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.