Guest Column – The Rise Of Armchair Sports Commentary

Today’s guest column comes from former Boston Herald columnist Michael Gee. 

By Michael Gee

The two comments most often made to me during my career as a sportswriter by loved ones, friends, acquaintances and strangers were, hands down “So you get to go to the game for free,” or, “you get paid to go to the games.”

The first was inaccurate. I was getting paid. The second was only half-true. I was getting paid to write about the game after I watched them.  I didn’t argue the point. People who have not written prose on deadline for money do not believe writing is work, and nothing can change their minds. Besides, the half of their sentence that was true was the more important half.

I did get to go to the games.  By games, I mean every sports event I covered, ranging from the Olympics on down (or up) to the state high school field hockey championship game where it ended in the declaration of a tie, co-champions, and two sets of teenage girls weeping uncontrollably as they got their trophies.  And as far as I was and still am concerned, studying athletic events up close was the reward part of my trade, while writing was the trade part.

A life spent sitting front row center is nonmonetary compensation of incalculable price. It’s worth a great many 6 a.m. Tuesday flights to Detroit. It’s why Red Smith said sportswriters were “underpaid and overprivileged.”   The sportswriters who got to cover the most big games as defined by the average fan were held in almost the same regard by their peers as the ones who were thought to be the best writers or who made the most money.

(Wiseacres, note the following disclaimer. Of course going to the games can be tedious and irksome. That’s how the people in the games feel sometimes, too. Bill Belichick has admitted training camp is dull. Ernie Harwell told me calling 5000 baseball games got repetitious.  I did my share of bitching. Didn’t mean I didn’t love what I did).

Now that I’ve been a journalism consumer and not producer for six years, it strikes me this equation has gone upside down. The best-known and best-compensated sports reporters and commentators, in whatever medium, go to the fewest games, not the most. What’s more, the system is set up to encourage sports reporters and commentators to go to as few events as possible.

Bill Simmons, Mike Wilbon, Tony Kornheiser, Rick Reilly. Those are probably the four sports journalists in America with the largest audiences. All are or were accomplished writers. All but Simmons, who invented his own gig, covered an enormous number of games in their time. None go to many now. There’s more money and fame in being a personality than is found in the press box.

For better or worse my former colleague Michael Felger is the hottest sports commentator in town right now. Michael went to a great many games in his day and a good reporter he was, too. Now, for many times the money he made at the Herald, Mike works the 10-6 shift Monday to Friday. He can have a life. Mike would have to either have rocks in his head or be unhealthily devoted to watching sports events not to have embraced his new gig. His incentives all point in that direction.

Those incentives aren’t healthy. The participants in and especially the owners of the new order of sports media do not perceive the danger it poses to their whole racket.  It seems insane for any part of the business of journalism to respond to the challenge of the Internet by creating a structure where armchair opininating is the pinnacle of the professional pyramid.  Anybody can go on and on about sports on the Web and many do, including me. If you are offering a product for money that can be produced for free by your customers, it had better be of much higher quality than what they can crank out.

The laws of probability make that a chancy proposition. To his credit, Simmons has spawned millions of imitators. Most are and will be horrible,and will fail. But some won’t be. Sooner or later, one will strike readers as even better than Simmons himself.  That dynamic works even more quickly and horribly in radio, or so I am informed by stockholders of Entercom and Glenn Ordway’s agent.

It’s a simple dynamic.. In a world where more people have more access to more information than at any time in human history, the only model that works for the information business is “tell ‘em something they don’t know yet.” Why would customers pay for anything else?

If I were running a sports media business, my reporters and commentators could look forward to going to a great many games – high school games most definitely included.

  • Dan

    It's a good point you make, Michael. Do the writers at Grantland, for instance, ever cover games? Do they get press passes? Or is it all after the fact and from the comfort of their living room chaise?

    I don't think the model is "tell 'em something they don't know yet"; rather, it's give them an easily accessible and consumable take that agrees vehemently with their already well-hewn preconceptions and prejudices (e.g., "The Curse", "Kraft is cheap", "Manny is lazy", etc.). If there's a common BSMW theme, it's to call out those who are in position to offer insight (i.e., access) but who never do.

    After all, when's the last time Simmons told us something we didn't already know? More likely, he misremembered it ("DJ was at midcourt when Larry went for the steal") and then has the temerity to preface the statement with "Nobody remembers this, but…"

    Part of what spawned this, though, is that meritocracy wasn't the model in newspapers. Columnists were tenured until either they died or were disgraced by plagiarism scandals (and even then, they still popped back up later elsewhere). Only when one died did everybody else move up a slot, finally giving somebody down at the bottom a shot. Hard-working Mike Reiss was already at the Globe, but it wasn't until Will McDonough died that he got his real chance at higher exposure.

    That model is still in effect at the Globe, which means we're stuck with Shaughnessy 'til he croaks.

  • latetodinner

    Two days ago on this website we discussed the difference between reporting and opinion/analysis. Michael Gee seems to think that being paid a great amount of money to generate dialog/conversation is the downfall for the nobel art of sports journalism. I think he is wrong. I think they are two completely different businesses. They over lap sometimes, they intersect only at the starting point where someone needs to supply the information that will then be opined. Mike Felger left the world of reporting. He is no longer a reporter. Therefore his need to "go to games" as opposed to watching them or even condensed recaps of them is different. To do his job he just needs to be able to intelligently talk about the seminal events, and he needs to know how to talk to the people who are reporting on the seminal events. He does not need to be developing the news. Its not his job, nor for that matter his business any more.

    The second part of the argument that Gee is making is that the commentators are paid far more than the reporters…as if this is a new thing. Its not. The columnist always made more than the beat reporter. It was certainly true when Gee was at the Herald. The only difference is that in today's world with the advent of 24 hour sports TV (ESPN, NESN, CSSNE, Versus) and 24 hour sports radio (WEEI, 98.5, ESPN Radio, Fox sports radio) that the need for programming and therefore "opiners" far outweighs supply. So the good ones get really rich. At the same time these shows rely on reporters to supply "specialty" content but not opinion.

    If I were running a publication or sports network I would break people into the business on the beat. I would make my money off the reputation and opinions of those who became famous as a beat writer and are now experts. I would not be wasting their time sending them to watch the third game of a meaningless Boston/Baltimore series in May.

  • Eric Mauro

    The difference is that commenting and opining, like sports reporting, is not sports. It's something else. Opinion on a team or a game needs to reach a critical mass before you can discuss it on the radio for 4 hours, and then redo the entire discussion for the next 4 hours, and so on. And each 4 hour discussion can only have three basic thoughts.

    Currently you can find thousands of comments about Obama and John Boehner, and what idiots they are, from people who couldn't be elected to anything. That's not politics and sports commentary is not sports. It's storytelling. Sports commentary has more in common with soap opera than sports.

    • latetodinner

      I don't disagree with you Eric. Professional Wrestling has made the McMahon family billionaires by bring the soap opera to men. It only makes sense that the most successful commentators tell the best stories…its what keeps our interest.

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