Tom Schreier is no expert in math, but he’s found a formula that works for him.
And there’s a million of us just like me
Who cuss like me/Who just don’t give a fuck like me
Who dress like me/Walk, talk and act like me
It just might be the next best thing
But not quite me
Eminem – The Real Slim Shady
So I’m on a date. Restaurant: Mozza Mia. Location: Edina, Minn. Time: Approximately 6:30 pm. I’m not going to say with who, I don’t want to end up single the rest of my life, but I will tell you that it was a first date.
Anyways, a typical conversation on a first date usually is a person’s professions and, perhaps more pertinently, their aspirations in life. For a lot of people, especially people with a four-year college degree like me, they’re usually working a crappy job that gets the out of the house and looks good on their resume.
For me, my job is a little harder to explain.
Do I go with “I work at Bleacher Report?”
That’s tough because a) I don’t really “work” there because I’m unpaid, b) to the outsider it doesn’t really look like a job and c) most people, including some in the sports industry, are like “Why the hell would you spend hours on end working for free?”
I no longer work at the auto shop and am currently looking for work in the sports industry (i.e. at a newspaper) before looking for another job like I had before. So I’m unemployed, which makes things tricky. I can go, “I’m looking for work,” but telling someone that you are looking to join a newspaper, especially one in a small town, is like telling them that you want to sell pagers…in
Evansville, Ind. or Laredo, Tex. or anywhere in Wyoming/Montana.
Even if I still had my job at the shop, I’m not sure I’d want to say I work there. This is not a slight to auto mechanics, they work a difficult and important job, but here’s the thing: I’m not a certified mechanic. At the shop I shipped things (which is pretty easy with flat rate boxes), inventoried auto parts (easy once you know what they are) and cleaned toilets (about as pleasant as cleaning your own toilet, except its someone else’s poop).
So yeah…probably going to pass on the toilet cleaning conversation right before dinner.
As I sit there, waiting for a table to open up while trying to explain what I do, I look up above the bar to my left and see ESPN’s NBA Countdown on two of the screens.
“See that guy up there,” I say while pointing at Bill Simmons, “he’s the most famous sportswriter in the world. He makes ballplayer money.”
“Really?” she says.
“Yeah,” I respond. “So I guess I want to be Bill Simmons.”
Hi kids! Do you like violence? (Yeah yeah yeah!)
Wanna see me stick Nine Inch Nails/Through each one of my eyelids? (Uh-huh!)
Wanna copy me and do exactly like I did? (Yeah yeah!)
Eminem – My Name Is
Tell anyone (I mean anyone) that you want to be the next Bill Simmons and they’ll laugh until they’re blue in face. You might as well be telling them that you want to be the next Michael Jordan. Worse yet, tell an established sportswriter (not named Bill
Simmons, of course) that you want to be the next Bill Simmons and you will never, ever be hired. After all, he’s making millions sitting on the bleachers while they are scraping by trying to provide original content via interviews and investigation.
During my senior year at Santa Clara, I took a course with George Dohrmann, an investigative journalist at Sports Illustrated that made a name for himself by reveling the University of Minnesota basketball team’s academic fraud while working at the Pioneer Press and has ghostwritten a story on a former sports agent and broke the Jim Tressel story, among other things, while at SI.
Each class of his had a theme. Some focused on individual tasks (i.e. beat writing, AP stories or investigative journalism), some were assignment based (i.e. write a story about a bowling match between two students) and others focused on an individual writer (Grantland Rice, Jim Murray, Rick Reilly, et cetera).
Naturally, he had a “Bill Simmons class.” In it, he articulated the relationship between platform and writer—essentially that the biggest platform needs the best writers and vice versa—but also made a pretty strong argument that it is hard to be a humorous writer.
He used Bay Area columnist Ray Ratto as an example. The man is funnier than hell in person—I can attest, having been at a couple San Jose Sharks practices and games when he was in the press box—but occasionally the humor in his writing is a little off. Fortunately for Ratto, who has written for the San Francisco Chronicle and now writes for CSNBayArea.com, he doesn’t bank on that humor. He provides strong insight that comes as a result of attending sporting events and doing interviews.
He also used an article Simmons wrote about the World Cup qualifier against Mexico in 2009 to show where the writer’s lack of professional training became a shortcoming. For starters, he was not a typical fan: Simmons watched the game from an ESPN press box because he has two kids, making that “An absolutely horrible idea.”
Furthermore, Simmons has little knowledge of the sport of soccer and relied heavily on popular culture references to describe what was happening during the game. “Blanco might be 73 for all we know,” wrote Simmons, describing a Mexican player, “he moves like the ‘South Park’ guys are animating him. Didn’t matter. He’s magical.”
The problem with referencing pop culture, as Simmons often does, is that if people are unfamiliar with a particular show (film, et cetera), they will not be able to interpret what the writer is description. While some literary descriptions can be overbearing (we’re in the Internet age, after all, use some damn pictures and videos!) Dohrmann suggested that writing something like “Blanco moved slowly and wobbled frequently, like a ‘South Park’ character,” is a simple fix that allows any reader to get the basic concept of how this veteran player moved on the pitch.
It is not as though Dohrmann spent 40-some minutes ripping The Sports Guy. He offered that many of his basketball articles are
worth reading. Simmons’ Atrocious GM Summit, one of my favorite articles of all-time, was clever and humorous while at the same time informative. Written entirely with faux dialogue, the writer’s intimate knowledge of the game he loves gave the piece life.
Dohrmann’s warning, however, is that something like that cannot be written overnight. It took Simmons years and years of writing at AOL, along with countless hours of reading on the side and incredible knowledge of the NBA, to write a completely fictional piece that people want to spend hours reading online.
In essence, he was saying that Simmons was not a good model for neophyte writers. You’re better off being like Rice, Murray or Reilly—people that became famous for their well-researched, informative pieces and, in the case of Murray and Reilly, used humor to supplement their more journalistic pieces.
This is what I took away from it, however: These guys aren’t really all that different. In fact, they follow a pretty strict formula. All of these writers know one sport in particular very well, have a pretty strong tie to a certain region and wrote for a large platform. Or, if you want it in mathematical form:
Sport + Region + Large Platform = Fame and Fortune
Think about it.
Rick Reilly has a notorious passion for golf. He’s written books on golf and some of his best work are about golf and he even appears on ESPN’s television shows to discuss golf. Of course he has made jokes about advertisements, ripped football teams and written heart-wrenching features about supermodels, but in the end you know Reilly is a golf guy at heart.
It’s also no secret that the man is from Colorado. In his famous piece on the sexual abuse of female CU kicker Katie Hnida, he wrote “At Colorado they’re majoring in b.s. The denials have piled up like cordwood. You show me a coach who maintains he’s unaware of recruiting parties featuring paid strippers, of four alleged rapes, of sexual harassment claims by one of his players against other players, and I’ll show you a coach who is hell-bent on not knowing.
“Makes this alum want to hide his class ring.”
Reilly continues to write about the Rocky Mountain State to this day. Recently, he had a popular piece where he claimed that he “Believed in Tebow,” a story about a Colorado Rockies player that played catch with a person that recently had five cancer relapses and a fluff piece about the Denver Broncos’ receiving tandem of Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas.
Finally, this man made his money by writing on the back page of Sports Illustrated for 10 years and currently writes on the front page of ESPN.com—two large platforms.
The Reilly formula:
Golf + Colorado + ESPN = Five years/$17 million
With Simmons it’s pretty clear-cut too. He was known as the Boston Sports Guy both on his old blog and at AOL and then morphed into the general sports guy as he moved to ESPN—first on Page 2 and later to his own site, Grantland.com. At this point it’s hard to take him seriously as the “Boston Sports Guy” because he lives in Los Angeles, but everyone knows his affinity for Boston sports.
And we all know that basketball is Simmons’ sport: He wrote a tome on it for crying out loud!
The Simmons formula:
It’s a little harder to create the formula with Rice and Murray because both are deceased writers from a different era, but there are a couple of similarities here. Rice was a football player at Vanderbilt and became famous for his piece on Notre Dame’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse following a ND-Army contest on the gridiron. The piece made him a legend at the nation/cult/empire that is Notre Dame. In his prime, Grantland’s work was syndicated in newspapers nationally at a time when they were thriving.
The Grantland formula:
Football + Notre Dame + Newspaper Syndication = Superstardom
Murray actually started his career investigating crimes at smaller papers in Connecticut and Los Angeles before focusing on sports as a writer for Sports Illustrated from 1953-61 and then going on an incredible run at the Los Angeles Times from 1961-98. It was at the LA Times that he was known to ridicule other cities and cracked jokes about how white Larry Bird was. He had touching human interest pieces and famously only wrote about himself twice, but with LA being a basketball city—Magic’s Showtime Lakers and John Wooden’s UCLA teams—it’s hard not to think he was a basketball guy.
What’s more? Reilly was on the LA Times staff with Murray shortly before joining SI. That’s right: Murray was a direct influence on Reilly. In a profile of Murray that Reilly wrote for SI, he wrote, “How big is Murray? One time he couldn’t make an awards dinner so he had a sub—Bob Hope.”
That was written in 1986. Ten years later Reilly would go on his run as the back page columnist at Sports Illustrated, the run that got him his current job at ESPN.
The Murray formula:
Basketball + Los Angeles + Los Angeles Times = Superstardom
If you want to get outside of the ESPN/Reilly ecosystem, look no farther than Joe Posnanski. Arguably the most underrated person in sportswriting, Posnanski is a former Kansas City Star columnist that recently resigned from his position as a senior writer at SI and has started his own website, SportsonEarth.com and maintains his own blog.
Posnanski joined SI after Reilly. While at SI he wrote pieces for the magazine and had his own blog, Curiously Long Posts, where he rambled on about many things, especially baseball. The man is a Hall of Fame guru and, in my humble opinion, has struck a balance of capturing the human side of baseball while also including advanced metrics in his work.
A columnist at the Star from 1996 to 2009, Posnanski also has ties to Cincinnati and Charlotte, but grew up in Cleveland and clearly loved his hometown Browns, Indians and Cavaliers. He has also written flattering things about Kansas City. I prefer to think of him as a Cleveland man at heart, but there’s an argument to be made that he has just as much affinity for KC. If you want to go hybrid on this one, I can see the argument. I’ve been to both Kansas City and Cleveland and don’t see an incredible difference (kidding!) so let’s just say he likes both. Either way, he fits the mold.
The Posnanski formula:
Baseball + Kansas City/Cleveland + SI/Sports on Earth = Superstardom
As far as I know, Posnanski’s salary is undisclosed. My guess is he is making significantly less than Reilly and Simmons*, however. What makes him intriguing, however, is that he has truly branched out. Unlike Simmons, who’s personal website is owned and operated by ESPN, Sports on Earth is not affiliated with Sports Illustrated. For all intents and purposes, Posnanski is as independent as you can get.
*For what it’s worth: Reilly apparently was offered $1.5 million to stay at SI. Posnanski was obviously valued there, but there’s no way he commanded Reilly money.
The success or failure of Sports on Earth will determine the value of a writer in today’s world. It will answer the question of if you’re good enough, can you make money doing your own thing?
Now this looks like a job for me
So everybody just follow me
‘Cause we need a little controversy
‘Cause it feels so empty without me
Eminem – Without Me
This will come as a surprise to no one, but established writers—people that did things the “right” way: started in a small town, shuffled around a bit and then finally landed their dream job—were laid off when the economy/newspapers started to crash. These are people that have been in the industry for 10, 15, 20 years.
My local paper, the Star Tribune, went bankrupt a couple years back and MinnPost.com, a nonprofit enterprise, released a Strib layoff/buyout list in 2010. Twenty-seven jobs were cut. I’ve spoken to one person with 15 years of experience that lost their job following the paper’s bankruptcy and they still remain unemployed.
In short, you can be an outstanding fundamental journalist and still lose your job.
I recall a conversation I had with Dohrmann about this. We were at my regular journalism teacher’s house and I had just read my 3500-word capstone article, the last one I would turn in as an undergraduate, and just listened to it get ripped apart.
I found Dohrmann after being pilloried by the guests that were invited to read my article and even a classmate of mine that had graduated early. I apologized, telling me that I felt bad he had to read such a terrible article. He smiled and told me it was well researched and had promise, but lacked direction.
It made sense to me. I had an easy job starting the story, but hit a roadblock a couple weeks into class. Nobody, including my teacher, could help me move forward with the story and I ended up with a lot of really great interviews, but not a complete piece.
By the time I talked to Dohrmann it was too late: I had only a couple weeks left in class and I just had to throw something together to pass and graduate. It was a downer for me because I felt this was a great opportunity to showcase my skills and potentially have something published in a major magazine.
Seeing I was defeated, Dohrmann sat me down for a little heart-to-heart. I’m sure he could tell that I was interested in professional sportswriting* and wanted to run a couple things by me.
* For starters, I had told him that was my goal and tried to showcase myself in class.
He emphasized fundamental journalism, saying that he would have pulled aside any student that he felt was outstandingly funny or an incredible writer at the beginning of class and told them they could bank on those skills. Everyone else has to do incredible reporting.
I felt a little slighted, but understood what he was saying. In that class, for example, one student did two outstanding interviews where she had a stripper and porn star discuss everything from their job descriptions and annual salaries to their personal sex life and even the regrets they harbored. The piece was not well written—the sentences were choppy, the paragraphs were of
inconsistent length and quotes were either too long or misplaced—still everyone enjoyed it because it was so revealing.
I am very grateful for the instruction Dohrmann imparted on me. While I may have been overly optimistic that our relationship would land me a job*, I learned a lot in his course and am forever grateful that he decided to teach a class at Santa Clara of all places.
*Overly optimistic is an understatement. I had told a lady I was interested in at the time that I was taking a course with Dohrmann and would be writing for Sports Illustrated once I graduated. Of course, I am not. I’m happy to say that this particular person has a full time job in professional sports now, but it feels a little like cruel irony.
I’m not sure he was right though. Obviously, a professional sportswriter should practice fundamental journalism: There is a much larger market for good journalism than there is for people’s individual thoughts on sports. While jobs in journalism are disappearing, there are a lot more journalists that make a living than there are bloggers. At the same time, you’ve got to be a dynamic writer.
I’m not trying to say I’m the next Bill Simmons, far from it. I know I’m not Bill Simmons or Rick Reilly or Joe Posnanski or Jim Murray or Grantland Rice. I’m Tom Schreier: I’m from Minnesota, I love hockey and I will be a Twins, Wild, Timberwolves and Vikings fan until I die. I don’t ever look at other writers and try to be them; I just look for common patterns and do my best to emulate those trends. At a time where an aspiring sportswriter has no idea where to go, I need something to guide me. So I use the formula.
The Schreier formula:
Hockey + Minnesota + Bleacher Report = Well…we’ll see
Finally, to wrap this all up I should probably tell you how Eminem fits in here. After all, I’ve quoted three of his songs and he has yet to be mentioned in the piece. Here’s the thing: He fits the formula.
Think about it.
For the first part, don’t think of sports because he’s not an athlete/writer. Rather, think of music. He didn’t choose jazz, classical or rock. He chose rap. And by nature of being white, he stood out in the crowd.
Finally, the record label he signs with offers him a large platform.
The Eminem formula:
Rap + Detroit + Record Label = More Money than You’d Like to Believe
Since Marshall Mathers got big and became Eminem—or his alter ego, Slim Shady—many people have tried to emulate him. As Eminem is quick to point out, all have failed. Of course there are other successful white rappers (see: Miller, Mac), but none of them are Shady protégés. Instead, they have found their own niche within the industry.
Furthermore, he plays the role of the nuisance. And, for all intents and purposes, a traditional writer/journalist sees Simmons’ refusal to interview his subjects or watch the game from the press box as akin to Eminem telling children to poke themselves in the eyes. It’s as if by refusing to practice traditional journalism, Simmons is encouraging people to become recalcitrant bloggers rather than diligent journalists—a notion the writer is vehemently opposed to.
The similarity* between Eminem and Simmons, however, is that both play the role of agitator. Simmons has no problem coming out and bashing anyone from commissioners to players and Eminem clearly isn’t shy about antagonizing his competition and detractors.
*Something else to think about, too, is that both have daughters that are featured prominently in their work. Eminem frequently references his daughter Hailie and dedicated has a couple songs to her. Simmons also references his daughter in his work, most prominently in this piece.
On a broader scale, Eminem uses the same formula many writers have used to become successful. That’s not to say that you have to be an agitator to be successful as a sportswriter—Reilly is, but Posnanski, Murray and Rice weren’t. In fact, you don’t really have to follow the formula. Many writers don’t.
Eventually, everybody in sports learns a simple truth, though: If you can be replaced, you will. For me, I believe the formula will keep me in this industry for a long time.
Guess there’s a Slim Shady in all of us
Eminem – The Real Slim Shady
Tom Schreier writes for TheFanManifesto. He can followed on Twitter at @tschreier3. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.