A couple months ago I met a man named Dover.
Prior to taking a job at B-Dubs, as the sports bar is colloquially known, Dover had studied music for two years at a community college. While he plays some his own stuff, his studies focused on certain bands and how they developed their identity by listening to the entire collection of music they produced.
Dover and I had little in common—we came from different backgrounds, worked different jobs and only had one mutual friend—but we both loved Pink Floyd.
The greatest thing about meeting a passionate person is they can enhance your understanding of something you enjoy. In an hour-long conversation with Dover, a man that I have only spoken to once in my lifetime, I not only became a bigger Pink Floyd fan, but also learned a little something about the creative process.
Dover says he has listened to every Pink Floyd album in search of how the band discovered their identity. Pink Floyd’s identity, in his terms, is their album The Dark Side of the Moon. Two of the individual tracks, “Time” and “Money,” became single hits that are still played on the radio. There is a Dark Side of the Rainbow Theory that suggests that The Dark Side of the Moon was intentionally synced up to the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz—something that the band vehemently denies. Finally, the album is synonymous with the band: mention Pink Floyd and most people associate them with The Dark Side of the Moon.
Sure, The Wall is famous in its own right, but people have written rock operas before. Animals gained recognition because it spoke out against the government, but that is a common shtick for bands. My favorite Floyd album is Wish You Were Here, but many bands offer tributes to their band members.
There is nothing, however, like The Dark Side of the Moon.
Dover believes that you have to create the lesser-known albums, specifically The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967), A Saucerful of Secrets (1968) and Meddle (1971), before you can create The Dark Side of the Moon (1973). It is in the making of the first three works, he posits, that the band achieved the technical skill and creative wherewithal to produce the music on that album.
This applies to sportswriting, an activity that if done properly can be creative, unique and timeless in its own way—if only the writer is willing to go through the grind of producing lesser-known, inferior works in order to develop their identity.
Money, it’s a crime/
Share it fairly but don’t take a slice of my pie/
Money, so they say/
Is the root of all evil today
Pink Floyd – Money
I’m not going to get into the all technicalities of how Pink Floyd developed their identity, that’s an entirely separate article altogether, but I will offer a couple things to provide some background:
- The seventh track on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, “Interstellar Overdrive,” is considered the band’s first venture into space rock—a significant theme in The Dark Side of the Moon.
- The primary songwriter for A Saucerful of Secrets is Roger Waters, the band member that collaboratively wrote “Time” and individually wrote “Money.”
- In an interview with Rolling Stone, Waters said that the final track on Meddle, “Echoes,”* was the font of Pink Floyd’s shift of focus from fantastical space trips and psychedelic imagery to people and the issues facing humanity.
The Dark Side of the Moon contained fantastical space trips (It’s about the moon, duh!) and psychedelic imagery (The lunatic is in his head!), which made it unique, but also explored human issues—providing common denominators (Time! Money!) that made it digestible to a casual fan.
*Interestingly, people have found that like The Dark Side of the Moon, “Echoes” syncs up with a mainstream film—2001: A Space Odyssey.
To illustrate the similarity of the songwriter and sportswriter’s creative processes, let’s take a look at the path of the today’s most read sportswriter, Bill Simmons.
“I met the other reporters. They were 300 pounds and miserable. I never understood why they didn’t enjoy their jobs. It’s weird to leave your passion at the door.”
Bill Simmons in a 2005 interview with The New York Times.
In a 2006 interview with Sports Illustrated’sChris Ballard, Simmons outlines his path to the top of the sports world. Before joining
ESPN in 2001, Simmons had a column at the College of the Holy Cross newspaper, briefly covered high school sports for the Boston Herald after earning a graduate degree in print journalism from Boston University and gained recognition for a column he had at AOL Digital Cities and his personal website, BostonSportsGuy.com.
After answering phones, doing Sunday football scores and covering high school sports for the Herald, Simmons spent three months as a freelancer for the Boston Phoenix before becoming fed up and taking a job at a local bar.
While waiting tables and bartending he wrote for his personal site and badgered AOL into giving him a column. Before his ESPN gig, Simmons made a living off of tips and a $50 dollar per week AOL stipend.
Gmail and Mozilla Firefox replaced AOL atop the Internet hierarchy long ago. If Simmons were beginning his career today, he would probably be working at a local bar while writing for Bleacher Report and operating a personal site. Think about it: the B/R model appears to be based off of Simmons’ career path. Simmons wrote column after column, eventually honing his voice and mastering a unique style and eventually got a big break when ESPN recognized him and brought him aboard.
In June of 1999, Simmons wrote a piece called “The 20 Most Annoying Sports Fans Alive.”* It is tailor-made for Bleacher Report: it is a ranking, easy to read and encourages debate.
*Many of Simmons’ early works can be found on Deadspin’s Bill Simmons Archive.
Here are a couple excerpts:
16. Knicks Fans
Knick fans thought Patrick Ewing was a superstar. They thought John Starks was good. They thought the Knicks would’ve beaten the Bulls in 1993 if Charles Smith hadn’t gotten stuffed 19 straight times in the last minute of Game Five. They willingly allow self-serving ego-tripper Spike Lee to represent them at games.
8. Lakers Fans
Say what you want about Celtics fans — at least we stick around for the fourth quarters of games.
Lakers fans are just ridiculous. They showed up right around the time Magic Johnson and “Showtime” showed up in Hollywood… then they disappeared right about the time Magic Johnson and “Showtime” left Hollywood. They showed up again three years ago when Shaq came to town… now you can almost hear them creeping towards the backdoor in the bandwagon again.
3. Mets Fans
Let’s be honest: They were exceedingly arrogant about the whole ’86 World Series thing and still are, to this very day. I hate them and I want them all to die. Seriously. If you’re a Mets fan and you’re reading this, please know that I’ve hoped for your imminent death on a number of occasions… preferably at the hands of a chainsaw or a pick-axe. May you all end up in “Oz” in the same prison cell as Beecher.
Honestly, that piece would read better as a slideshow. It would be a lot easier to read if you just had to click the “right” key after reading the blurb on each team rather than use a scroll bar that is just a little circle on the right-hand side of your screen.
You’ll notice that Simmons uses a pop culture reference in the Mets slide that refers to the television show “Oz” (1997-2003). Pop culture references have become a staple in his works and can be found in some of his earliest writing.
In 1989, Simmons wrote a column on dorm sports for the Holy Cross paper that never made print. He held on to it and eleven years later he published it on AOL. Deadspin highlighted the pop culture references:
• A batter “drops the wiffleball bat like Michael Corleone dropped the gun after he shot McCloskey and Solazzo in ‘The Godfather.’”
• Hacksack is “positively moronic, yet strangely addictive… much like ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’ (before Bo and Luke left in the contract dispute and their loser cousins Coy and Vance took over the show).”
• “If you use a real golf ball” in dorm golf, “invariably someone will take a full swing and send a screeching line drive through a window, causing everyone to scatter faster than the crowd at ‘The Who’ concert in Cincinnati.”
• Dorm football is like “the championship game in ‘Rollerball’ with James Caan — there’s only three guys left by the end of the game, and dead players are strewn about all over the place. The only thing that’s missing are the burning motorcycles and a crowd chanting ‘Jonathan! Jonathan!’”
• Jai Alai is “the Mount Everest, the Larry Bird, the Mona Lisa, hell, THE KATHY IRELAND of hall sports.”
Simmons has become more of a pop culture icon than a sports reporter—due to the fact that he, you know, doesn’t do any reporting—since joining ESPN. He frequently references celebrities, hit television shows and the latest movies in his columns. In fact, his current pet project, Grantland.com, labels itself as a sports and pop culture website.
Bleacher Report offers a Swagger section that is specifically devoted to the intersection of sports and pop culture. It’s not hard to fathom a younger Simmons writing for that branch of the site.
In the early days, Simmons wrote for a niche audience: people that were willing to pay for a subscription to AOL Digital Cities and his friends and family members that requested that he copy and paste the column and email it to them. Similarly, Pink Floyd’s early works appealed to a small subset of listeners: hard-core drug users and people interested in “space noises.”
It was as soon as both the writer and the band figured out how to related to a broader audience that they became famous. In Simmons’ case, it would be hard making a living bashing die-hard sports fans and writing about his time in college. He had to relate to the average fan that watched a couple of games and could care less about what he did in college.
In May of 1999 he suggested that the Red Sox should tear down Fenway Park.
Let’s be honest: If you’re over 5-foot-3 and you weigh more than 120 pounds, there’s no possible way to sit in the seats at Fenway Park and be comfortable. The park was built in 1912; everybody was short in 1912. And that’s fine. Unfortunately for me and everyone else who isn’t built like John Harrington, Bob Costas or Sarah Michelle Gellar, it’s a chore to sit through nine innings of baseball at Fenway.
You don’t have to be a die-hard Red Sox fan to read it. In fact, you don’t even need to be a Red Sox fan. As you long as you are a fan of baseball and have been to the park, which is a stop on most people’s baseball road trips, you can relate to the piece. He uses Harrington, Costas and Gellar to create an image in your mind, but does not bank on it to get people to read it.
Similarly, Pink Floyd uses various sounds in “Time” and “Money” to enhance the message lyrics rather than presenting long instrumentals with abstract noises and hoping that people listen to it a la Piper and Meddle.
Simmons had to first learn how to get his thoughts on paper and later understand the market of his work before he could write his tirade on the ESPYs that got him the ESPN job just like Pink Floyd had to learn how to create and incorporate sound into their work in order to include the jarring cacophony of clock noises at the beginning of “Time” and the surround sound of currency running through a register that is played on loop in the beginning of “Money.”
So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking/
Racing around to come up behind you again/
The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older/
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.
Pink Floyd – Time
There is no tried-and-true method to become an established sportswriter, but as I alluded to in an earlier piece, two paths appear to be emerging:
You join your local paper, cover medial high school sports, answer phones, get coffee, et cetera and wait for somebody to die. As morbid as it sounds, most mainstream media sources have someone in the position you want to be (beat writer, columnist, et cetera) and they are probably not leaving because a) they are passionate about what they do and generate a lot of readership due to years on the beat or b) the passion of covering sports has long since left, but they are not compensated well enough to retire at a reasonable age.
This is not meant to be a shot at the establishment; there are many phenomenal local and national writers. Rather it is just the
truth—newspapers are struggling and they don’t have a lot of openings. Furthermore, there are many respected and talented writers, but many are awfully expendable and just have their job because they’ve held it for so long.
Deadspin has entire segment dedicated to this concept labeled “Why Your Hometown Columnist Sucks.” They have pilloried everyone: Mitch Album and Jay Mariotti, the Skip Bayless-Stephen A. Smith tandem and even Jim Souhan and Sid Hartman from my local paper.
The fact is, the columnist position has been most affected by the Internet. No longer is a fusillade of strong, sometimes unfounded, opinions going to sell a paper. No longer can a columnist string together a list of random references and hope people understand what they are saying. No longer can a columnist just bank on the fact that they are the columnist at the local paper and therefore will get read. Why? Because there are thousands, if not millions, of people doing what they are doing online and the best of the best are probably doing it on a larger platform than the local paper.
Access is vital, but only if used properly. This means that basic tenants of journalism still must be practiced: long interviews, multiple sources and just general time spent around the subjects. Just saying, “I have access” gets you nowhere. It is well documented that many writers are able to provide quality coverage of any topic, including sports, without having access.
This also means that a columnist has to make a decision: do I want to be in the locker room or on a television set? Most people cannot have it both ways. While regular television appearances may help “brand” a writer, many of their columns take a back seat to their TV gig and essentially become a written form of their latest rant. Radio and podcasts can serve to enhance a writer’s credibility while allowing them to build their brand (i.e. Bill Simmons’ BS Report), but at what point does their radio duties interfere with their writing?
The Internet has allowed writers to experiment with the balance of access and branding while developing their writing. Which brings me to the second route:
You join a website like Bleacher Report or SB Nation, start your own blog and write as much as you can. As I have written before, because most of your writing will not be compensated, you must pick up a job on the side. And because you have no formal training outside of whatever you learned in your journalism courses, which at times can be outdated and geared towards students that are unlikely to actually go into journalism, you must read extensively in order to learn from people that are, you know, making money (which is never a bad idea anyway).
This is the Simmons route. The Sports Guy grew up an avid reader, his primary job was as a bartender and he got to where he is now one AOL column at a time. It appears to be the best route right now: Simmons is well read, makes a lot of money and by being placed on the front page of ESPN.com, he arguably has the best real estate in sports journalism right now.
The people that choose the first route argue that “the papers will be around forever.” There’s some truth to that, although I see many papers folding in the near future or combining to take on the strongest blogs on the Internet.
Furthermore, just because the paper is there, doesn’t mean there’s a job for you. I’m not inherently anti-establishment—in fact my association with Bleacher Report would suggest the exact opposite. I just realize that a $30,000/year salary sounds extraordinary now a) its going to be hard to get an entry-level position at a paper to start with, b) I would lose the freedom I have now and potentially have to put my work ahead of friends and family, something I have sworn never to do and c) five years down the road if I’m still covering high school sports for $30,000/year with no chance of moving forward, I’m going to regret my decision.
I will take what I am given and right now the papers are not offering much; therefore the Simmons route appears to be best for me. The problem with it is that at some point I want to be independent and eventually support a family. As Simmons told Ballard, he came close to quitting sportswriting altogether and going into real estate in 2000…a year before he got his spot at ESPN. The fact that he hadn’t made over $3000 in a year and was eight years removed from college meant that his hand was almost forced before he got his big break.
Unless journalism undergoes a radical change, many of the best writers—those with an ambition to thoroughly cover sports, an area of entertainment that has incredible clout in today’s society—may be squeezed out of the industry because they become old enough where they can no longer make a living splitting their time between writing and working a job.
In essence, it all comes down to time and money.
Tom Schreier writes for TheFanManifesto. He can followed on Twitter at @tschreier3. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.