With Will Leitch moving on from Deadspin to bigger and better aspirations, I figured I would finally post a piece I have been working on for the better half of six months.
(Truth be told, it was only two months. For the last four, the rough draft of this post was sitting under a pile of magazines until I just found it this past weekend.)
So without further ado ...
As corporate interests continue to influence more and more of our lifestyles, all-out revolutions in popular cultural grow exceedingly less common. The Beatles in 1964, Star Wars in 1977, MTV in 1981, and Nirvana in 1991 all shocked the establishment and altered the course of popular culture. These movements all featured the right mix of contemporary status quo, corporate complacency, an established underground, and a new exciting catalyst. To anyone reading this blog, it should come as no surprise that I think the culture of sports media is facing its own revolutionary phenomenon, the emergence and acceptance of sports blogs.
One of the best ways to examine the effectiveness of a cultural revolution is to measure it to one of its previous predecessors. As Leitch is a self-professed Nirvana fan, it makes sense to compare the his Deadspin-led sports blog movement to the rise of the grunge music scene in the early 1990s.
Let’s start in the beginning ...
Like several pre-Nirvana grunge bands, many early sports blogs were created as a reaction to the perceived stagnation and commercialization of the sports media establishment. Whereas the late 80s rock scene had been flooded with corporate “hair-metal” creations such as Nelson and Winger, the national sports media of the early 2000s had become fascinated with the glamorization and celebrity of sports rather than the games themselves. Sports fans across the nation quickly tired of platforms such as ESPN Hollywood and ESPN’s Page 3, the sports version of US Magazine.
In opposition to this growing fascination with “sports celebs”, small groups of Internet-savvy fans began congregating on fan-centric sites such as Metsblog.com and national sports story sites such as Can’t Stop The Bleeding. These sites would not only tell the news of the day with short, staccato-like, near-instantaneous speed, but they would also pepper the news with their own commentary, the opinion of one fan broadcast to others. In the definitive grunge documentary Hype!, a member of the Seattle scene describes the grunge movement as bring rock music “back to its basics.” As the sports blogging underground slowly expanded, and Internet communication became easier, sports reporting was also going back to its basics.
Although these early sports blogs achieved moderate success (comparable perhaps to the early releases of Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and Mother Love Bone), the birth of Deadspin.com in September 2005 changed the course of sports blogging history. Like Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, Deadspin.com crashed the barriers of acceptance, surpassed its fellow sports blogs, and dared to compete with the giants of the corporate sports media establishment.
Through the power of Internet linking and openness, Deadspin.com became more than just an alternate sports media source. It created a community of commenters, like-minded sports fans, and lesser-known bloggers. Like the lyrics of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, Will Leitch’s posts annunciated a philosophy to sports blogging. No longer were sports to be used as a vehicle for marketing and product placement, they would again be something to be enjoyed and celebrated. Those who disagreed and either took sports too seriously or wallowed in their own sports celebrity became targets of ridicule.
Upon its inception, the mantra of Leitch and Deadspin.com was to publish "sports news without access, favor, or discretion". This guiding principle was almost identical to the philosophy of Nirvana’s recording label, Sub Pop Records. According to Seth Mullins of Associated Content, Sub Pop's philosophy was to reject a marketing-based "cookie-cutter mentality" and to "make room for the individual again", turning "records and performances into the means of celebrating individuality". By encouraging fans to participate through their comments and individual blogs, Deadspin.com brought back a sense of realness to sports fandom.
Deadspin’s success not only alerted the mainstream sports media of the influence of sports blogs, but also spawned countless new independent sports blogs, some of which gained significant acclaim. As Deadspin led the way and often assisted in viewership, blogs such as Awful Announcing, The Big Lead, With Leather, and Kissing Suzy Kolber acquired their own distinct niche and readership, becoming the Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and Stone Temple Pilots to Deadspin’s Nirvana. Like Deadspin, these blogs all made a name for themselves in the growing sports blogosphere, eventually either breaking their own stories causing controversy through their posts. For a great number of sports fans, keeping up to date with their favorite sports blogs became a routine part of the fan experience.
Like post-Nirvana grunge, and despite its detractors, blogging is the “in” sports media trend. Nearly all mainstream sports outlets have some sort of blogging coverage. ESPN has Henry Abbott and his popular blog True Hoop, internet giant AOL.com has AOL Fanhouse; there is the Sporting News blog, and the expansion of Yahoo! Sports. Sports blogs, for better or for worse, are everywhere, and a focus on the game has somewhat returned to mainstream sports media. But the heartbeat of the common fan, that fire and passion that comes only with community and shared love of sport, remains far from secure.
And so the questions ...
What will come of the sports blog revolution now that Will Leitch is leaving Deadspin? Will his torch be carried on by the next editor? Or will the counter-culture philosophy of the biggest sports blog fall by the wayside, replaced by bloggers who would forsake their views as passionate fans for corporate compensation or cheap jokes? Will these and other bloggers ride their gimmicks to the next payday? Will the mantra Leitch promoted be marginalized by the very consumerist machine that sparked its conception? And once again, will the common voice of the fan be drowned in a sea of over-hype and disillusionment?