On Riding Out Industry Turmoil
Why do some sports writers stick with this profession as others drop out?
March Madness is back and it has me feeling nostalgic, even if college basketball isn’t top of mind.
Tom Ziller at Good Morning It’s Basketball wrote a thoughtful column on how an NBA writer might start a Substack. The advice was sound, but that’s not what stuck with me about the post. Instead it was this opener:
Some great sports bloggers and podcasters are looking for a new home for their work given Vox Media’s latest retrenchment.
A simple enough sentence, that left me with two main thoughts. 1) The recent collapse in podcast revenue is going to result in many friends and acquaintances getting washed out of the industry and 2) Ziller’s still here.
I’ve never met Tom Ziller, not even once. The opportunity never came up because he went about this gig in a different way. He eschewed the typical sports media circuit, preferring to stay a diligent blogger through and through. And as long as I’ve been aware of sports blogging, Ziller has been a respected presence. He was member of FreeDarko, a collective that was very influential among sports writers all the way back in the aughts. He was a founding editor of Sactown Royalty, the best blog devoted to coverage of his hometown Sacramento Kings, a site that remains to this day. Ziller started his GMIB newsletter back in 2014, the year I got hired by ESPN to cover the Warriors full-time as a beat writer, and it’s still going strong, every day, in your inbox.
This is the short version of his writing career, the top-of-head summary from afar that leaves out a bunch of twists and turns he overcame to still be here. I don’t know what motivated him to do this, whether he has a job separate from the blogging, whether he disapproves of what I’m doing over here (I suspect ‘yes’ and that’s fine). I just know he still consistently, prolifically generates good basketball content, long after so many of his peers burned out or were ejected from this ecosystem. I observe it, and respect it, and my mind then turns to everyone who’s fallen out or who’s just barely hanging on.
At a certain age, in turbulent entertainment-based industries, you start to notice the absence of friends you came up with. It’s not a tragic end for most of these people. In some cases, they simply grew up and chose better lives. Given the sudden-seeming absence of your old peers, you also tend to notice those who remain, especially if they preceded your entry. Why them? What did they have that allowed this all to continue?
Ziller’s piece is big on the “what,” but, and this is description as opposed to criticism, light on the “why.” Ziller must have a strong “why” or he would have left many Internet phase shifts ago.
If you’re fired from a sports writing job, it might be time to home in on that “why.” As in …
Why did you choose this lifestyle, if it is, indeed your preferred career path? There’s little assurance of financial stability and many psychic downsides to putting your opinion out there on the Internet. Is this just a need for attention? Do you think you’re the next Zach Lowe? Is it about connecting a community to itself? What’s the engine driving all this, because it’ll need to power through some obstacles.
There’s barely an industry left right now. Really, it’s a Potemkin industry. The beat writer job, my old gig, is being phased out. Respected, well-sourced writers at prestige institutions are getting laid off and replaced by college-aged aggregators. Eventually such publications will rely on AI. Hell, it’s probably already happening. There are a million podcasts, many featuring former and current professional athletes. How are you ever going to get heard above this incredible din, in this moment in history where there’s no barrier of entry for an opinion accessible by all?
College kids write to me, looking for advice on how to get into sports media. I used to preach humility, telling them to humbly pay their dues. Now, I’m leaning in the opposite direction. I want grandiosity from these kids, a near-delusional belief that you can make everybody stop and reckon with your work. How else are you going to break into an impossible industry?
In truth, it was always helpful to have some of that. When my wife and I met, back in my mid-20s, she was concerned because I was planning a move to North Dakota just so I could write a book about life within the Golden State Warriors’ then G-League team. Who would publish a book by an unknown writer about the Dakota Wizards of Bismarck, and their freezing cold adventures? That thought barely occurred to me. I was just caught up in the romance of people fighting for a glamorous dream in an extreme and remote locale. I figured I’d show up, subject myself to novel tortures, observe the story and turn it into an American classic. Half of me is still convinced I could have done it. The other, more decisive half, settled upon staying longer in the Bay, getting married, and eventually riding the Golden State Warriors’ elevator to gainful employment.
Yes, I got incredibly lucky. Who knows what becomes of my ambitions if Steph Curry’s ankle surgery is botched in 2012? And yet, I still believe I would have made it in some capacity with or without that level of luck. Why?
Apart from the aforementioned creative grandiosity, I look to one of my favorite clips in a documentary. It’s from Comedian (2002), which follows Jerry Seinfeld around as he attempts to develop a new act, post-sitcom. At the time, the movie was a mind-blowingly candid look at erstwhile figures of mystery, back before comedians took to podcasting en masse and revealed all their secrets.
In the documentary, Seinfeld’s reclamation of chops is paired against the aspirational struggles of a 29-year-old comedian named Orny Adams. At a certain point the two meet, in a comedy club, and Adams starts venting his frustrations. He says, “You get to a point you’re like, “How much longer can I take it?” Seinfeld appears disgusted by the younger man’s perspective, chiding with, “Do you have something else you rather would have been doing? You got other appointments or other places you’ve got to be?” Adams laments how, at age 29, he’s seeing friends make money on Wall Street, have families, have “a sense of normality.”
Seinfeld’s response includes a comedic anecdote about show business, which you should watch, but I’ll summarize this way. As the Glenn Miller Orchestra is traveling to a gig, their plane has to land in a field due to snowy weather. As they’re walking to their show, shivering and wet, instruments in hand, they happen upon a house, which they can see into. It’s a home with a happy family, eating and enjoying life together by the warmth of the fireplace. After taking in this Norman Rockwell scene, one freezing cold musician turns to another and says, with a sneer, “How do people live like that?!”
Personally, I’m partial to having a family and being warm, but I get it. Some of us just don’t fit into office work. Most people hate it, sure, but some of us really just don’t fit. I got fired a few months into working at Yelp and, years earlier, would have been fired a few weeks into working at the Berkeley Engineering Library if I didn’t preempt that by quitting. In contrast, I immediately took to the carny lifestyle of outsider sports writing and all its road adventures. I was game for that journey, even when conditions were suboptimal and my debit card was overdrafting. I remember, back at one Las Vegas Summer League, sleeping on the floor of Zach Harper’s Hard Rock hotel room. If not the immortal Hard Rock, the network of NBA bloggers, these other carnies, could reliably scrounge up a couch and blanket for you in any major city. Back then, that was good enough.
Would it have been good enough at age 29? I was nearing 29 back then but that’s not the point. The point is that I never had a moment of doubting my choices. There was no turning back, no net underneath to catch me. I’d make it as some kind of writer because it was the only work I ever loved. My friends cashing in on Wall Street would be as meaningless to me as Jerry Seinfeld believed it should be to Adams.
The reflexive reaction to the scene by some is, “Easy for Jerry Seinfeld to say!” Sure, yes, he’s made a billion dollars off comedy, but his reaction is obviously genuine. He’s a comedian through and through, by all accounts. Even after earning a billion he can’t stop, such is his draw to this life. Making money can be the byproduct of obsession, but it shouldn’t be conflated as the reason for it.
I can’t tell someone that they’ll make it in sports media simply if they desperately want to. The conditions in the industry are too unforgiving for a statement like that, plus I’m not sure “wanting to” is the right perspective. What I do know is that love and obsession are table stakes for perseverance. Your “why” needs to be powerful because, even if you wildly succeed, you will likely be laid off, fired, and publicly humiliated in some capacity. You might even be burned out on what you’re doing, in which case, you’ll have to creatively pivot. It’s that or give it up and become a normal person.
I’ve had that opportunity, specifically. I was fired by ESPN in 2017, and put on contractual ice for an entire year. There was a lot of soul-searching in those months, since I’d been shit-canned from a job I no longer liked. Was it time to leave? Could I even return? I desperately searched for a “why.” Then I found one and joined The Athletic in 2018.
And what was that “why”? It’s the same reason that I quit The Athletic in 2021, after having a good run and decent bosses: I believe I can do something great with the right raw materials and inspiration. In 2018, that was the Warriors. For me in 2021, it was everything else happening in the broader sports culture. The latter worked out, securing a decent living (for now). It succeeded even though I stopped writing about Golden State, the subject I was 99 percent associated with for those who’d heard of me. Pre launch, smart people advised that I write about the Warriors. There was some understandable concern from the guy who offered me a Pro Deal to come here. He wasn’t wrong necessarily. It would have made sense, practically speaking, to stick with the only obvious association that had ever made me worth paying attention to. I just didn’t feel a powerful “why” at that point. Other people were doing better Warriors coverage and I’d lost the thread. The new “why,” the one connected to an internal sense of drive, was also tethered to the challenge of rejecting the old one.
Whatever I’m doing, it’s not going to be a real job, full time. I’m capable of the household Norman Rockwell scene on some occasions, but I’m not capable of a being at a workplace. I just can’t sit still. I just can’t do Slack. I would encourage anyone getting fired right now to consider whether they share a similar allergy.
If you do, you don’t need to live a wholly chaotic life. If you so choose to be, say, a sports writer, you’re permitted to have a spouse and children. You’re allowed to supplement that vocation with a traditional job. Look, you don’t literally have to move to Bismarck. It’s just that, to succeed in a business that’s barely a business, some part of you should always be restless. The only way to remain here is to be driven, but not towards an end that makes conventional sense.
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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