About a month ago, I quit a job – or at least something akin to a job. Since late April, I had written eight articles per month for HoopsHabit, an NBA website under the FanSided digital umbrella. In legal terms, I was an independent contractor for FanSided, so in some sense, I was a professional sportswriter. But make no mistake, the pay was modest, and as I explained in my final email to my editor, I just didn’t have enough time to meet my monthly quota without a steep drop-off in the quality of my work.
My editor, Gerald, responded graciously and left the door open for me to rejoin HoopsHabit in the future. The message was almost too routine; you get the sense this type of thing happens a lot. And that’s because it does. Like, all the time.
Altogether, I’ve blogged about the NBA for roughly 15 months now, starting out with a site called The Sports Quotient, for which I still write. In that time, I’ve seen countless writers – intelligent, gifted writers – leave publications, join others, even start their own. In the world of amateur and semi-amateur sports journalism, the “job market” is a merry-go-round that never stops.
The reason sports blogging works this way is because these aren’t really “jobs” in the traditional sense. I make no money writing for The Sports Quotient, and I can spout off a host of other publications that offer writers no further compensation than a platform for their voices. That’s fine for some in the NBA blogosphere. I know several people, from older adults with children to college kids studying to be investment bankers, who write for fun. Hell, I interned at a public relations agency this past summer, not Sports Illustrated. But many of us would love make a career out of this shit. Most of us will fail.
Laura Wagner of Deadspin, a website under the Gawker umbrella known for doing exactly what I’m doing right now – writing about writing – published an article in August on this topic. Wagner’s target was SB Nation, an influential network of mostly team-focused blogs owned by Vox Media.
— Deadspin (@Deadspin) August 14, 2017
Some of SB Nation’s sites are humble undertakings that cater to a tight-knit community of readers; others are capital-E Establishments that poach writers from other publications and regularly get hundreds of comments on their articles. But SB Nation, as Wagner notes, isn’t shelling out generous benefits packages, even to its most prolific staffers. The following passage is particularly scathing:
“Like, say, Uber drivers, SB Nation team site writers are promised flexible hours, extra cash, the chance to pursue their passions and maybe even launch a better career. And like others in similar situations, they often get sucked into working longer hours and meeting quotas. The workers who help prop up the enterprise see little to no direct return on their work and there’s little if any reciprocity between labor and capital. The fact that most people don’t know or especially care about any of this does not make the status quo tenable, and the fact that people have agreed to an arrangement doesn’t mean they’re not being exploited for corporate gain.”
Of course, many young writers would love to be exploited for Vox’s corporate gain. Nearly six months after the fact, I’m still kicking myself for not applying to a blog opening I would’ve had a puncher’s chance at filling. Do I have a problem with SB Nation’s business model? I mean, maybe. As a general rule, people should be paid in accordance with the quality and popularity of their work (not that those two measures go hand-in-hand). But at the same time, I didn’t decide the rules of the game; I’m just playing by them. And I’m doing so while scouring Handshake listings and drafting cover letters for “real jobs.” Basketball is going to be a side gig for a long time.
It’s natural to wonder why one would have such an absurd career goal. The key component, of course, is a love of sports. I don’t really know why I love basketball. There’s no way to judge a sport objectively, but it’s not objectively better than hockey or soccer or football (It is objectively better than baseball, though.) I do know, however, why I started writing about basketball, and I suspect it’s the same reason many others started doing so: I love reading about it.
I’ve always been a basketball fan – I remember playing NBA Live 2004 on one of those constantly troubleshooting early 2000s Dells – but I paid less attention to the sport throughout high school. Then I found Grantland, Bill Simmons’ now-defunct site that blended analysis of sporting minutiae, witty comedy, and powerful long-form journalism. Within weeks, I was hooked, reading every article I could from writers like Zach Lowe, Jonathan Abrams, and Kirk Goldsberry.
Prior to finding that kind of intelligent analysis, I thought sportswriting was either newspaper beat writing or mindless “top 10 list” clickbait. In some sense, that’s all it was. Fifteen years ago, newspaper journalists were the kings of sports media, and while they still occupy a hallowed position, the Grantland generation changed the game. Blogging culture took off in the early-2000s, and along with it came a collection of little proto-SB Nation blogs.
These writers wrote like the crazed, overly analytical fans they were. Lowe, who has never written for a newspaper’s sports section, said in an interview in May that he recognized a market gap early in his career. Without a press pass, he had to dissect game tape, build a trove of basketball knowledge, and analyze the league from a bird’s eye view. Many others did the same, even well before Lowe, and they spawned a style of writing built on film study, advanced statistics, and a never-before-seen level of inside information. Their columns made the esoteric approachable. Their breaking news stories involved rumors you never would’ve learned of 30 years ago.
Needless to say, readership took off for this crop of bloggers, and many of them became superstars. In 2016, Lowe, now with ESPN, was reportedly offered $1 million annually to join Bleacher Report. Matt Moore, the founder of the blog Hardwood Paroxysm, has 110,000 Twitter followers and writes for CBS Sports. Andrew Sharp, who began his career as an intern at a fledgling site called – you guessed it – SB Nation, went on to write for Grantland and now Sports Illustrated. The internet may have made certain forms of newswriting obsolete, but it also allowed the sports site to supplant the sports page.
This style of writing, which now dominates popular publications, is meant to appeal to basketball nerds, not casual fans. So for basketball nerds like me, who enjoy writing but don’t necessarily read newspapers, blogging is the natural choice. I want to be Zach Lowe because he and his contemporaries popularized a form of journalism with which I connect. Considering the 2000s blogging influence is now everywhere in sportswriting, I’m not alone.
The great irony is that this loose conglomerate of journalists – now in their 30s and 40s – popularized a type of writing that is under attack within media companies. Because of Lowe & co., more and more people like me want to write. Our predecessors upped the bar for sheer basketball knowledge, but they also lowered the barriers to entry. Newspaper staffs are only so large; the scope of the Internet is infinite.
Yet journalism, especially print journalism, has never been particularly profitable, and publications like ESPN, Fox Sports, and Vice Sports are now cutting costs by gutting their rosters. In April, ESPN laid off roughly 100 journalists and anchors. In June, Fox eliminated their print staff entirely. At worst, full-time jobs are disappearing. At best, few writing jobs are opening up. The popularity of blog-style writing has created a labor market in which supply far outstrips demand.
People in my generation have responded by getting creative. One trend is the move to new media. BBallbreakdown, for instance, is a popular publication best known for its video analyses of NBA gameplay. The videos explain basketball’s intricacies with arrows, demonstrations, slow motion, anything you can imagine. As of today, BBallbreakdown has roughly 400,000 subscribers on YouTube.
Podcasts have also taken off – to the point that most major writers have one. Nate Duncan and Danny Leroux, two journalists who have risen to prominence in the last few years, run the Dunc’d On podcast and the #TwitterNBAShow, a live game commentary stream on Periscope. Duncan and Leroux are perhaps outliers in their emphasis on new media, but they’re spearheading the NBA podcast movement. One of my housemates is a rabid basketball fan who doesn’t even read articles anymore; he exclusively listens to podcasts.
I’ve heard fellow writers describe podcasting as a potential bubble. After all, aside from Patreon, the only revenue stream is audio advertising. (I’ve listened to more SeatGeek and Harry’s Razors advertisements than any self-respecting person should.) And podcasts are now so ingrained in sports culture that many amateur journalists eschew advertising entirely. If writing is now old school, podcasting is the next big thing. Sometimes, you have to do both to stand out.
All that said, if there’s one medium through which writers build their brands, it’s Twitter. NBA Twitter borders on absurd; it’s a 24-hour cycle of basketball detritus where journalists argue over whether the Timberwolves will finish 4th in the West or 5th in the West this coming year. It’s a place where top-50 player lists turn into social media wars between “eye-test Twitter” and “analytics Twitter.” It’s a place where blogger-to-blogger insults turn into bizarre bro-out moments when the two parties exchange likes to express their regret about getting personal.
But Twitter is undoubtedly necessary. It’s the mechanism through which writers share work, connect with colleagues, find job openings, and build an audience. Unsurprisingly, writing applications nearly always ask for applicants’ Twitter handles nowadays. Tweetings is like writing in the sense that you need a niche. Some writers are über-intelligent, others are offbeat and funny, and others are just prolific, posting basketball news every five minutes.
Take Nicholas Sciria, for instance. Sciria, a contributor for BBallbreakdown and Nylon Calculus, is known for tweeting video analyses that would normally require longform articles. His bio literally reads, “I also make long threads covering NBA topics with the help of video footage and contextualized numbers.” He does do that. And even if it’s unconventional, it’s compelling journalism.
I’m creating an ongoing thread for random read-and-react plays that I find intriguing as I'm watching back film. Don't be a robot!
— Nicholas Sciria (@Nick_Sciria) January 29, 2017
Or how about NBA Math? A website once known exclusively for its creation of advanced analytics, NBA Math now has a sportswriting program. But writing isn’t enough nowadays, and the site’s social media manager tweets out various graphs, charts, and little numerical tidbits everyday. Not all NBA-related Twitter profiles will look like those of Sciria or NBA Math, but as a blogger, you must be an active tweeter. Otherwise, you lose the same massive network of writers you’re trying to be a part of.
Having quit my gig at HoopsHabit, I’ve had more time to actually play basketball in recent weeks. It’s all pretty casual; I’ll go to the North Grounds gym with a few of my housemates and play pickup with whoever happens to be there. I’m not particularly good, but that doesn’t really matter. No matter how much I enjoy reading and writing about basketball, playing the damn sport will always be more fun.
Writing can sometimes feel like a chore. And when writing’s your chosen career path, that feeling can spark some frightening questions: Can you still love the game when that game becomes your job, and when that job pays next to nothing? Can you still love the game when you’re micro-analyzing it instead of enjoying the spectacle? Can you still love the game when it becomes a responsibility rather than an escape? Those are the occupational hazards sports bloggers deal with. Blogging isn’t a “labor of love” – it’s a never-ending battle to maintain the love you started out with.
The NBA season starts in a couple weeks, meaning my schedule will soon become very crowded. But I’ve never been more excited for a new basketball season, so I’m pretty sure I haven’t lost my love for the game. After all, although the world of amateur sports blogging is wild and whacky, it’s also quite wonderful.