Discover more from House of Strauss
Sports Writers Out, Zoomer TikTokers In
The future of sports media is smartly stupid and influencer-based
I wrote something for the Free Press on the Cavinder twins, the college basketball TikTok stars who made more money off women’s hoops than anyone else in the sport’s history, only to suddenly retire. That article is mostly about them as a phenomenon, specifically, but my journey to Miami brought me into contact with a potentially bleak element surrounding their rise, one that’s pertinent to the current sports media scene.
I’ve been thinking about this in the immediate aftermath of big-time layoffs at The Athletic, my former employer. The Athletic was supposed to be a beacon signaling that quality sports writing could be profitable. Perhaps it will be that, despite the cuts, but such measures add to that long-established sense of an industry endangered.
There have been many thinkpieces on the decline of sports media work and I’ve tried my hand at them. I used to be a “beat writer,” someone who’d follow a team to all their games, with travel funded by my company. Travel is expensive, but it also is the only way to get a range of stories that interest fans. Over time, in the industry, the former factor outweighed the latter.
When I started, all teams had at least one such person physically tailing them. Now, so few people do this job that I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s wholly extinct within five years. For example, ESPN, that sports Goliath, hardly invests in covering the goddamn Golden State Warriors. Their focus is on breaking news about trades and free agency, and that, like so many post-2020 jobs, can be done remotely.
But what about all the other sports media content shops that don’t break news? What’s their plan? There’s been buzz about how the laid-off writers of Sports Illustrated might be replaced by AI, and sure, that future outcome seems sort of plausible. But, based on my Miami trip, I believe that this dystopian vision of the future is off by just a bit. AI isn’t the sports media future; social media influencers are.
The Cavinders are part of that story. Yes them, the scantily clad TikTokers with 6.4 million followers across all platforms. Perhaps this sounds odd considering that the lion’s share of their content happens to be viral dances to trending songs. But stay with me here.
The Cavinders have partnered with a sports media startup called Betr, which is run by YouTube boxer/influencer Jake Paul, in between trips to his tax shelter mansion in Puerto Rico. What is Betr? The future of media, as its workers see it. It’s a self-contained universe of content creators, similar to Barstool, and it funnels viewers to a sports betting app, similar to Barstool. When I asked a Betr manager why her company would gain an edge on the already established Barstool, she enthusiastically responded, “Because we’re better!” Naturally this kicked off a “Who’s on first?”-type routine where I assumed she meant “Betr,” but when that got cleared up, the manager stated her thesis:
Because we’re younger, we’re hungrier, we’ve got Jake Paul and we’re addicted to gambling.
Jake Paul, boasting over 17 million TikTok followers, is viewed by his young employees as this massive asset in this battle for attention and gambling cash. Everything in media is getting faster and, as Ben Smith has pointed out, more powered by individuals than by institutions. The Cavinders, individual creators, offer short attention span theater for a youthful audience of millions. Betr assumes that audience can be monetized and many advertisers would agree.
And yes, at one point in my Miami journey, I spoke with a manager at Betr who believed the twins to be part of what replaces sports writers. He wasn’t talking about what the New York Times-run Athletic might prioritize, but Bleacher Report? The new Sports Illustrated? Almost anywhere else? Aggregation is fine, AI sports writers might help you gain some eyeballs, but it’s individuals who really move the needle.
In a way, my trip to Miami was a coda for this question that’s been lingering in my diminishing industry: Where are all the young people?
When I was coming up in the blogs and at ESPN, there were other young people rising with me. Then, once I got established, the inflow of youth mostly just stopped. Occasionally a younger person would break in, such as Logan Murdock, now at The Ringer, but, as the industry diminished, so too did its ability to incorporate the young and hungry. So where have all the children gone? To the Miami Betr offices, apparently. That’s at least one place where the next generation creates video and audio reactions to the day’s live sports dramas.
As part of my Cavinder assignment, I visited the Betr offices in the industrial-looking Little River district of Miami. It’s a massive warehouse, connected to an open floor plan cubicle farm. I can’t promise you that this company will still exist within two years, but I can say that there’s a tremendous amount of capital and activity getting invested into it.
The warehouse was in a state of fast construction; a worker was building part of a boxing ring while smoking a joint. Nearly everyone you met from the Betr social media team was 23. Nobody has an exact number on it, but the average age of a company employee has to be under 30. Also, the scene was unlike any Bay Area startup I’d seen, given that all these young people were bubbly and socially at ease. Hugs were given out freely, between genders, with no fear of HR protocol. People talked about partying. Within a dying, graying, neurotic industry, cool young people had seized a redoubt. Beyond their enthusiasm, those involved in the Zoomer influence game appear to have a pretty good grasp of kayfabe dynamics. So much Barstool and Betr content seems to exist in that fuzzy zone between fake and real. Or, perhaps more precisely, a lot of the content is the kind of fake that highlights reality, which is why it resonates.
The Cavinder tour was a pretext for such content, with “social producer” Caroline, a 23-year-old just out of the University of Miami, presiding over how this all gets broadcast to the world. She showed off a rack of Betr merch, including hoodies that featured dice emblazoned with the Betr logo, above a 1-800-GAMBLER hotline. It’s a real hotline, for people with real gambling problems, but this display is ironic, like those D.A.R.E shirts that mid-aughts stoners might wear. “We always believe in being responsible!” Carol said with a grin.
And we all will be responsible, at least in comparison to “Derek,” the company’s presentation of gambling loserdom, and a skeleton key to just how savvy the dumbest social media comedic bits can be.
As I hung out in the warehouse, Carol and the twins then cooked up a “surprise” meeting with Derek, a scrawny young man with soft facial hair and a buzzcut. Derek, a heavily promoted character within the Betr universe, plays the role of a “mush,” a person whose picks always turn out badly.
Enable 3rd party cookies or use another browser
The site dresses up his failures for broad comedy, and the Cavinders are to be bundled into the bit. They met Derek, as I accidentally entered the shot, and the exchange was, intentionally, awkward.
Enable 3rd party cookies or use another browser
Off camera, Derek is pretty charismatic, but in character, for the masses, he is a dweeb, and perhaps an avatar for a kind of customer. Derek portrays a sort of fan wish fulfillment because he hangs out with the attractive twins, such as at a Miami Heat playoff game. He also portrays the limitations of fantasy because he loses, they win, and they mock him for his humiliating defeats.
Enable 3rd party cookies or use another browser
I find Derek’s comedy to be pretty dumb and not really funny. The whole joke is just that this guy makes bad betting picks? And yet, after seeing the sausage get made, I have to admit that this stupid content is so smartly conceived. There’s a real malevolent genius to concocting a cuckish character who pals around with the high-status Cavinders, but only as the butt of their jokes. He’s literally modeling losing money towards the Betr coffers, while hanging out with models. Someone actually came up with a means for habituating young men into an attractive form of failing as part of an “organic”-looking humiliation fantasy.
The content itself looks so stupid, and it’s easy to assume that whoever came up with it is equally dim. But the war for social media attention is an incredibly competitive marketplace, as is the battle for gambling dollars. Those who rise within this sector do possess a form of cunning, animal or otherwise.
After getting behind the scenes some, I’d say that much of the high-end influencer strata operates on this level of smart-dumb. If you’re a snob like me, it’s easy to condescend to our Zoomer TikTok overlords after you hear a sentence filled with “umm,” “like,” and various malapropisms. But then, when you watch them strategize a bit for TikTok or Snapchat, you can see that these aren’t foolish operators. They’re thinking and planning with an almost algorithmic read on the human psyche. You can reduce success to, say, being attractive twins, but the Cavinders always seem to understand which trendy TikTok song to use and what moods to project with that audio snippet. How? Mostly based on a deep knowledge of a constantly changing world we’ll never understand. And they map it all out and discuss before hitting “send.” Nothing is by accident.
Non Institutional Power
Beyond the granular understanding top influencers claim, the biggest ones see the big picture. These people are noninstitutional and they know it. Fame isn’t what some director, academic or newspaper editor decides to grant them. It’s whatever the influencers can gin up themselves, after which, they have the power. When I watched Jake Paul interview the Cavinders, it would have been easy to shut my brain off during the upspeak and parade of “like.” But then I would have missed a mutual recognition of strength, specific to this era. The Cavinders had just quit their institution, the NCAA, so Jake Paul naturally asked about it.
Hannah Cavinder explained:
Love it. You’ve got freedom. And with basketball, we constantly had to be on a set schedule for them. And like. I don’t want to be coached by, like, you’ve gotta be here, here, here, here, here. Like every single day.
Jake Paul affirmed:
I think that’s like actually what’s super-interesting about being, like, influencers in today’s day and age where like, you become like, more powerful and bigger than like a whole entire conglomerate. Like you guys probably become more successful, and like make bigger deals and do bigger things, working on your own and creating your own content. Which is fucking crazy.
It is fucking crazy. And it’s impressive. Jake Paul and the Cavinders have this incredible skill of figuring out how to go viral. Dismiss them and mock them, but entire corporations spend months failing to achieve what these influencers can pull off in a few casual minutes. It’s just sort of sad to see such unique power getting mostly directed towards upselling young men into gambling more, but those are the breaks.
I’m sure great sports content creators will still exist and some will rise to the top. But on an institutional level, there’s going to be a draw back from quality. Recently, legalized sports gambling has floated such quality. The entire sports content industry, from high end to low end, had been supplemented by a massive amount of sports betting advertisement cash. So, the smartest commentary was getting propped up by what had just formerly been an underworld vice.
Perhaps this holding pattern of “scuzzy fueling fancy” was too good to be true for long. Eventually, a gold rush for a profit vein as seedy as gambling results in a brutal sort of optimization. Depth quickly gives way to efficiency.
The newish fear in sports media is that writers are going to be replaced by AI. Maybe, though I’m not sure how big incoming generations are on reading, to be blunt about it. Instead they prefer audiovisual content, and quickly as you can provide it. The kids won’t seek out someone like the old me, not at scale anyway. Instead, they’ll seek out the provider who best understands how to be sought. For now, those voices are noninstitutional. Tomorrow, the institutions will sign up these super-influencers. The real threat to the industry isn’t a machine. It’s a good-looking young person who happens to think like one.
House of Strauss is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.