ATTENTION--Regional Sports Media: Grow Thumbs or Stay in the Ocean or (How Bill Simmons Leaving ESPN Will Change Everything. Again.)

Despite twelve years of Catholic schooling, I subscribed to the theory of evolution pretty early on, basically as soon as I understood it--not because I was necessarily bright but because, perhaps, I was necessarily simple. When presented with the case of how I got these super helpful opposable thumbs from fish {1}, I was like, "Oh, yeah, that makes sense. Because I can see it. Hey, maybe God, instead of magicking up two white people from Iraqi soil, did it this way, with all living creatures being related. It sure does seem to tie everything together. No you shut up."  {2}

Bill Simmons's departure from ESPN, which I all but predicted here seven months ago {3}, leaves a massive cultural vacuum atop the increasingly fractious world of online sports journalism. And filling this vacuum will, I posit, determine the direction of the next evolutionary cycle in sports consumption, similar to the shift from traditional media (newspapers, TV, radio) to new media (blogs, livestreams, podcasts) ushered in by, among many others, Bill Simmons. Simmons was but one of many voices who used the freedom of the Internet to break the mold of traditional sports coverage models (the game recap, the editorial newspaper column, etc.), but his success--and subsequent acceptance into the mainstream--made him a frequent target of sports journalism's Old Guard.

Rick Reilly

Old school-new school. I'm not doing more than 800 words, I'm not from Boston, I don't write a lot about the NBA. I'm more likely to tell a story that has a beginning, a middle and an end. He's a blogger. I still love reading him."

Translation: I'm a professional who writes the way I was taught in journalism school. He's a blogger who writes the way he wants. Because of typesetting and limited page space, that was never an option for me. I hate his guts. 

Rick Reilly wrote his final sports column last year. 

Jay Mariotti:

Jay Mariotti:

No, Jay. You're the first. 

Jay Mariotti:

For those of you who don't remember, Jay Mariotti was accused of doing this to his girlfriend in 2010. Charges were dropped, as was he from his regular spot on ESPN's Around the Horn. Decide for yourself what's what as far as that goes. Just know exactly whose opinion that is.

While I don't disagree with the substance of some of the Old Guard's criticisms of Simmons (the unpolished craft part, anyway {4}), I do find the motivation shamelessly transparent ("qualified voices?" this isn't theoretical physics, Mariotti) and trite to the point of cliche (the world is flat and 6000 years old; no, you shut up). How many newspapers have to be put on life support before the last of Simmons's detractors will admit that the time of unilateral narratives and regurgitations of the same old sports tropes are obsolete? How many blogs have to be sold for millions of dollars before the Old Guard will give up the facade that there is only one way to discuss sports--and to be "qualified," one must go to Syracuse or Northwestern before toiling in anonymity until the Old Boys Network slips a note under your door? The Internet is the ultimate meritocracy. 

The modern sports consumer doesn't need a 700-word recap of last night's game because they watched last night's game. Because it's 2015. In 1939, the 700-word recap was an invaluable resource because if you missed the Yankees broadcast on the radio, you missed the Yankees broadcast. You missed Joe DiMaggio going 5-5. You missed Lou Gehrig, the Iron Horse, making longshoremen and mob bosses and policemen cry with one flick of his cap. You were left to read about it in the next day's paper--and literally nowhere else. So, yes, to be a sportswriter in 1939 meant to be the lone conduit between The Fans and The Game, the singular vessel of dissemination to a cohort of consumers with no other options. 

Seventy-six years later (#math), this notion is so outmoded it's bordering on extinction. The modern sports consumer doesn't need someone to set the scene, describe the atmosphere and recall what happened because we saw it on TV. Or via live stream. Or Periscope. Or YouTube. Or, worst-case scenario, one of the seven different airings of the same version of SportsCenter. Why, then, do newspapers and other regional sports outlets continue to provide sports content designed to serve an analog audience--sometimes a day later? Everything save live sporting events can be seen On Demand. Miss the Dan Patrick Show today? "Yeah, but I'm a podcast listener." Think about that. That wasn't a sentence ten years ago. "I'm a podcast listener." It would've been like walking into the Mayberry Courthouse and telling Barney Fife to "Google my Twitter." If Thelma Lou had been in there, Barney would've locked you up for indecency. And parking in front of a fire hydrant. 

"Hey, Slater, Screech is trying to get a hashtag trending. Will you snap, text and Instagram Lisa Turtle to retweet #thesprain? She has a ton of followers. Thanks, man, I gotta go. Skype me later, Zack is at the #MayPac fight, and he'll be Periscoping the whole thing." 

The people at The Max would've looked at you like you had a head growing out of the head on your head. Or not, they were pretty tech savvy:

Teen Line, this is Nitro

Teen Line, this is Nitro

It's time to shed the constraints  that have held regional sports journalism back. As an industry, it's already (at least) one evolutionary cycle behind, and Bill Simmons's departure from ESPN is a signal that must be heeded. The man behind Grantland and 30 for 30 didn't leave ESPN willy-nilly. Whether he winds up at HBO or CNN or Twitter or Yahoo or Netflix or Amazon (any of which would, I'm sure, be happy to grant him the autonomy he desires [speculation mine], while funding Grantland 2.0 and providing a format for the new iteration of 30 for 30) or sets out on his own solo venture, we are on the cusp of another evolutionary cycle in sports journalism. The pieces have been shuffling into place for a while. The chips are in the air (#pickyouranalogy). TV is becoming not TV, replaced by streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon, which can be easily streamed straight to our Smart TVs, allowing us to consume all of our sports reporting on our time, with the option to fast forward through commercials.

What's more, this isn't news I'm breaking. This isn't me playing the role of Wizened Village Elder {5} standing on top of the hill pointing westward toward an approaching storm that no one else can see. The clouds have been gathering for a while, which makes it even more apparent just how far behind regional sports outlets are--despite people like Jay Mariotti telling you the sun is still shining and that his way is the only way. Because of what, integrity? Some (imaginary) higher level of thought? 

Is this what punches one's ticket into the Intelligentisa? This kind of thing is so far behind the times that Mariotti probably doesn't realize the Internet has name for it: trolling. 

The good news is that it's not yet too late to evolve, to grow digital thumbs and climb out of the analog box that keeps regional sports journalism from thriving in a multimedia world. The other good news is it won't take 100 million years to create an entertaining website, to cover sports like sports--with a sense of humor and perspective. To inform without pandering. To focus on more nuanced, longform pieces instead of snatching all the low-hanging fruit. To engage through every channel of media from TV to quality online content to podcasts to things we don't even know about yet. But it has to start now--yesterday-- before this second evolutionary cycle leaves us hopelessly behind. Because like Eddie Murphy said Friedrich Nietzsche said in Coming to America: "He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk; one cannot fly into flying."

The rest of sports media is growing wings. Let's not stand ashore and watch them fly away {6}. 

 

Footnotes

1. Or now, maybe, hold on because these other organisms that predate the Cambrian explosion might have lived on land. Unless they didn't. #science

2. Relax. I know people are sensitive about the issue of Creation, but I would like to point out that Pope Francis himself has said that Evolution is Real and God is No Wizard

3. Me, you, everyone. 

4. "To be a great writer, you have to be a great thinker." A friend who recently graduated from the prestigious Helen Zell Writing Program at the University of Michigan said that to me once. While Simmons's craft may lack the refinement of those more writerly (that word still makes me vomit), it's still unique and his voice is as clearly defined as his perspective is insightful. 

5. Eric the Everlasting Know-It-All, they'd call me. #spaceballs

6. Yeah, that was kind of clumsy, as wings predate thumbs and it kind of muddles this whole evolutionary analogy, but I wrote this pretty quickly and the Nietzsche felt right, and I like the visual of watching someone fly away and being left behind as it applies here. So.