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The Sports Economist: Saving or Destroying Civilization?

2009 June 23
by Brian Goff

In a recent ESPN The Magazine article, Bill Simmons laments the loss of reporters as middlemen between players and the public.

Today’s technology means athletes don’t need a middleman anymore. You know how you won’t hear a peep out of Jennifer Aniston for a year, then she’ll have a movie to promote and you can’t get away from her? She shows up when she wants to show up, always on her terms. It’s no different from Tiger’s making himself “available” every summer when his video game is released. Okay, he’s a superstar; he can pull that crap. But what about the other guys? I see a day when the following sequence will be routine: Player demands trade on blog; team obliges and announces deal on Twitter; player thanks old fans, takes shots at old team and gushes about new team on Facebook. We will not need anyone to report this, just someone to recap it. Preferably with links.

Ironically, a post at Chef Diesel compains about the “Bill Simmons Syndrome” aspect of this disintermediation (or remediation) trend — the rise of blogdom as a source of reporting and analysis. Although the author likes Simmons, he dislikes the amateurish imitators that have arisen alongside Simmons’ clever and insightful writings.

I happened to have a conversation with sports-inclined journalism major in one of my classes this spring about this topic that stirred some musings of my own. Since this is a blog and not a book, I’ll keep my observations to short bytes (I guess that’s part of the “story” in itself):

1. Without putting guns to people’s heads (and even then), information is not easily controlled. Skip makes this point in his post on dis- (or re-) intermediation in the context of league as media outlet — league or player spin mattered little in the case of Michael Vick or Pacman Jones.

2. “Access” has benefits (David Halberstam’s book as Simmons cites) but also costs. Being “on the inside” often comes with the price tag of loyalties and undisclosed information. At times, the most “inside” reporters operate as little more than PR people for the team.

3. Outlets like TSE serve as both subsitutes and complements to traditional media sources. The TSE in no way substitutes for daily analysis of yesterday’s game. A lot of blogdom does try to do that — for better or worse. It does substitute, to some extent, for more general “analysis” of the sports worlds, both in and outside the lines.” Instead of relying on individuals with journalism degrees to analyze the data or consider broader questions, however, the TSE or other similar sites rely on individuals trained in the content and skills of a subject such as economics, statistics, finance, and so on.

4. The squeezing of the traditional middleman service helps explain why ESPN and other media outlets have shifted, in their SportCenter type shows, from voice-overs of exciting highlights to more reliance on more bombastic viewpoints. As Chef Diesel puts it
The once humble network has become a media giant that is more concerned with being hip and delivering witty punch lines than sharing scores, basic news stories and video highlights. Sportscenter, the flagship show of the station, has evolved into a horrible combination of a bad SNL audition and Access Hollywood.

5. We are still in a long run transition to some different media model. After my parents’ generation is gone, who will buy newspapers? If they are in financial trouble now, what then? Clearly, newspapers are already making the transition to more of a internet/blogdom type setup, where this ends I’m not sure. In this world, the TSE functions a bit like the editorial pages of the WSJ or NYT — a place where people with deep content knowledge express facts and opinions.

6. In the new media world, “journalists” as in journalism majors, probably will need one of two skills: either deep content knowledge to help organize and express knowledge and trends (e.g. Walter Mossberg at the WSJ) or a very entertaining/engaging schtik or writing style that carves out a place like a Bill Simmons.

Postscript: Through the Chef Diesel site, I discovered a couple of clever satires of sports journalism that TSE readers might enjoy if they haven’t already: Kissing Suzy Kolber and Deadspin.

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