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Feb
25
2013

What to Make of Joe Posnanski Leaving Sports on Earth

The move of 2011 Sportswriter of the Year Joe Posnanski away from his own pet project a year after leaving Sports Illustrated stimulated Tom Schreier’s curiosity. 

Yes, I’ve been away for a little while. I know there are a lot of questions about my book about Joe Paterno, and I will do my best to answer them in a few weeks when the book is published. For now, I’ve been working like crazy on the the new Web site we will be launching, in conjunction with USA Today and MLB Advanced Media, called Sports on Earth. I could not be more thrilled about it. We will obviously be developing as we go, but the idea is to build an all-sports site around compelling, funny, thoughtful, ridiculous and sublime sportswriting. We have an amazing lineup of staff writers right at the start — Tommy Tomlinson, Gwen Knapp, Shaun Powell, Mike Tanier just as a starting point. We have a great group of editors and designers working around the clock. And I think we have some other surprises in store. It’s incredible to be working with this group, and I cannot wait to get started.

A post on Joe Posnanski’s blog dated Friday, July 27, 2012

 

Joe Posnanski, 2011 Sportswriter of the Year.

At the time he posted this on his blog, Joe Posnanski was in the midst of leaving Sports Illustrated for Sports on Earth, a nascent, sports-only website. He had just won the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Sportswriter of the Year Award as a senior writer at SI, placing him among the greats like Red Smith, Jim Murray, Frank Deford and Rick Reilly. The site featured many established writers. Some had come from the newspapers and magazines, while others, like Deadspin founder Will Leitch, grew up in the Internet Era.

Although there were many talented writers on the staff, Posnanski was the headliner. He was what Bill Simmons is to Grantland.com—the man charged with generating viewership on the site. He’s Michael Jordan to the Bulls. Wayne Gretzky to the Oilers. Tom Brady to the Patriots. Yeah Jordan needed Scottie Pippen and Toni Kukoc, Gretzky needed Mark Messier and Marty McSorley and Brady needs Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski, but the team is going to struggle to succeed without their superstar.

On January 26, 2012, Posnanski wrote his first piece for the site, titled Welcome to Sports on Earth. “Today, we start up here at Sports on Earth, and we feel that electricity of the opening bell,” he wrote. “The idea here is to build a sports website around great writing. That’s not exactly a new idea. There is a lot of great sports writing out there and has been pretty much since people carved sports figures on cave walls. But we think it’s a timeless idea.”

 

I apologize for the absence … it has been a fairly hectic last few weeks. I am now the national columnist for NBC Sports. The move involved a lot of mixed emotions, of course. I love the people at Sports On Earth, I think they do amazing work, and I believe deeply in their vision. And the NBC Sports opportunity is absolutely amazing with great people and a chance to do the work I love doing.

Throughout, I kept thinking about the line in Amadeus when Mozart was trying on wigs and found two he particularly loved: “Oh, they’re both so beautiful, I can’t decide. Why don’t I have two heads?”

I officially started a NBC on Friday.

A post on Joe Posnanski’s blog dated February 24, 2013.

 

And just like that, within less than a year of leaving Sports Illustrated, Posnanski has left Sports on Earth to join NBC Sports. There are a couple things to note here…

 

SI and NBC have an amicable relationship

Peter King, a famous football writer known for his Monday Morning Quarterback segment on SI.com and has a Sunday Night Football gig with NBC Sports and Dan Patrick, an erstwhile Sportscenter anchor that has a strained relationship with ESPN, has had SI staff writer Chris Mannix host his show in his absence. Both Patrick and Mannix have done television work for NBC.

Is Posnanski joining NBC with the hopes to get back in with Sports Illustrated? It’s not as far-fetched as you might think.

 

Leaving Sports Illustrated spells doom for writers

The National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association (NSSA) began recognizing the Sportswriter of the Year in 1959 and has

Frank Deford, six-time winner.

never given it to an online-only writer. Bill Simmons, for example, has never won it. With that in mind, however, past recipients have often come from SI, rather than other publications. Smith and Murray both wrote for the newspapers, but six-time winner Frank Deford and 11-time winner Rick Reilly both received the honor it as staff writers for Sports Illustrated.

Deford has been with SI for over 50 years and currently holds a senior position with the magazine—basically he chimes in whenever he damn well feels like. He usually covers the big stuff. Salary cap in baseball? Sure. Concussions in football? You bet. Tim Tebow running shirtless? Ehh…probably not.

The Princeton graduate has also written for Newsweek and Vanity Fair. He has been voted the Magazine Writer of the Year twice by the Washington Journalism Review. And he is a member of the National Association of Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame. He won the National Sportswriter of the Year Award every year 1982 to 1988 except for 1983, when it went to Will Grimsley of the Associated Press. Then, in 1989, he left SI to become the editor-in-chief of The National, the first American daily sports-only newspaper. It lasted only eighteen months.

Sports on Earth may become Posnanski’s The National. Both enterprises failed to distribute their product. Deford tried to deliver the paper via satellite and it folded before it could go online. According to Adweek Posnanski’s site drew just 153,000 visitors in December. To put that in perspective, Grantland had 2 million and Yahoo!’s attempt at an online magazine, ThePostGame, got 10.5 million. Bleacher Report? 12 million.

There are individual slideshows on B/R that get more views than Sports on Earth that*.

*Then again, usually it’s because they have scantily clad women in them.

Reilly basically picked up where Deford left off. He won the first of his 11 National Sportswriter of the Year awards in 1991 and dominated the industry for 15 years.

He spent two years on the Los Angeles Timesstaff with 14-time winner Jim Murray before joining SI in 1985 and from 1997 to

Rick Reilly, 11-time winner.

2007 he penned the “Life of Reilly” column on the back page of the magazine, the first signed opinion piece in SI’s history.

Then, in 2007, he left SI to join ESPN on a 5-year, $17 million contract. His reputation deteriorated from there. He went from writing about a referee that nearly committed suicide after blowing crucial calls in a big game, the hazing of students at The Citadel and a tribute to Jim Murray to complaining about how long baseball games are, criticizing Colin Kaepernick for not reaching out to his birth mother and offering an apology for supporting turncoats like Joe Paterno and Lance Armstrong. He has fallen asleep at sporting events, requested that his tweet about Ben Roethlisberger’s sprained shoulder be mentioned on national television and been fooled by a satirical blog post (twice). He has had a couple good posts here and there, but the good outweighs the bad.

There is a reason why he last won the Sportswriter of the Year in 2006.

Now, of course, winning awards isn’t what sportswriting is all about: There are many talented people that have not won the award and, really, journalism should be about the subject of the story and the reader, not how many awards a writer has earned. The more salient point is that leaving SI usually doesn’t work; many people have not fared well after leaving the magazine.

Jeff Chadiha left SI for ESPN in 2007 and got lost in cyberspace. Sports law guru Lester Munson made the same move a year later after more than 10 years at SI and found his niche with the Worldwide Leader, but has also been ripped for some of his analysis in key cases like the Barry Bonds trial. Selena Roberts, formerly the highest paid female writer, parted ways with the magazine at the end of the year and hasn’t been heard from since. The former New York Times staffer joined SI in 2008, broke the first Alex Rodriguez PED story in 2009 and became part of a three-person rotation to replace Reilly on the back page. She told The Big Lead that she wanted to delve into new media by starting a mobile application using her own handpicked writers.

Time will tell if she fares better than Posnanski.

 

What will happen to the rest of the staff?

Dave Kindred, 1997 Sportswriter of the Year.

Sports on Earth still has Gwen Knapp, who left her job at the San Francisco Chronicle to join the project. It still has Dave Kindred, the 1997 Sportswriter of the Year and Red Smith Award recipient. Leigh Montville was a senior writer at SI.Will Leitch started Deadspin. And there are many others just as talented as they are.

But do they have the draw of a Simmons, Reilly or Posnanski? Who becomes the star there?

Do they become upset at Poz for abandoning them for safer grounds after they left their jobs to join his project? Along those lines, does this change their perception of him as a person? I mean, hell, even Deadspin called him salt of the earth. Was he just an act like so many others?

Most importantly, can a site full of talented writers generate profitable viewership on its own?

We at FanMan certainly hope so.

 

Joe vs. Bill (or the Internet vs. the establishment)

I have written about this before: Bill Simmons is the anti-Joe Posnanski. Poz came up through the papers, with stops at The Charlotte Observer, The Cincinnati Post and Kansas City Star before taking the SI gig. Simmons made brief stops at the Boston Herald and Boston Phoenix right out of J-School, but got fed up with the papers and went online, joining AOL Digital Cities and branding himself as the Boston Sports Guy before joining ESPN.

As it stands, Simmons appears to have the upper hand. He has been criticized for having one shtick—the “fan”—and his unwillingness, or perhaps inability, to do extensive reporting. His pet project, however, is drawing millions of viewers.

It is not all that different from Posnanski’s idea: Put a whole bunch of talented writers on one web page. Grantland.com has produced thought-provoking writing like Chuck Klosterman’s interview about mental disabilities with Royce White, Brian Phillips’ look at the match-fixing in soccer and even Simmons’ own column on performance-enhancing drugs. It should be noted that its readership pales in comparison to Yahoo!’s ThePostGame, even though Yahoo! Sports generates less readership than ESPN (Y! is a close second though).

The launching of Grantland was greatly celebrated, but also received much criticism. Simmons got the ol’ “Teenage rebel ranting on the Internet” treatment for using ESPN money to fund his venture and the website’s platform to promote his work (Grantland.com has space on ESPN’s homepage). “This isn’t going to be a new kind of content,” wrote Atlantic associate editor Nicholas Jackson before the site launched. “Simmons has made it clear that the site is going to be a place for stories about sports and pop culture, two topics that ESPN already covers. The only two topics that ESPN covers, really.”

 

Jackson went on to say that he could see the site working out if Simmons stuck with it, but he expects The Sports Guy to give up before the project blossoms.

 

If Bill Simmons wins the war and ESPN sheds some of the expensive talent it’s already promised a position on the masthead, the site might eventually work. It might actually be something new.

But [he] will lose this battle — the rebellious teenager still relies too heavily on its parents for support — and ESPN will drive this site into the ground. It’s only a matter of time before he leaves.

 

Simmons remains on Grantland and appears willing to grind it out as the site goes through its growing pains. Two million unique viewers per month are insignificant when compared to ThePostGame and Bleacher Report and even SI.com, which sits at about 12 million. In short, the site must grow if it is going to be carried on independently.

Consider this, though: TPG has found a niche audience that wants health and lifestyle tips a la Men’s Health or esoteric topics ranging from Floyd Mayweather’s birthday cake to the best athletes out of historically black colleges and universities.

At the same time, how will it grow? I mean, how many people that are interested in health tips don’t already get Men’s Health or a magazine from their local gym? And how many people care what kind of cake Money May eats?

Bleacher Report throws its size around with thousands of writers producing thousands of stories produced a day that gets thousands of hits per day on the website. It is the strength of the masses: There are many sports fans that want to have their opinion heard and enough unemployed young writers willing to shill out their craft for free.

Once established media starts offering jobs to young writers again, however, the site will lose its best talent. How far can a site go

This, children, is a magazine cover.

relying on overly obsessed bloggers that delve really far into a game’s minutiae or people with 9-to-5 jobs that don’t have time to watch the MLB Network for three hours straight every night?

In theory, Sports Illustrated should not have any of these restrictions. They are well established and known for answering the questions of an average sports fan: Whatever happened to Michael Jordan’s high school coach? What’s it like to party with Rob Gronkowski? Do baseball players that use steroids regret their decision?

They don’t need to find a niche within sports: They are where you go for your sports fix…or at least they were. They should not have trouble building a strong writing staff, many neophyte sportswriters dream of working for them, and they don’t need to worry about space anymore because they are online.

This should mean that, with a staff of talented and passionate writers, the sports world should be their oyster: No topic goes uncovered, no rock goes unturned and no holds are barred. This should be a place where creativity goes wild. It should be a place to find creativity, solemnity and humor in writing.

But its not.

Its not because they hold on to antiquated practices. They missed out on the Manti Te’o story because Pete Thamel was only given two hours to turn in his profile. They don’t allow swearing, even if it is uttered by the subject they are interviewing*. And don’t tell me they wouldn’t like having the viewership that comes with a Simmons, or Simmons-type, writer. But no, they can’t have someone who uses vulgar language or makes inappropriate jokes—even if he or she has a large following.

*Trust me, when they write “F— off!” We all know what they are saying.

Instead, the magazine resorts to having safe writers that aren’t funny, people that grew up in the confines of the newspaper era and were never allowed to hone their voice. They’ll point to Jim Murray as a humorous columnist from the newspaper era, but he did what writers on the Internet are doing now: Broke free from the shackles, wrote humorous columns and honed his own voice.

Antiquated practices stifle creativity and curiosity. They force writers to use flat jokes and turn incomplete copy. That, more than

Jim Murray, 14-time winner.

anything else, is what is driving talent like Reilly, Roberts and Posnanski away from the magazine.

You see, Simmons is in his zone at Grantland and that’s why he is read. He is free to write as long as he wants about whatever suits his fancy. Also, instead of facing restrictions due to ESPN protocol, he is primarily answering to his staff. At ESPN, he was fighting “the man:” The man says he cannot swear. The man says he cannot slander people. The man says he cannot rip other media members.

That dynamic changed when he got his own site. The reason he should not drop the f-bomb 30 times per column is that he will lose the respect of writers like Klosterman, Phillips and Malcolm Gladwell—guys he looks up to. The reason he cannot write a diatribe insinuating that Royce White is faking his mental illness is because it makes Klosterman’s job difficult when he wants to do a poignant interview with his subject. The reason why he has to be careful with other media members is because he may want them to join his team.

Not only that, but Simmons has put himself in a place where he can fire salvos at his opposition—namely Sports Illustrated.

 

He took a crack at them while covering the Olympics:

For those reasons and two others I probably missed, the long jump has turned into the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue of Olympic events — in other words, most people watch it thinking, Hey, remember when we used to care about the long jump?

The London Chronicles, Vol. 4 – August 6, 2012

 

He took a crack at them when he revisited the Ewing Theory:

The Ewing Theory outlasted everything except the Curse of the Spinal Tap Dummers. The SI cover jinx stopped mattering right around the same time that Sports Illustrated stopped mattering as much. The “Curse of the Bambino” died in 2004, and thank god.

Ewing Theory Revised – February 15, 2013

 

He took a crack at their most famous staff writer, Peter King:

[NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is] the worst commissioner in sports history, and really, it’s going to remain that way unless Roger Goodell extends the NFL’s season to 20 games, adds Wednesday- and Friday-night football to the schedule, pays a hitman to murder Jonathan Vilma, and gets outed for having a heated affair with his biographer, Peter King … and even then, I’d probably still give the edge to Bettman.

Go Away, Gary – November 16, 2012

 

Reilly left SI and Simmons beat him at his own game. Posnanski left SI, started his own website, and then abandoned it after less than one year. We’ll revisit this once Roberts launches her mobile application, but right now it looks like The Sports Guy stands unchallenged atop the industry.

At one point I felt that he and Poz were 1a and 1b, but it is hard to say that now. It looks like Posnanski panicked while Simmons has held his ground and actually is starting to thrive.

And that will not change. Unless…

 

What about Yahoo!?

The No. 2 sports website in America is not Sports Illustrated. It is not Bleacher Report or FOX Sports.

It is Yahoo!

Why? Because it has made the right hires, it dominated fantasy sports, it bought out its competition and, most pertinently, it is independent and original writes Clay Travis of Outkick the Coverage:

 

Original content is king. And compelling original content is the emperor that rules the Internet world.  

For example, it’s great to break stories about where a player might end up in free agency. But that’s a story that might only have a shelf life of twenty minutes. Yahoo sports, particularly in college, has broken stories with lasting impact that might not otherwise have ever seen the light of day.

That’s emperor content.

What’s more, Yahoo’s stories have served to reinforce its brand as the anti-ESPN. Given its production relationships with all the leagues, you can legitimately call into question how independent ESPN reporting truly is.

 

Basically, ESPN is afraid to break a story because it might offend their partners and that is why Sports Illustrated has the upper hand on Simmons.

SI can say, “All our writers flop when they leave us. They need the brand to make it big.”

To which Simmons replies: “I’m doing just fine without you guys, thanks!”

SI can say, “Well our website gets more viewership than yours.”

To which Simmons replies: “Yeah, but I’m growing and you’re laying people off. Hell, my site almost gets as many readers as your printed magazine.”

But when SI goes, “Oh yeah? Well try and break a story like A-Rod or Ray Lewis using performance enhancing drugs!” all Simmons can do is write that he doesn’t want players to use PEDs. After all, ESPN doesn’t want him breaking those stories and potentially running afoul with the NFL and MLB, who they rely on for content.

There is a solution here, however.

Yahoo! and NBC are partnering up. Posnanski may not be a great fitwith NBC, which is more focused on football and instant

Credit: Business Insider.

content, but what if he became the front-page guy at Yahoo, one of the most visited websites in the world?

Then Yahoo goes after Simmons.

This is how this goes down: Posnanski is placed on the front page and his columns generate increased viewership to Yahoo! Sports. Yahoo! takes that money and goes to Simmons saying, “Hey, we’re a lot more independent than ESPN, we’ll give you plenty of exposure, plenty of leeway on what to write on and we’ll bring your Grantland guys over with you.”

It’s a huge merger. The industry goes nuts.

ESPN loses their marquee guy and is left with Reilly—who is damaged goods at this point. Their size will keep them from collapsing and they’ll be able to woo a big-time writer if they have to, but they will get passed up on the charts.

SI, on the other hand, enters panic mode.

Not only does Yahoo! have the two best writers in the industry, but they now have a staff that is capable of profiling athletes, storytelling and breaking investigative stories. The Y! writers don’t have to adhere to unnecessary deadlines or crop out important information to meet stringent word counts and can reach anybody that has Internet connection—not a magazine subscription.

If this deal goes down, it will spell doom for Sports Illustrated…and they only have themselves to blame. They were too complacent and too old-fashioned. Unwilling to adapt, they died in the Darwinian world of sports.

By letting their most talented writers go, or at least failing to provide a place where they felt they could thrive, they let the genie out of the bottle. Furthermore, they were not secure enough to swallow their pride and hire Simmons. The Sports Guy doesn’t require the back page, the front page, or 10 pages. He requires space on the Internet—a resource that SI is fully capable of providing.

In reality, SI doesn’t really need Simmons. In fact, they probably don’t need Reilly, Roberts or any other specific person. But they do need a place where writers feel comfortable, where they are allowed to thrive and or creative people do not thrive in a setting with absurd restrictions.

It’s time to adapt, Sports Illustrated, or the world will move on without you.

Tom Schreier writes for TheFanManifesto. He can followed on Twitter at @tschreier3. Email him at tschreier3@gmail.com.

The entire FanMan team can be followed on Twitter at @TheFanManifesto, or liked on Facebook by clicking here.

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