest in speaking with the media. Most notable in his absence was Albert Pujols, who made an unfortunate error at first base that allowed Texas to put two runners in scoring position before they went ahead for good.

Several members of the media covering the series were outraged, writing columns that evening not about the dramatic come-back victory by the Rangers, but on the topic of lacking leadership in the Cardinals club house, what accountability means, and how baseball players who deny their responsibilities are the worst sort of athletes in the world. Most offended among the writers following the St. Louis no-show was Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports

There it was, an empty locker flanked by an empty chair to match the emptiness in the air. At the center of it was a cutoff throw on which Pujols whiffed. The ball slipped away, allowing what would be the winning run to advance into scoring position. Pujols mimicked the ball, showering, dressing and dashing before the clubhouse doors opened.

Passan continued.

Until it’s not part of Pujols’ job description – and with the media money that helps keep Major League Baseball afloat and Pujols’ salary stratospheric, it is – it’s his responsibility to protect his teammates from having to swallow an excessive portion of that grief, especially when much of it is on him. Leaders do that.

It was one of those moments when you read the expression of an extremely heartfelt perspective that completely convinces you of the alternative viewpoint. It ends up that I couldn’t possibly care less about what Albert Pujols might have said following a game that he lost. And furthermore, what possible insight could be gained from reading a game summary that was so dependent on athlete quotes to fill out its template?

In the age of media trained athletes combined with instant and widespread access to the narrative of a game while the story is being told, the game summary appears to be little more than a fossil representing a dated process dependent on tradition, rather than providing anything of use to a sports fan. That’s not to suggest that there might be a method for delivering an informative recap of a game to those who missed it, it’s just that the current tried-and-true approach is severely lacking due to its failure to adapt to what’s progressively becoming – pardon the pun – a whole new game.

Blocking progress in this case, seems to be the writer’s archaic idea of his or her role as an intermediary between sports and fans. We gain a glimpse of this attitude from Passan’s expressed sense of entitlement to the song and dance of athletes and their quotes.

What keeps professional sports “afloat” and athlete salaries “stratospheric” isn’t Passan’s coverage. It’s the public’s interest in the game and the relatively small cost that a lot of people can pay to satisfy their curiosity over seeing who the best is at a particular game. Yes, the media can shape and bend that interest, but their relationship to the game itself is like a waiter’s to what he’s serving.

Think of the infrastructure of professional sports leagues, including the talented athletes, as a highly skilled chef at a popular restaurant. In this analogy, the meals that the chef creates are the games. The media then acts as the server, delivering plates of food to the customer, or in this case, information to actual sports fans. If, from time to time, the waiter doesn’t feel as though he’s getting enough information from the chef to properly deliver that plate of food to the customer, it’s too bad, but the chef owes nothing to the server. His duty is to the customer.

For the past several years, the waiter has been necessary for delivering the food. However, the way we consume food at restaurants has been changing. There are now options outside of the waiter’s delivery method to receive what the chef is offering. The waiter now has to offer something of benefit to diners in order to remain relevant in his or her position, instead of merely pouting over the change in restaurant dynamics.

So, where do we go from here?

There isn’t an easy solution, at least there isn’t a template as simple as the one for the current game summary: Paragraph isolating single event, explain how single event acts as a microcosm for the game (possibly season), insert player quotes to support the opening paragraph, and then end on a note that reaffirms original idea, but subtly muses that there may be some ambiguity about everything in the end. It’s not easy to serve two masters, and this is what writing about a game after it happens is mainly about. It has to be appealing to those who watched the game, but also informative to those who didn’t see it.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve noticed a change in how I watch television programming. First of all, I typically watch episodes when it’s most convenient for me instead of according to the broadcast schedule, but more importantly, I often find myself actively seeking out reviews and criticism of individual episodes immediately after I’ve viewed them. This normally brings me to the AV Club’s TV Club where the team of writers dedicated to television coverage go beyond merely providing plot summaries to discuss themes and character motivation, and present ideas about what they’ve just seen.

Generally, sports writers working a beat have a distinct advantage over art critics in terms of accessibility to their human subjects, but instead of procuring information that provides insight, they seem to be content with the unspoken game that sees them use token questions to elicit mundane responses that then get treated to an undeserved level of importance in the game story. I feel as though the focus on the human subjects is often done to the detriment of things that are actually interesting. Perhaps there’s something to be learned from the television writers who treat the show as the subject instead of the performers.

It’s easy for me to suggest trying something different, when I don’t have to go to eighty games a season and derive something interesting for my readership from each one. I also don’t have to develop relationships with players who have also come to expect the media’s coverage to be in a certain manner. However, as a lifelong sports-obsessed fan, I’ve seen the transition that I’ve made in terms of the information that I consume, and I presume that I’m not the only one. I believe that there’s value to be had by talking to athletes and by writing about a game that has just happened.

Unfortunately,this potential isn’t being consistently realized by current methods. The  immediacy and accessibility of sports data calls for a necessary adaptation to the way sports stories are presented. There aren’t any more eleven-year-old boys and girls waiting at home to read about what happened the night before. So, why are articles still being written as though there are?

Comments (13)

  1. What are some of your favourite TV shows Dustin?

    • The usuals: Justified, Sons Of Anarchy, Mad Men, Walking Dead, Homeland.

      I also like Veep and The Mindy Project, as far as comedies go.

      I really don’t like Breaking Bad.

      • Interesting. I’d probably consider myself a Breaking Bad fanatic. Totally agree win you on the Game Recaps. I read through them diagonally to see if there are some interesting tidbits, but I’m more interested in reading the reactionary comments section, as it’s usually more entertaining.

      • check out rectify and boardwalk empire

  2. Very thoughtful and relevant piece. As a former reporter ( and kid who also couldn’t wait to read what and how the Tribe did the night before in Cleveland), I now find I learn more, and gain more insight, about baseball and the Blue Jays from reading not only blogs like yours and DJF, but from the comments in response to them. Keep up the good work!

  3. I couldn’t agree more, and I think we’re already seeing the future of sports writing emerging with (for example) the pieces Eno Sarris has been doing at Fangraphs this year now that he’s a BBWAA member. For those who haven’t seen these, his Mark Trumbo story is a great example: http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/mark-trumbo-knows-improves-himself/

    There are a few elements in here that I really make this different than traditional sports writing for me:
    1. He’s not asking the same questions as everybody else. Really, he’s not asking the same questions as ANYONE else.
    2. The questions he asks aren’t the type that can be answered using stock quotes or cliches. He’s actually looking for insight from these athletes.
    3. Oftentimes, I feel like sports writers already know what they’re going to write and so they ask athletes questions that they already know the answers to in order to get filler for articles that are basically already written. There’s no value added by those quotes.On the contrary, the questions asked in these Fangraphs articles are great because the author is asking them from a place of genuine curiosity. As a reader, I appreciate that. I want to learn something new when I read an article, and if the author feels the same way, there’s a much higher likelihood of me being satisfied.
    4. He uses the quotes as a jumping point for further, deeper analysis. The interview doesn’t end in the locker room; the athletes’ quotes provide some answers, but they also provide more questions which in turn lead to some really interesting research and writing.

    These are all reasons I’ve been really entertained by a lot more baseball writing lately, and they’re all factors that I’d love to see more writers employ in the future.

    Another great example was Drew’s interview with Jose Bautista that was posted last week – as a fan, it’s just super interesting to hear an athlete talk so in-depth about his process like that, and it starts with the types of questions that are being asked of him. I’m really excited to see how this type of writing continues to grow and emerge in the coming years.

    • Eno’s Carlos Gomez piece for this very site was also a fine example of not taking what players say at face value but actually digging deeper and seeing how the perception and the actual results line up.

  4. I very much agree with that piece. Although, I think there might still be a demand for game summaries, interviews with players in the way they are conducted serve absolutely no purpose beside showcasing the interviewee’s hability to use as many clichés and lieux communs as possible.

    While it’s easy to blame athletes for their lack of personality or for providing inane sound bites, I think it’s the mostly the beat writers’ fault. It feels like they go about their work in zombie-like fashion, asking the same lazy questions over and over again.

    • Athletes can’t win in these interviews. If they stick to script, they’re boring, unimaginative and only saying what the interviewer wants to hear. If they go off script, they’re completely out of control.

  5. I despise player interviews for the reasons described above. I believe even casual sports fans can produce a stock player interview. Each sport has its own archetype.

  6. When can we say RIP to pretentious nerds who know nothing about sports and write like twats?

  7. Even John Lott has alluded to the pointlessness of the post-game quoter when he’s adresses it on twitter, but he’s ready with one. That’s because they pay him to write one. You need an editor (and Fangraphs appears to have one) that’s willing to adapt to something new…. before everybody has turned their eyeballs elsewhere. I doubt this is going to come from the traditional media mega corporations. Why? They don’t know how to make money off of a new approach, instead of really diving into new media with a business plan, we get Sportsnet The Magazine.

    I will continue to follow the evolution of the athlete interview…. outside of the ‘sports section’.

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