Happy weekend, audience.
So, I’ve got a slight issue. I have longstanding readers who are primarily into NBA industry gossip, and I’ve also gained recent readers who enjoy cultural commentary but hate sports. Can this circle possibly be squared? Are there stories that can keep everybody happy or is thematic unification an impossibility?
There are a lot of people writing cultural commentary on Substack. What makes you unique is that you know the sports world, and have spent a lot of time thinking about how politics and culture wars are playing out in that world.
If I were you, I would write about sports and sports media, but make it interesting and accessible for people who don’t normally follow sports. I don’t follow basketball at all, so I’m not interested in articles about which teams win basketball games and why. But I will happily read well-written stories about the human aspect of the sport – especially politics, culture, drama, controversy.
However, please remember to make it accessible to people who don’t follow sports. For example, I don’t know who Bill Simmons is or what it would mean for Drew Magary to become “the next Bill Simmons.” A sentence or two would have cleared that up. (Don’t worry I googled it… that’s just an example for next time 🙂)
But ultimately, you should choose the direction that will make you happy, because you’re going to be stuck with it. The bigger your audience gets, the harder it will be to change direction – because you’ll have a subscriber base made up of people who expect more of the content that inspired them to subscribe. You took a big risk in quitting your job, so it would be a shame to waste it trying to please a few early subscribers. Build something that will be rewarding for you in the longterm.
Thanks to everyone for the responses, many of which have been quite kind. To the people who are saying that the key is to be true to yourself: I'd agree with all that, but I also think that your audience can give you a kind of focus and boundaries to be true within. I'm grandiosely reminded of how Steve Jobs would say that, at Apple, they figured out what customers wanted and THEN built the technology to fit that need (in contrast to the other companies that would build the tech first). Anyway, this is all still new to me and I'm figuring it out, but the feedback has been tremendously helpful. Thanks again.
how about we talk about the DeMar DeRozan deal while I put my head in the oven
Anyone who doesn’t know the name Alen Smailagić isn’t worth writing for…
I just want to ride this pony and see where it goes
Just keep writing what you’re interested in. I know you from your basketball coverage. But I subscribed because of your awesome piece on Nike. I’m just along for the ride wherever it goes. Like you said, if you find it interesting you can probably make it interesting to me.
I hate sports but love good writing, so I’m up for whatever you want to write.
But for people who only want to read about certain subjects, a quick identifier at the top of a piece, like Sports Beat or Culture Beat or whatever, might be a wise move. Probably wiser than literally trying to write things that please everyone. In my experience that’s not possible. If you differentiate, it’s more user-friendly for the picky consumer, and you’ll probably still get some crossover
I appreciate your cultural takes so keep those coming. Seems like the sports media (and media at large) kinda all agree with each other and sticks safely to the left, and you buck that with some individual critical thought.
As a person who has always loved your NBA coverage I say write about whatever interests you.
There's always gonna be an Inside Baseball element either way, so DADD. I don't/didn't know much about Gawker at all, and really had no knowledge on most of the stuff in your last article and pod, but it's all good. You're still the same dude who wrote dope shit like the Steph/Nike/UA story, the advanced scout 2 parter, the Don Nelson piece, etc. so I'm down for whatever.
I'll admit that I prefer those types of sports articles and the stuff you're doing now, over granular Warriors articles or the weekly ratings pieces b/c it felt like a constant rehash that was constrained by what you thought you could *really* dive into at The Athletic. It led to many people reducing you to a caricature of yourself and I understood why it happened(you've already mentioned it in passing a few times). It was clear you were in b/w a rock and a hard place, and the result were the Shapiro and Clay Travis comps that you couldn't really rebut b/c it wouldn't change the minds of those people anyways.
I'm thankful that you got out of that hole, can go deeper, and really write what you wanna write about b/c I was getting kinda bored of those ratings pieces lol. My only request is throw in some hoops takes every now and then, and don't forget the homies for the pod who can talk hoops *and other stuff* like Big Wos, the Lightyears guys, the people's favorite guest Amin, etc. For example, I know that Wos would've 100% been in his bag during the cancel culture/forgiveness part of the pod.
Ethan, this is your substack. This is your life. This is your vision and your passion. Write what drives you. The rest will follow.
I say keep doing both because it's more interesting to be varied. Sometimes you'll have a strictly sports column, and sometimes you'll write about the culture war. I'm more than okay with both.
Can we have more updates about Justinian Jessup?
My affection started because of your nuanced basketball takes. For years, I had no idea of your political views (and didn't care about them). But this unshackled Substack is perfect for me - a lifelong leftist who has felt abandoned by the left in the last 10 minutes as the social media left had lost their minds and gained political power. Keep finding the intersection, I say.
Do both. On the occasions they will intertwine, great. On the occasions, they don't (particularly the politico-cultural) we get a new perspective from a commentator who doesn't exist in that lane.
Halberstam's basketball books succeeded (to me) precisely because he was willing to be the slightly-superior outsider who trusted his perception to mine the insiders and generate new insights. It allowed him to see through more of the bullshit. By exercising both your faculties you allow yourself to carve a similar lane for yourself. Sure, some sources will be lost but as a corollary your untethered nature would also make you more trustworthy in contexts where insiders can't be trusted (in other words for stories that break the soap opera and might be real news).
How about a label up top-- something along the lines of 'this post is for for hard core sports fans' vs 'this post is general interest'.
Freddie D has a post about how you can create different lists for different kinds of content on sub stack. Just leverage that’s.
You could go deeper on the stuff you talked with Jesse about for a couple weeks, then turn around and do some traditional sportswriting next month—the Nike and Rachel Nichols pieces were really strong, and that probably buys you a couple months to experiment before people start canceling subscriptions.
I'm a little surprised to find myself paying for sports journalism—I haven't watched an NBA game since 1996*—and the Nichols story is definitely the reason I did.
* I grew up in a quiet residential neighborhood in Salt Lake City in the 1990s. In 16 years, I heard only a dozen shouts, yells, screams and curses—all at the exact same time.
It sounds nuts, for two years, my youth soccer team had three Mormon boys—their parents decided that since Karl Malone and John Stockton had proven, once and for all, the value of teamwork and mutual respect for grown men, it was time for young men to play recreational sports with boys of other faiths.
Only the Saints felt strongly enough to go looking for Jewish soccer teams (and possibly find some: it was deliberately unclear if our sponsor was the JCC or a law firm specializing in divorce) bur the whole city had a lot of self esteem wrapped up in the Stockton-to-Malone thing. One of the Mormon kids became atheist, and the other two lost their faith in teamwork; I stopped following basketball and turned gay; most of the rest of my teammates still pretend their Lakers fans.
Absolutely impossible to please both. I've both gained and lost subscribers because I incorporate my religious beliefs into my technological critiques. I'm not going to change what I write to appease the Undecided Whale. (Yes, I bastardized your phrase. Mea culpa.)
A piece like “Press Box Prigs vs Bleacher Creatures” would seem to live in the sweet spot, no? At the intersection of sports and culture, a little something for everyone. Every story can’t be like that, just practically, but as part of the mix it’s something that’s rare, thoughtful, and a real point of differentiation. Your blend of sensibility, experience, and desire to look at the world through this lens is special.
My choice in choosing to sub was because of your passion and uniqueness in expressing your thoughts. The subjects are your choosing. Look forward to continue to read your thoughts.
As long as there's somewhat consistent NBA content along the way, I'm going to be reading and listening to everything you put out, no matter the topic.
Your Nike story was excellent and hooked me. Be your authentic self and keep challenging all the narratives, woke and otherwise. Sports is a powerful lens with which to investigate our culture--sexism, racism, politics, psychology. Economics--it seems we've all just taken for granted that athletes are worth whatever they can extort from owners, but can't we think about that, because KD's salary is ultimately paid by us and the $9 nachos we buy and our $250 nosebleed seat. Since sports are what revs your engine start there, but challenge us.
Another vote for both. Better yet, write about stories outside of these two subjects! Write about new movies you saw, new books you've read, experience of raising a newborn, or any other random thing that fascinates you. As long as the story is interesting, the readers will keep coming back. Not to blow smoke up your ass, but you are way too talented to limit yourself to only sports and culture.
I like this substack because I get both. Keep doin what you’re doin
We trust you & your writing. Do both.
At this point in time, all roads lead to China. You can do Morey vs LeBron/Kerr/Popovich. Hollywood, China, and wokeness. Big Tech concessions to CCP. You can look at all those directly, politically, or through the lens of how mainstream media covers them.
Your brand is long, thoughtful, compelling essays. They just happen to be about basketball. Write what interests you, because when you’re passionate about it, the end result is 100% Ethan, which is why we’re here.
I like both.
Write whatever you feel like. You have interesting insights on several subjects and that's why I subscribed. I enjoy both sports and the cultural commentary fwiw.
Led Zeppelin didn’t write tunes that everyone liked. They left that to The Bee Gees.
I’m a vote for both - aka continuing doing what you have been. I’ve followed your NBA writing in the athletic and have subscribed here as well. I really like the combination of culture, politics and nba but from a perspective that’s different from how most of sports media discusses it. TBH - it’s nice having sports media that don’t completely follow the liberal orthodoxy and if you keep that up I’m sure your audience will be happy. However, being a huge sports fan and culture/politically engaged I’m probably an easy reader and would be happy with most things
Echoing a lot of your commenters — at the end of the day we're here for your insights, not everything will be for everybody, but on aggregate we'll get what we're looking for.
I personally love your NBA writing, but we're weeks away from training camp, when the inspiration strikes you, or a story resonates [the Ben Simmons saga getting even uglier, perhaps?] I trust you'll cover it in a way I enjoy
I don’t follow sports at all and I still love your articles on the NBA. A good enough writer can make bird watching seem fascinating. I think you should write on whatever you like
Write what you want and block anyone who thinks they can tell you what you should write. We're here for your thoughts, not theirs.
Keep up with both.
I like both
I think what you’re doing is working so just continue to follow what interests you. I’d personally be interested in hearing more about how you really feel about pro athletes as people. So often nowadays it seems like saying anything negative about the players is jumped on as the next racist controversy, but I’ve heard and read some insights over the years that would suggest many of the people that cover the NBA as well as some of the players themselves (Steve Nash & Shane Battier come to mind) that didn’t particularly care for their teammates on a personal level.
Make sure you write about sports/basketball enough to keep your core audience interested, who is likely “SF nerds who like basketball.” In between cultural pieces go deep into your experience with the warriors/nba. You have the unique position of being a warriors insider and now totally independent. Sam/Andy/Marcus/Anthony et al need to maintain varying levels of favor with the team, so there are certain topics/angles they won’t take.
For example would love to see you dive into nba ownership and joe lacob. Highly involved nba owners fall into a spectrum between mark cuban (good) and vivek ranadive (*shudder*). Is lacob more like mark or vivek, and what will that mean for the team over the next decade?
Love what you’re doing so far, keep it up.
I think there is an interesting spot open for a writer who knows sports to write about the intersection of sports and culture, or how the connections inside the industry affect what we end up seeing, like your Nike piece. I wouldn't suggest you abandon sports entirely, there are plenty of people on Substack writing bog-standard culture essays. But ultimately, write what you're passionate about.
Just do what you feel comfortable with.
I think there a four paradigms worth exploring. Sports and Culture independently, sports within culture, and culture within sports. They all function separately- Curry’s subway commercials, O’Neal’s documentary on artest, sports fashions, salary and equality, nba schedule, gambling on sports all fall in separate quadrants.
You should continue to do both! I’m more interested in your specific point of view rather than generic NBA gossip or generic cultural commentary. So as long as it is grounded in your voice, I’ll continue to read. I’ll admit, though, sometimes I get lost in specific references so some context would be helpful.
Start with an NBA Prism for culture then gradually expand
I hate watching sports and sports fans are generally dorks but I enjoy your writing about sports. You're a great writer, keep writing about whatever you want and we'll keep reading!
The answer is to write well, about what piques your interest. The audience sorts itself out over time. I am not even a huge b-ball fan but I would be interested in reading you on the topic simply because you write so thoughtfully that you make me interested in the subject.
Didn’t Keith Obermann fail at crossing over? It may not be possible to satisfy both crowds
I love your basketball stuff! I signed up because you can now write anything you want without restrictions and "open up." That's what I love about Substack.
I can read about basketball from any number of people. While none of them cover NBA topics quite like you, the reason I and others signed up is because your voice and perspective is such a breath of fresh air and something I can’t get in the mainstream.
I prefer more nba but you should just follow your heart