Why do some sports writers stick with this profession as others drop out?
I flamed out in the early 2010s after steadily growing modest (in the hundreds) of consumers of whatever I was writing on the NBA. Started in forums and the glorious FoxSports self service blogs of the aughts. One day without warning FoxSports just nuked everything. So I got into the Truehoop thing and the daily dime thing and then started doing weekly local radio bits. I put thousands of hours into this over a decade and earned about $150 total. Disney would actually pay about $20 a night for Daily Dime contributors. I interviewed and competed for positions to write for free. But I was getting quiet accolades on the quality/readability of the pieces and radio talent. Oddly enough, a few of my smartest/most successful friends told me I was the best writer they knew. That kept me going for years and really served as a giant distraction from my job that paid the bills and my family - although everyone thought it was cool and supported/promoted it.
The biggest problem for me was that I could only write one way - 4x longer than needed and staying up all night writing 10 hours straight. Making every argument and counter argument and trying to make it impossible for anyone to disagree with my takes. I was also constantly doing analysis and inserting spreadsheets and things into the pieces, so these were like mini research reports. They were all consuming, All the while, the mediums kept changing rapidly and the business model was becoming more and more unsavory. The clickbait/aggregate/fill every day with content seemed to be overcoming the FreeDarko (take your time to write something that matters) model (the substack model!). Daily Fantasy helped accelerate this as the incentives exploded to provide instant "analysis" of everything all the time. With some co-bloggers, I tried a pivot in 2014 to a predictive analytics focused site - marrying up the latests in the analytics movement with long form. Basically, fill the John Hollinger void while he was off grinding out second round playoff exits in the West. It took a lot of effort to get the site off the ground. We did, and we wrote some good stuff. A month later ESPN published the same type of predictive value data we were publishing with some fanfare. All this work we'd done to scrape, filter, process, and format, work that we thought would drive traffic to the writing, was OBE instantly. So we lasted a few months and collectively realized we couldn't spend 3 hours a day on something like this with maybe 100 people visiting the site per week.
The original blog is still alive, frozen in time (in the best way imaginable) and we pay the hosting fees ourselves so we can maintain our little ad-free beach community with the same wildly engaged 30 people. There's no path to monetize and we stopped caring 10 years ago.
Ethan, I'm really impressed by your career. When you first came on the scene I thought you were smug as hell (perfect fit for covering the Lightyears Warriors!). But seeing you write about the things you write about showcases a fearlessness I wish I had. You're also an elite writer/storyteller/pattern finder/take seller/podcaster. I think your advice is sound. I would say to an aspiring writer - some of the best things I've read are by no-name people doing it for the love of writing and it's not a happy existence. Writers write to be widely read so they measure themselves in recognition*eyeballs. Assuming you have talent you need to pimp yourself out to increase eyeballs. If you have all the energy to do that there's probably a better/more fulfilling/more lucrative life in a different industry.
I can relate to this quite a bit as I am site manager for Welcome to Loud City, a sports blog that was canned by Vox Media. I got into writing about the Thunder five years ago to share my passion for the team and keep the community going. It's a kick in the teeth to hear the opportunity is going away and the uncertainty is a bit troubling.
That being said, there is a silver lining to the process. Coming off Vox means independence from their targets and story mill, you can write what you want to write without needing to think about the weekly target.
I do not know if I could ever make a living out of writing about the Thunder. At SB, I was paid around $300 to manage, write and recruit staff which is a pittance all things considered. On something like Substack, the rate of return is better and you actually have ownership of the site
Articles like this one are the reason I am a paid subscriber
Honestly my advice to anyone seeking high supply low demand careers like "sports journalism" is stay the fuck away from them. It makes your life so much harder and is really only 10-20% better than what you get as a hobbyist. Meanwhile during your other work you can make bank and live a secure life.
The world needs 20,000x the accountants it does sports writers, why fight it? Be an accountant, and if you really must share you thoughts do that on the side.
Most jobs, even in industries you LOVE, are still jobs.
This article touched on many subjects I've had to consider in the past so I felt compelled to share my (not overly interesting) experience:
When I was in high school I was convinced I'd be a sportswriter someday. I did very well in all my writing classes and assignments, and my passion for sports was unmatched by anyone else I knew. My parents told me that if I finished my B. Comm I had their blessing to follow whichever career path I wanted. Once I got into college I realized the industry I once looked fondly on was not all that I expected. I learned a career in sportswriting meant lower pay, greater job uncertainty, more competition for fewer opportunities, and that the quality of my work would not be correlated to my success. I ultimately decided that such a life would kill my passion for the sport I covered.
I'm now a few years into my career and I feel I made the right move. I still have the same passion for sports I did when I was younger; if anything it's grown with time. I'm now able to apply skills learned through my career in data analytics to information from sports-reference and similar databases, which deepens my knowledge and interest even further. Now I'm in a situation where I can indulge in as much sports knowledge as I like, without having to consider how the information I find will put food on the table for me.
There may come a day where I feel compelled to put some of my knowledge on paper, or explore a few topics in a blog, but it will be of my own volition, and the content will be of interest to myself first and foremost. Through the years I think I realized that my "why" for sportswriting would've just been because I like sports and not because I had an inherent desire to inform fans on a particular team or league.
"whether he disapproves of what I’m doing over here (I suspect ‘yes’ and that’s fine)."
Why would you assume he disapproves?
The highlight of my sports writing hobby is that I had about ~3 pieces on FreeDarko and was able to be mentioned in the final post with luminaries such as the aforementioned Tom Ziller, Chris Ryan, Brian Philips, Will Leitch, and others.
To be honest there are quite a few industries that are similar, have worked in fashion and beauty sectors and there is definitely this same type of issue where people get worked insanely hard to their detriment but they do it because if one person (especially at a junior level) gets fed up there’s 100 who will happily take up their place so they’ll work 60/70/80 hours a week, 7 days a week in the hope it’ll get them somewhere and more seniority when it won’t for most, they’re not getting beyond that level (or not far above it) but because it’s an industry that a lot want to work in and there is kudos amongst their social circles if you get into a hot company then it’s worthwhile to many for longer than it should.
same thing in the financial sector where I remember doing an internship at a firm in londons financial district and seeing crazy stuff like when one guy made £500k on the bond markets at around 8pm so for months the trading desks were pretty much packed from 6am to 9pm, which was insane as that guy purely got lucky not was inherently good, people will do utterly crazy stuff if it means they have a 1% of getting that big win, big promotion etc which likely won’t happen.
Excellent work here Ethan, makes the subscription pay for itself.
This post can be punctuated with Marshawn Lynch holding his dick as he jumps backwards into the end zone. That, or something like, "I'm Ethan Goddamn Strauss! I am the danger! I am the One Who Knocks (OWK)!"Thank you Ethan, OWK, for making a post that doesn't have anything to do with hockey.
"I’m capable of the household Norman Rockwell scene on some occasions, but I’m not capable of a being at a workplace" ... Amen Ethan, and the need to not be tied down to the mundane is not just applicable for those in sports.