Thursday, October 22, 2009

Sports blogs, ESPN, and why I like Deadspin’s 'horndoggery' series

I’m writing a series of blog posts about what’s next for sports blogging (read my introduction). As a reminder, these are my own personal opinions, not necessarily those of my employer Yardbarker. I’m going to tackle the ESPN topic now because it relates to the current controversy over Deadspin’s "horndoggery" posts.

A couple of years ago there were a lot of conversations about “blogs versus mainstream media.” This paradigm is no longer relevant, and perhaps never was. First of all, the terminology is pretty muddy. Taken literally, “blog” is just a platform or medium, like “newspaper column” or “radio show” or “Twitter feed.” However, the term “blogger” was also sometimes used to refer to a certain type of content-producing person, stereotypically someone without access who is not formally trained in journalism. Neither of these meanings is really useful anymore when you can have longtime newspapermen writing online weblog entries and “blogger types” getting paid to write for “mainstream” outlets like Yahoo Sports, and blogs like Deadspin getting more readership than many newspapers. For the most part, traditional media outlets (even ESPN) have started to embrace blogging in both the platform meaning and sometimes the person meaning. There’s no longer a clear “us versus them” or if there is, I don’t know who’s who.

That said, ESPN does still pose a unique challenge to anyone in non-ESPN sports media just because of its breadth and size. ESPN is pretty dominant in many areas of TV, radio, and web. As the leader, ESPN is in a strong position to compete in any space it decides to enter. We’re seeing their entry into local web programming and a Twitter-like platform now and they could potentially enter any number of other areas. So if you’re a non-ESPN content producer, you’ll always have to worry that ESPN will swoop in to your niche and compete with you.

Competition is always a challenge in any industry, of course. But ESPN’s dominance across various media makes it all that much harder for you to build your own brand. A successful online content producer like Perez Hilton has grown his brand and influence through radio and TV appearances on prominent entertainment programs that are happy to get his content. A sports Perez would need to appear on ESPN television and radio programs – but ESPN probably doesn’t want to lend shine to someone working in a space ESPN might potentially want to enter. That’s not to say that it’s impossible to create something of value outside of ESPN, it’s just perhaps more challenging than in some other verticals.

One of the most successful sports blogs that has been able to create value without ESPN’s direct help is Deadspin (I say “direct” help because Deadspin gets a lot of material out of covering and criticizing ESPN). There was a lot of history between the two properties that led up to the current controversy, but the short story is that on Wednesday, Deadspin editor A.J. Daulerio posted a series of “rumors” about the sexual affairs of some ESPN employees. ESPN issued a statement calling Deadspin “despicable.”

I like what Deadspin did. That’s not to say that I necessarily like the content, or that I would choose to publish it on my own blog. But it was a ballsy move that paid off with traffic and may continue to help Deadspin’s notoriety. I was surprised that sports bloggers seemed overwhelmingly outraged about the move. There were three general reasons:

1) Some bloggers said that Daulerio “crossed the line.” He may have crossed your line, but if there is a single definitive line, it’s the legal one; and my unofficial legal opinion is that Deadspin did no wrong (FanHouse’s Clay Travis seems to agree). I respect if you’re the type of blogger who would never publish that kind of content for moral reasons, or to avoid getting a certain reputation. But if Deadspin is comfortable with publishing it, they should go for it.

2) Some bloggers argued that Deadspin has affected the reputation of all blogs. This is probably true. Those who are not familiar with online sports content lump all blogs together, and since Deadspin is one of the most prominent sports blogs, its actions will affect the reputation of all blogs. But that doesn’t mean it’s Deadspin’s responsibility to uphold any particular reputation – Deadspin doesn’t owe anything to any other blog. Deadspin has created this position of influence for itself partly because it is a compelling site that posts content like this. If bloggers don’t like the nature of what Deadspin is doing and how it reflects on blogs, then it’s their job to build a site that wields as much influence as Deadspin, and it’s their job to educate people about why their content is valuable and different from Deadspin’s. Note, I’m not saying that bloggers shouldn’t work together to elevate sports blogging in the minds of the uninformed. Quite the opposite, I think we need to work together (as I will be writing in future posts). But I don’t think agreeing on the placement of “the line” for content is necessary or beneficial. Deadspin is carving a certain niche, and you can carve yours.

3) Finally, I’ve heard some people complain that Deadspin has gotten away from its roots. To be honest, I’m not a longtime Deadspin reader, so I’m not sure what those roots are. But no content producer should be criticized for adapting and changing its model for success. If you’re wistful for the old content, then seek it out somewhere else or create it yourself. 

To reiterate, I don’t necessarily like the content Deadspin posted. But I respect their decision to publish it, and from the outside, it seems to me like it was a smart business move. It may indeed set some other blogs back, but that’s what competitors do sometimes. Instead of complaining about it, those blogs should get busy trying to step their game up in whatever manner they see fit.

To conclude, I’ll try to tie all of this together. We’re in a new media landscape where lines are blurred, but ESPN remains a big challenge to content producers trying to build their brand. Deadspin has achieved quite a bit of success, in part by creating unique content critical of ESPN that ESPN would never want to create itself. The sex scandal content published on Wednesday seems like it will benefit Deadspin. If other blogs feel they’ve been hurt, then it’s their responsibility to do something about that. Alternatively, they might want to consider taking a page from Deadspin’s book (more on that later).

I welcome your comments or emails.

1 comment:

Kim Plaintive said...

Please join the comments at the Yardbarker version of this post.