The 2024 Mailbag
Themes of Aladdin vs. Lion King? My politics? And of course, sports media talk
Sorry this took awhile. I was actually a little surprised by the level of response to the Mailbag alarm and found curation to be a challenge, given all the options. If I didn’t get to your question, just know that many questions were emailed/sent. Okay, enough with the excuses, we’re trying to be accountable in a new year.
How has Substack changed the sports media landscape?
It’s offered it hope, which is no small thing. I think more importantly, though, it’s challenged writers and podcasters to come up with new methods. Everyone who does this is experimenting with what works, as opposed to just executing someone else’s plan. From watching all these ventures, we can discover novel forms of doing sports media, perhaps similar to how early internet blogging opened up new possibilities. For example, apparently you can earn a great living by reporting on college sports in the Pacific Northwest. Who knows what other opportunities await for those who seize them?
Lost in Space:
Would you ever detail your political beliefs ? I’m sure some assume one thing and others another, but due to what seems like pragmatic writing/podcasting since the TrueHoop days I’d be curious. Some have turned feeling you’re some kind of MAGA though I feel that is not the case. Enjoy the writing and the pod
First, let’s start with the last part. I think it became commonplace to accuse skeptical people of being MAGA, even if they literally never were, as a means of trying shut them up. MAGA is the out group in a lot of media spaces, so the accusation’s served a way to delegitimize if you don’t like what you’re hearing from someone.
I’ve never voted for Trump, and don’t plan on voting for Trump, but where I differ from a lot of media members is that my attitude is, “So what if I did?” I don’t believe that voting Blue should be table stakes for having a mainstream media career. Ultimately, I’m not so impressed by Team Blue’s work (especially in my home state) that I believe Team Red should be shamed as deviants who must hide their preferences.
As for my own political beliefs…it’s not like they’re connected in an overarching structure. I live in a one party area, so it’s not as though I’m tangibly deciding between plausible options at any point. In that vacuum I, like a lot of people, haven’t bothered to reconcile all my thoughts and opinions into a holistic orientation.
I think a lot in terms of what the law incentivizes, but I’m pretty piecemeal in my perspective. I like X law. I used to like Y law, but then saw the result, and now believe I was wrong (In time, gambling legalization could be in this bracket). I’m less an idealist and more a practitioner of a “How Did That Work Out?” philosophy. I could go on but the more I ramble this response, the more I’m reminded of how refreshing it is that Steve Kornacki never reveals his political preferences. God that guy rules.
Massive fan of your work. You may have already written about this prior to my subscribing, but curious to get your views on the state of instant video review by officials/referees in sports today. To what extent is it harmful to the product? Does it bother you as much/more/less than the average onlooker? If as much/more, how should it be addressed?
Tyler, you might be surprised by how many sports fans are citing replay as an increasing annoyance. I at least am surprised (Three readers sent me emails last week about replay review).
Why am I surprised? Because this “reform” has been around for years and I felt alienated for hating it in the early days. Yes, the intentions are theoretically noble. Who wouldn’t want calls to be more accurate? The main issue is that this is an instance of “perfect” being the enemy of “good.”
Sports exist in the moment. That’s why we like them. They’re transporting. Frequently pausing the action to impose retroactive reffing detracts from whatever you’re celebrating or cursing in that moment, to say nothing of what it does to game flow. In this era, as you witness some miracle play, some small part of you knows it can be ripped away. I think that condition creates a slightly worse experience.
Watching sports wasn’t like this back in the day, and yes, I’d argue it was a better experience. There were a lot of botched calls that decided games back in the 1990s, but we all lived and moved on with our lives when it happened. I’ve never heard anyone say, “I used to hate watching sports because of the missed calls, but now thanks to replay review, I enjoy the games.”
The issue I take with replay is a little abstract and not even one of the main gripes from people who write in. There’s also the aspect where it takes forever and this urge to perfect everything leads to a mission creep where more types of calls fall under the replay umbrella. And, in the end, we’re just as angry at the refs as we would have been without the system. To quote LeBron James, who’s pissed about being denied a potential game winner on Saturday night: “What’s the point of having replay if even the replay gets it wrong?”
Ethan - almost immediately after your article on the lackluster ratings for the NBA's In-Season Tournament, I noticed that both Kevin O'Connor and Zach Lowe made comments essentially agreeing with your assessment - which led me to conclude that they read your post and found it persuasive. I feel as though HoS is quickly becoming the sports equivalent of the "In-Flight Magazine on Air Force One" moniker they used to give The New Republic, signifying its disproportionate reach to influential people. Do you get the same impression? If so, are you concerned that becoming an influential publication with big shots will dull your edge with the normies?
Here’s a self-regarding secret: House of Strauss is already a bit of an industry rag. I don’t want to assume that my takes informed whatever KOC or Lowe said specifically, but this publication is read and listened to by a lot of people within the sports business. I don’t believe that my awareness of this alters the product much because the product works in part due to its honesty. If I did the sort of socially conditioned media analysis you could read at mainstream publications, I don’t think I’d have as many industry customers. At the same time I’m human, and am more prone to protecting my friends, scorning my enemies, etc.
We of course have many civilian subscribers as well, and I believe that many of you civilians enjoy a peak behind the curtain. That’s at least how I feel when I read about what it’s like to be a cook or any bizarre subculture populated by freaks who couldn’t cut it the regular workforce.
First time, long time. I work in sports marketing data and typically enjoy your discussions on viewership data since I’ve found it the least reliable data source on the menu, especially as of late.
I am curious regarding your broader predictions or theories for where the current fuzziness between broadcast & streaming numbers finally settle in a future that is streaming-dominated? Say 5-10 years from now.
For example, Nielsen has been the arbiter of ratings forever, but when they can be bullied by rightsholders like the NFL into revising their reports or misinformed by gatekeeping streamers like AppleTV or HBO Max on how many people watch a show, is there a need for govt regulation for how views/watches/streams are reported in the modern era? Or perhaps a new company that usurps the increasingly precarious position Nielsen seems to be in? In a click & view based economy, this need for transparency seems increasingly important.
Would love your thoughts!
Appreciate your taking the time to read this & happy holidays!
This seems like one of those unfortunate game theory situations where the industry would benefit greatly from a neutral arbiter with access to all viewership data but no individual company would benefit from being transparent. Given that state of affairs, I expect the Great Vaguening to continue for awhile.
Richard Milhous III:
You mentioned that you might try to get into golf as a hobby. How’s that going? Have you given tennis a shot? Golf and tennis are the great middle age+ sports to get into. Especially with the time flexibility of your job, I’d encourage it.
Also, you’ve mentioned that you’ve been intrigued about moving away from California to a place with better cost of living but the Bay Area is where family is so it’d be a tough move. Where would be on your short list if you did move?
Native Californian living the dream in North Carolina (join us...)
Ya, I’m not leaving California any time soon for the reasons you state. There’s also no obvious place for me to move to, though I’ve filed a few locations away in my head as plausible. I think Reno has a shot at taking off, for instance. Nevada has a favorable tax situation and it’s a short drive to Lake Tahoe. Could it be the new Austin, Texas? Probably not, but the town is a good “buy low.” I feel similarly about Salt Lake City, i.e. “Mormon Denver.” The high status types are wigged out by the presence of Mormonism, which depresses home prices a bit relative to what they should be in a scenic city.
In general, I just prefer warm places. Arizona (Phoenix area) and large swaths of Florida are both on my list, but I’ve got no family in these spots so it would be a bit odd to just pack up and move there. It’s fun to window shop and another matter entirely to seriously do this.
Bill Simmons once wrote about how Spencer Haywood exemplified many of the worst tendencies of the NBA's 70s/80s malaise, from the ABA split to the cocaine crisis. Is James Harden the Haywood of the "trade demand" era?
Anyway, it feels like Draymond's anger and Klay's denial are both examples of coping with the cognitive dissonance of their basketball mortality differently. Seems like it could be a cool theme for you to interrogate in a longer piece. But the idea that Draymond's petulance and Klay's shot selection are both symptoms of their internal struggles to cope with their declines is an interesting theory which unifies their disparate behavior through shared psychology.
I don’t think this is a question, but it’s a pretty good column, Phil. That’s more cogent analysis in one paragraph than I’ve produced about the Warriors this season.
I appreciate your willingness to pull back the curtain on how sports are covered and analyze how culture and politics interact with that world with a critical lens.
I am curious what your thoughts are on nba media member turned podcaster Ekam Nagra or “BallDontStop”. He seems to be widely considered a joke by nba media and fans, but he regularly interviews and interacts with high profile players and former players on his platform all of whom seem to hold him in pretty high regard. What is it about him that makes him such a polarizing figure?
Ya, I’m a bit fascinated by his rise and resonance with NBA players. From what I gather, Ekam has gotten traction by praising the sorts of bucket getting players Nerd Media takes down a peg with efficiency stats. Do I agree with his analysis? Probably not, though I’m not deep in the game like I once was. I do respect his passion, though, and seriousness with which he takes himself. Those aspects are differentiators in a media environment where people are fairly over socialized and are inclined to signal a certain sheepishness. If Ekam is SERIOUS about his take, and you’re mostly cloaking your true passions in layers of irony, then Ekam is the signal and you are the noise.
I’m South African and have been following the NFL for over 15yrs .
Why can’t players play both ways, a player like Micah Parsons, Aron Donald and I’m sure a whole bunch of others should be able to play both ways .
In sports like rugby players play both ways the whole time , why is the NfL so different.
Great question for me, America’s foremost NFL writer. I would imagine that tradition plays a role here, but there are common sense reasons for why football jobs are so compartmentalized. Deion Sanders turned a lot of heads by having Travis Hunter play both wide receiver and cornerback for Colorado. Deion promised it would lead to the Heisman trophy for Hunter. Instead, his star got injured and played only nine games. So, I think that the answer to your question is that football is so insanely violent that it’s hard to justify guys doing much beyond their main jobs. Could Micah Parsons also be a great tight end? Maybe, but then he’s in a weakened state when slamming into offensive linemen for the job you pay him to do.
How do you reconcile being Jewish while at the same time being a LITERAL FUCKING NAZI!! Got em!
I'm interested in how your perception of your collogues in the media has changed since you've been on Substack. Now that you've come out as a (whatever it is that we all are here), I would imagine people have been coming out of the woodwork and been more honest with you about their feelings on the state of things. How has that changed your perception on what is going on in the media? Are there more, less or around the same number of people that are of a similar mind than you expected? What was your opinion when you started this and how has it evolved?
I don’t feel as alienated from my industry as when I started, and I think it’s downstream of what I’ll call the Great Sanening that’s occurred over the last couple years. There’s still group think and hysteria in the industry over cultural issues, but it’s less so post Trump and Elon Twitter/X takeover. I do not miss the old 24/7 freakout, even if its continuation would probably be good for business over here. And yes, people still come to me all the time to express a normal opinion in secret. That’s how I get a lot of the topic ideas for this site.
I am a lateish subscriber to HoS (my weird sports media addiction and the occasional free Glasspiegel pods got me to subscribe). After the most recent Pesca pod I decided to go back and listen to the first DeBoer pod and read the accompanying deadspin/margary/defector/blogger post. I wonder if you have any thoughts on it two years later- what you predicted then vs what we are seeing now, Magary thoughts, Barstool thoughts etc.
I was a deadspin/ksk/with leather/fjm acolyte back in the mid-aughts. Mad about billionaire owners, mad about bad announcers, drunk athletes, shitty sportswriters. But weirdly now as I enter my mid 30s I find myself more attracted to the Barstool content than any of that stuff. The deadspin diaspora still seems mad about that same stuff plus politics, while the barstool content seems to be more let’s just goof around and be funny and try to make our readers/viewers laugh and have a good time while poking fun at the silly idiosyncrasies of sports and the people within the sports ecosystem. The Barstool content guys rarely take open shots at any other site or media member (minus Rovell) unless provoked first, while the deadspin/defector seem to jump at any opportunity to write a takedown of whatever another content farm is doing, whether it’s Simmons or barstool or whatever. I think portnoy is kind of separate from this as he is his own monster and barstool talent rarely join him on his numerous crusades.
That brings me to the Lebatard show. I was also a daily lebatard listener ten years ago and even earlier than that I believe when it first got syndicated. I feel like in the midst of the trump era there was a pretty big vibe shift of the lebatard show from being more barstool fun! to being more defector serious! and they were more entertaining and what I was looking for when they were fun and silly and less serious.
They still have a lot of fun and I do listen occasionally, but not as often as before. The vending machine still gives me what I want but recently started serving me sardines I guess.
I feel like the question here is: if you were a programming director for a sports media brand looking forward to 2024 and beyond, would you go with the barstool, defector, or lebatard strategy? Or would you just do a 57th Heat rewatchable podcast?
I’m not sure anyone could create a sports media brand out of whole cloth because there’s so much noise in the culture. All these entities have their own established comparative advantages that they then need to hew to the moment. Barstool seems like it’s in a uniquely good spot because it’s built such a popular world within itself, but it’s not like I’ve ever opened up their books. I’m sorry if that’s a boring answer.
As someone who also has young kiddos....is Aladdin a boy movie or a girl movie?
I’ll go with boy movie because my son got obsessed with that “One Jump Ahead” song. Earlier in the mailbag I talked up how difficult it is to constrain politics under one umbrella, but I do look at Aladdin as the lefty Disney movie that preceded righty Lion King. Yes, I know these are cartoons for kids, but this is my take. Aladdin is a worthy potential ruler whose impoverished conditions have forced him into a life of petty crime. He just needs different circumstances, created by the Genie, to demonstrate his value. Simba is a worthy hereditary ruler whose dominance is necessary for societal order. When the hyenas are empowered in a more egalitarian system, chaos ensues. Anyway, we can all agree that The Little Mermaid is a girl movie and that Howard Ashman was a genius.
Who’s your best friend in NBA media?
It was Kevin Arnovitz, but he left the NBA space for a Hollywood career. Given his departure, I’m taking applications for the role of new best friend in NBA media. Will it be Nate Duncan? Wos? Amin? We’ll just have to see. Excited for what 2024 brings.