Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Too Many Bloggers? Not Enough Bloggers (Video)

While attending the Blogs with Balls conference, I was even more aware how crowded the sports blogosphere is. Panelist after panelist referred to the difficulty of standing out in a crowded market. The room was filled with talent, and I knew many more talented bloggers who were not present. While developments such as the emergence of Grantland validate bloggers, it also signals that bigger, more powerful competition looms. Paradoxically, receiving the very legitimacy bloggers crave could be the end of sports blogging as we know it.

At and since the conference, small fracases have broken out about the need for more female and minority bloggers. There was a early-morning panel at the conference about women in blogging, but I was strangely dissatisfied with it. If I were the head of a blogging network, why would I want to hire a female blogger? In my opinion, I felt the panel missed an opportunity to confront this question head-on. I was also shocked to learn via Punte just how few women had attended previous Blogs with Balls conferences. For a reference point, I tried to coax two NYC female sports bloggers to go to Blogs with Balls 1 a few years ago. Had they attended, if I understand Punte's numbers correctly, the number of female bloggers in attendance would have nearly doubled.

Also, a debate has since broken out about the need for more minority bloggers, spurred by AJ Daulerio's reply to being asked why Deadspin had no black bloggers*. (For more on that, see Bomani Jones's essay). I understand that if you make your living through blogging, it can't be fun to be accused of being racist and/or sexist. But if you will, please watch this short video clip of Deadspin's Emma Carmichael, the first full-time female hire at Deadspin, giving her thoughts on how blogging could be changed:

I think she makes good points on the need for greater interactivity, points that perhaps the traditional male perspective on blogging has missed. The reason we need more bloggers, not less, is there are still many more ways to blog and things to say that we aren't covering. Bloggers who are underrepresented in blogging offer us a chance to rethink and learn from others. There's no inherent magic about being a female or minority, but there is a tendency to bring up a different perspective to blogging that we need. (I've written about that in the past as far back as 2007). This doesn't have to be complicated...right? I personally pledge to do my best to bring at least one new female blogger and one new minority blogger to Blogs With Balls 5, should I attend. And I hope you all will join me in doing so, and that if you have hiring power at a blog network, that you'll consider looking for such bloggers.

*I think it's also fair to point out that AJ did a lot to promote the success of Katie Baker (now at Grantland) and Emma Carmichael (still at Deadspin). I saw him personally getting in arguments on Twitter to defend one of them when other bloggers tried to tell him they weren't good enough. But Bomani and Jemele Hill were also fair to point out the poor track record with attracting minority talent.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Balls Bloggers Juggle: Bloggers Need Partners

After attending the Blogs With Balls conference, I realized just how many skills bloggers need nowadays to be competitive. I was impressed by the talent in the room, but also noticed how much the job of a good blogger has expanded. In the past, bloggers either learned those skills themselves or joined a blog network. Bu some skills are just too important, and bloggers may need to pursue partnerships or hire part-time help. It doesn’t have to be expensive. Bloggers can use college students, trade favors with friends, or even enlist faithful fans of the site. Five potential partnerships follow below.

Business people. Traditionally, sports blogging has been a bit at odds with business. For example, an oft-heard criticism of ESPN used to be that it was too much of a business. However, the conference panels spent a lot of time on topics such as innovation, advertising, platform choice, and branding. I felt that many bloggers could benefit by just sitting down with a business-minded friend for two hours and learning some basics. Or, browse sites/magazines like Fast Company, INC, and others to better understand the business perspective. Thinking of blogging in terms of niche, demographics, networking, and visibility may seem boring. But being able to understand what exactly you offer readers and advertisers, and how to better position your blog in the marketplace, could help your blog grow rapidly. The Big Lead is making strides in this area with their Amare partnership and sponsored posts, but there is so much more to be done.

Graphic designers. In a technology world where tablets and Tumblr continue to grow rapidly, design has become more and more important. As I sit here, I am reading yet another business magazine that is trumpeting the rise of design in the market. Nike and Apple may not have the most durable products (glances mournfully at iPhone screen), but design is their major edge in the market. Deadspin’s use of Jim Cooke as a graphic designer is a clever start in this direction. There is still so much more to be done, though. A panelist in the innovation session all but begged for a fantasy sports site that took design and form seriously. Sports blogs may be losing the Tumblr generation, because most sports blog content does not lend itself easily to the copy-and-paste generation. That should change soon.

Video content producers. Yes, you know all the arguments about not using video in your blog. Your readers are at work, and it’s harder for them to get away with watching a video on their blog rather than reading text. Videos are difficult to produce and edit. You have a face for radio, or for Star Wars re-enactments. Podcasts are easier to produce.

However, look around you at the trends on the web. I felt like the “Blogging is Dead” session was a start in the right direction, but could go much further. I wince a bit as I cite this example, but recall, for example, the visibility Barstool Sports got by partnering with Jenna Marbles. My female friends who would never watch a sports game raved about her viral video in their blogs. We bloggers often find ourselves mocking would-be Youtube sports announcers or mining Youtube to feed the content beast, but what about actually partnering with Youtube? For the most part, bloggers don’t understand video, and I am concerned that this will cost the industry as the field involves. We can all continue to stalk jose3030’s twitter feed during live sports events, and may LSUfreek never stop making animated gifs, but I am surprised that so few bloggers seem to have followed in their footsteps.

Lawyers and subject matter experts. It is not as if they aren’t already jabbering away in your comment sections while racking up billable hours. Day after sports day becomes nothing more than idle chatter about contracts and crime. But what if you would use your lawyer friend on Facebook to occasionally add some educated expert opinion to some of the stories of today? Subject-specific experts is one easy way to garner links and make your story stand out on the hot topic of the day. Not just lawyers could help: fields as diverse as fashion and accountants can make a difference.

Tastemakers and Innovators. How does blogging stay cool? There was a certain buzz around sports blogging in 2005 that drew me to it. I felt that sports blogging was right in line with where the web as a whole as going. Of course, with time blogging has become experienced and lost some of its novelty. But overall, I feel that perhaps bloggers are out of touch with where the web is going. Trust me, I would love to be wrong about this.

But what about trends such as gamification, or freemium business models, or the visual web, or applications for Facebook, Android, and Apple…are we involved in these trends? I think that journalism schools are better training writers about these fields, but I worry that we are behind other fields at the moment. Reading Techcrunch or Gizmodo or even looking at concepts like Threadless and Etsy, I am not so sure that we are influencing what’s cool. In some ways blogging itself may be in crisis, taken over by Facebook and Google Plus. That’s a bigger problem than you or I can solve, but perhaps a good technologist can help your blog better fit into trends.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Problem with Predictionitis (Circular Rant)

A few weeks ago, I took a shot at predicting the value of Terrelle Pryor in the NFL supplemental draft. I put my guess as to what round he would end up with, threw out a lot of half-baked ideas to support it, and plopped my view on the Internet. It was an easy column to write, and it took me about 45 minutes. I wrote it to contest Don Banks' column on Terrelle Pryor, which I'm sure took much longer than mine to write and cited scouts and professionals. Turns out I was right. So what? Does anyone really care?

I would hazard a guess that about 10% of the sports columns written are prediction columns. Fantasy sports "gurus" try to convince us that so-and-so is underrated, overrated, or unrated. Experts project into the future by telling us the exact game score and record of each team, sounding confident as they use statistics and gut feelings. Visionairies tell us about the future of this game or that. It all sounds so good and it's fun to argue about such things. It's also a total waste of time.

The beauty of sports is that it happens live and unscripted (mostly, Tim Donaghy moments excepted). In a DVR and spoiler-full age, sports is one of the few unscripted enjoyments we have. There are no leaks ahead of time, no columnists who truly have the inside scoop. And yet, we waste so much time trying to see into the future that we ruin sports of its present. The fun is in the moment. I find myself more and more turning to Twitter during games to read the fan's reaction as the game happens. The roar of the crowd can't be easily transcribed into a recap column, much less properly anticipated by a confident scribe as he types busily away at his local Starbucks or cubicle. We spend so much time analyzing and prescribing that we can't just let the balls fall where they may.

I have been reading some older sportswriting books, and I'm struck by how often sports columnists admit that most of their fellow writers had lost any sense of joy in the game itself. The game is just something they endure so they can rush back and write their columns about what happened. Have we really come to this, that predicting the game is more fun than the game itself? When was the last time you went back at the end of the year to check how well your favorite columnist predicted games during the preseason? It's an exercise in irrelevance and meaningless chestpounding, without a single useful trait and...


Um, on second thought, I predict that prediction columns aren't going anywhere.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Balls Bloggers Juggle: Losing Your Blogging Fastball

The fourth edition of the popular Blogs with Balls conference is coming up September 24th in New York City. In anticipation, I wanted to write some blogs discussing topics of debate within the sports blogosphere. Feel free to comment with your own take on the topic and suggest what you think is important.

Dontrelle Willis, in happier times.
The sixth anniversary of Deadspin recently came and went, and it caused me to reflect on sports blog writers. It amazes me how some elite bloggers have managed to keep writing for so long. The best comedians still find new angles, the best statisticians keep digging for new stats, and the best opinion column writers still move the needle on controversy.

But I find myself wondering what a blogger can do when you feel that your best stuff isn't good enough anymore. Most of us aren't those elite who make blogging look simple. If you're lucky, the audience hasn't caught on yet to your decline. They're still demanding more of your stories and filling your comment section or Twitter mentions column with praise. But you know better, and you know you can't throw change-ups indefinitely. So how do you change directions or refresh your blogs without losing your audience or putting up with reader complaints?

I'd be interested in hearing from people who have made the transition. Maybe you realize you want to write about something different. Sports jokes that you loved to make when you were a single 20-something don't amuse you as much now that you're a married father of two. Or you aren't so interested any more in basketball; now your passion lies in soccer, or tennis. How have you made the transition yourself?

The other category I'm interested in is bloggers who did burn out. They had no ideas for anything new to write, and still wanted to write the same type of blog. But it became work instead of fun, and eventually it all fell apart. How can a blogger stop blogger burn-out from happening? I've heard professional bloggers say that one year of blogging is like 3, no 5, no TWENTY years of writing in a more normal job. Have you been able to dodge blogger burnout, and if so, what's your secret? How do you get back your blogging fastball when it's late in the season and your radar gun numbers look more like highway speed numbers than baseball numbers?

Feel free to comment or to start an email conversation with me at talktomc (it's a google mail address). I'm intrigued to read what you have to say.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Balls Bloggers Juggle: Why Blog About Sports?

The fourth edition of the popular Blogs with Balls conference is coming up September 24th in New York City. In anticipation, I wanted to write some blogs discussing topics of debate within the sports blogosphere. Feel free to comment with your own take on the topic and suggest what you think is important.

Suppose that you have a friend who lives in Denver and just graduated from college in electrical engineering. He loves the Colorado Rockies, skis relentlessly, plays drums in a local band, and has an odd fascination with foreign films. Unfortunately, he can't find a job, and so he wants to write a blog to stay busy while looking for a job. What should he write about?

To be honest, if you look at the Technorati 100, a ranking of blogs, the answer seems to be "anything but sports." How many sports blogs do you think are on the top 25? top 100? Check, you may be surprised. The circumstantial evidence that writing about sports is a mistake is also rather substantial. Look, for example, at Brian Spaeth, no longer writing about the NBA (formerly yaysports, now brian23.com). I'd interview him about it, but I'd have to get in line behind all his new lady fans. Or Drew Magary, who, despite being a successful sports blogger with KSK, decided to write a non-sports book (The Postmortal) and admitted that sports books really don't sell well. Matt Ufford is writing about TV, while Will Leitch writes about movies. Is it me, or is there a brain drain occurring in the sports blog world?

Aside: It's also interesting to see an increase in non-sports content on blogs. To name a few quick examples within the last year or two, Grantland has pop culture, Deadspin has Drew's funbag and comedy, TheBiglead does movie reviews, and KSK does their sex mailbag. If you click on their sites, you might think Sports by Brooks, BlackSportsOnline, and MoondogSports would be more accurate to drop the "Sports" and say "Women" instead. All seem to have increased traffic by doing so. Which do you think got more traffic last month--a lesser known men's mag like fhm, or your favorite popular sports blog?

Second, there's the audience for sports blogging. I've done several types of blogging, and quite honestly, sports are the hardest audience to write for. Heaven help you if you get a fact wrong or dare opine that someone's favorite player may be over-rated. Oh, there's criticism in all sections of blogging, but it's surprising to me how much negativity can be inspired by one blog. It's interesting to watch some sports blogs do their best to control and manipulate their comment section. I used to be quite against this, and that's a topic for another time, but...I can see their viewpoint a little more than before. A comment section shouldn't be a whine section, given that everyone has a red X button they can use.

Finally, let's look at the benefits. If our friend from the Rockies blogs about gadgets, he has a much better shot of having a well-read blog. If he just blogs about his band or does his best low-budget men's mag/Tucker Max imitation, he might be able to get some female fans. If he blogs about skiing, he might be able to score some free ski passes from lodges or otherwise get free equipment to try. If he blogs about the Rockies? Most pro sports teams tend to see bloggers as a nuisance.

I've deliberately painted a rather bleak picture of our man in Denver, but take my bait here, if you will. If you could start over again, would you still blog about sports? What benefits are there to sports blogging that I am missing?