It didn’t take long for my bullishness about the future of media and online sports journalism, even during the truly dark days of the recession a few years ago, to get roundly skewered on a sportswriters’ message board.

I had left the newspaper world in late 2008, after several years as an online editor. I knew it was going to be lean for me and for many others for a while, if not life-altering, and this has certainly come to be the case.

Stringing along as a freelancer and contractor, in between a few brief full-time jobs, has become the norm for too many of us of a certain age (hint: not young) who still cannot imagine doing anything but the news.

News, Views and Reviews About Sports Books, History and Culture

Also In This Issue: Cricket’s Eccentric Historian; A Woeful Yale Oarsman; Sports In the Harlem Renaissance; Kyle Rote Jr.; Edward Hopper’s Sailing Art; RIP Bob Wolff

For me, who cannot conceive holding an office job after 30+ years in corporate and institutional media, it’s been a mostly a grueling and dispiriting experience, with little income to show for it. But that’s mostly on me, and a subject for another post.

I don’t exactly remember what I said on the message board that earned such derision, but one of my respondents simply left a clip of the “Just a Flesh Wound” scene from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

At first I laughed out loud, given my Python fandom, but realized later how deeply it stung. We’re a bitter lot, we sports journalists, and once upon a time I was right among the bitterest of the lot (until I rode a few buses with British writers at the World Cup!). Nine years later, I would imagine my satirist would have no other reason to think what has transpired since has been anything less than an all-out bloodbath.

Just this week, VICE Sports became the latest online entity to lay off staff (the whole staff!) in a pivot-to-video reprise that is verging on self-parody in the industry. It has nothing to do with readers, of course, but attracting “premium” advertisers for those obnoxious autoplay video ads that have become the Typhoid Mary of digital media.

Sports Illustrated is reducing its print editions in 2018 to a mere 24, essentially becoming a bi-monthly instead of the weekly it was just a couple years ago.

In a year in sports media jolted by ESPN layoffs and the pivot-to-video retreat at Fox Sports, there shouldn’t be much reason to sense any kind of optimism. But I’m hopeful about a few experiments that have been emerging in the last couple years in selected cities in North America.

A couple of weeks ago, The Athletic expanded its city-specific, subscription-based sports sites to Detroit, where my former Atlanta J-C colleague, Craig Custance, is heading up daily operations. Craig just left ESPN, where most of his hockey colleagues got the more-than-a-flesh-wound treatment. Craig’s a bright, amiable guy, who ironically left the digital operations at AJC to be the Thrashers’ beat writer when I switched out of sports and into the web world.

The Athletic started in Chicago, and then to Cleveland and Toronto, and this week announced it would start a site in San Francisco, where the company is based. The EIC there comes from newspapers, Tim Kawakami, late of the San Jose Mercury-News, and he gave this extended Q and A that explains what I think at least could be a working outline for the future of the big-city sports page.

Instead of chasing national advertising in a race-to-the-bottom hustle for page views and clickbait, The Athletic is charging modestly in Detroit—$5.99 a month or $39.99 a year. The fare is pro and major college sports, at least for now, in each of its participating markets.

In an age in which readers aren’t accustomed to consuming “commodity” news online for anything but free, ponying up seems contradictory, especially for The Athletic’s young founders, who got their wings through the 2016 Y Combinator class and a $2.1 million investment.

But I absolutely love the idea of local sports news being done at a truly local, online-only level, by editors and writers who are deeply knowledgeable about their cities and communities.

In the independent publishing world, there also is a successful model that is gaining some imitators. Dejan Kovacevic, a former sports columnist at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, is expanding his eponymous venture, DK Pittsburgh Sports, while embracing the role of an entrepreneur.

This is also a subscription site, and Kovacevic is a relentless promoter for his business, which just marked its third anniversary, on social media. Most recently, his venture has prompted Greg Bedard, recently laid off from Sports Illustrated and previously the Patriots beat writer for The Boston Globe, to return to his local roots. He announced last week he’s starting the Boston Sports Journal, which also is charging subscriptions.

As I wrote elsewhere about a previous slate of national online sports media ventures, many of them shuttered or converted into something very different, we are in a long period of experimentation. It may not save the careers of many of us; the more-than-flesh-wounds will continue, and what’s happening at the small-town, local-news level is becoming especially savage. Gannett, GateHouse and other chains are stripping what little assets remain of local newspapers and leaving the carcasses behind, without a thought to or a care about those communities.

But as “scaled” media continues to deliver crappy content and even crappier ads, as well as disheartening mass layoffs, the urge to keep pushing ahead, experimenting, is imperative. It is simply out of the question to not try, even in a profession with deeply embedded, cynical souls.

We can mourn what’s being lost, or get busy trying to revive what sports fans in our communities care about the most. The legacy media that has largely squandered its legacy cannot be part of this renewal, for they have no idea to innovate. As local online news pioneer Howard Owens has written, only entrepreneurs will save journalism.

I believe this with every ounce of my being, for I have the flesh wounds to show for it.

Sports History Files

This is simply one of the most astonishing stories I’ve ever read. Russell Jackson, the outgoing deputy sports editor of The Guardian Australia, has penned this long critique and appreciation of cricket historian Major Rowland Bowen, author of the acclaimed 1970 book “Cricket: A History of Its Growth and Development Throughout the World.” Bowen had distinguished himself in the field before that as proprietor of the Cricket Quarterly magazine from 1963-70.

But the story of Major Bowen ventures far beyond cricket. If you can get through the first cringe-inducing paragraph (you have been warned!), you’ll find Jackson’s farewell piece for the newspaper richly rewarding. What a truly peculiar (and intriguing) figure Major Bowen was, in addition to his exacting historical scholarship on the sport of cricket.

A Few Good Reads

  • At Only A Game, the story of Michael Danziger, author of a new memoir, “Small Puddles: The Triumphant Story of Yale’s Worst Oarsman. Ever.” Despite efforts by his coaches to quit, he persisted for all four varsity seasons;
  • From the hoops and pop culture website Popgates, a Q and A with Adam Criblez, author of “Tall Tales and Short Shorts,” his new history of the NBA in the 1970s;
  • From the always-good Victory Journal, and with the world’s biggest sporting event a year away, Peter Macia on how Vladimir Putin hacked the World Cup. I neglected to mention last week the passing of Chuck Blazer, the American former FIFA executive committee member whose canary-singing to U.S. authorities essentially blew open the scandal that brought down Sepp Blatter, among other things;
  • One of the long-lost American pioneers of soccer is Kyle Rote Jr., the son of an American football star who became the biggest home-grown star in the North American Soccer League. At the fine Good Seats Still Available podcast, the former star for the Dallas Tornado discusses the fleeting days when soccer in America was suddenly cool, and how he made some serious money (and derived a lot more fame) as a contestant on the “Superstars” television program;
  • At the U. S. Sport History blog, Andrew McGregor has this review of the newly published “The Culture of Sports in the Harlem Renaissance” by Daniel Anderson, who notes which leading literary and cultural figures of the time acknowledged the role of sports in black society during the 1920s (notably James Weldon Johnson), and those who did not (including Langston Hughes).

From the SB Archive

Thought I’d dust off some old posts, and the dead-heat (literally!) of summer has me thinking about the water, and wishing I could get close to a shore (any shore!) as a respite. I’m five hours from the Atlantic and Gulf coasts (where all of my family has relocated), but alas, at busy tourist destinations for the summer.

One of the best summer interludes I’ve ever had was my lone trip to Cape Cod, in 2000, wrapping up a splendid day watching the July 4 fireworks in Provincetown after a delicious fish dinner at Portuguese-run family restaurant.

After taking in the serenity of the Cape Cod National Seashore, I traversed through the bayside hamlet of South Truro, now lined with posh vacation homes but decades ago the summer homes for literary and artistic figures, including Mary McCarthy and the American realist painter Edward Hopper, who built a rustic cabin where he and his wife spend many summers.

His sailing paintings drawn from his time there, as well as nearby Gloucester as a younger man, were included in a 2012 exhibit in his hometown of Nyack, N.Y. Last summer, while doing a serendipitous romp through my public library, I found enough other material about his boyhood nautical passions and to write about it here. I was thinking about Hopper this week, on the 135th anniversary of his birth, and 50 years after his death in May 1967.

I don’t have too many more travel stops on my bucket list, other than visiting family on said Gulf coasts. If I ever get the itch to go a bit further and dip my toes on a really lush beach, I’d like to retrace the steps of that memorable holiday on the Cape 17 years ago, and even take in a swell or two.

Passings

Bob Wolff, 96, inspired several generations of sportscasters. In a career that lasted nearly 80 years, his accomplishments and experiences are far too numerous to mention. Wolff spanned the near-birth of his profession to its present-day fits of rhetorical and emotional excess, and remained intelligible all along the way. He called Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series, and the Colts-Giants 1958 NFL Championship Game that altered the history of that sport.

Wolff was called “erudite but approachable,” well-prepared, encyclopedic but deeply human in a way that made it easy for the everyday fan to connect (as evidenced in his 1996 memoir).

Several months before Wolff died, and as Vin Scully retired, Newsday sports media writer Neil Best penned this tribute to an announcer who had no intention of stepping away from his work, for he could never have imagined doing anything else.

“If I didn’t do it, what would I do to have fun?”

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The Sports Biblio Digest is an e-mail newsletter delivered each Sunday. It contains commentary and links about sports books and history. You can subscribe here and search the archives. This is Digest issue No. 89. published July 23, 2017. The Digest is a companion to the Sports Biblio website.

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