Jordan: All you really need to know before you listen to this episode is that if you didn’t read dead spin, you probably should have. Dead spin was one of the first and best sports blogs, and one of the reasons that it was great was that it covered everything. It was about sports, but it also wasn’t, and now it’s gone.
In April Deadspin was purchased by a company called geo media. And they wanted Deadspin to do more sports and less of everything else. And the staff said, no. So first their editor in chief resigned back in August, and then when he refused to listen to a management memo telling him to stick to sports, the deputy editor was fired last week, and then the day after that as the whole sports world watched the sights, entire staff, everybody.
Resigned in protest. Deadspin still exist, but all that’s on it is sports. The worst kind of sports. Who won the game? Who lost the game, what the score was, who scored all the stuff. That doesn’t really matter about sports.
When we talk about sports on this podcast, it’s because sports is never. Just that it is a part of our world. And the sports world itself is a fascinating mix of billionaires and politics and backroom business deals. It’s got racism and sexism and homophobia, but it also has harmony and teamwork and inspiration. And let’s just say there’s a reason that stick to sports is both an insult and a rallying cry,
and it’s the same reason that made Deadspin and places like it. Matter so much.
I’m Jordan, Heath Rawlings. This is the big story. Donnovan Bennett of SportsNet is one of our favorite people to talk to on issues like this because he does not stick to sports.
Donnovan: Hi. I don’t, at least I try not to. Yeah, so
Jordan: I guess we’ve already, I’ve already kind of explained, uh, the business behind Deadspin, that’s been both as somebody who. Lives and the sports industry. What was Deadspin?
Donnovan: Yeah, it’s a good question. And I guess rest in peace that’s been poorer. Sip out for our fallen homie who we’ve lost. Um, it was like. For people who don’t consume digital content about sports. It was like the John Oliver of sports, if you will.
So what John Oliver is to the news, I think they were to sports coverage. They were a bit cynical, a bit cheeky, but always clever and always trying to speak truth to power. And. Shine some light on things that maybe the bigger networks and platforms either weren’t willing to talk about or weren’t able to talk about because of their contractual obligations that come with being so powerful.
And part of the freedom of being a little guy is you’re not beholding to anyone or anything. So they could cover sports. And non-sports in a way that was very refreshing.
Jordan: The tagline was without access, favor or discretion.
Donnovan: Yeah. Yeah. And it was true. And the other thing that they managed to do by doing that is they had a real distinct voice.
So if you went to, you know. ESPN or Fox and their websites, you’d get kind of the same coverage about the NFL. They had. Reporters would often go back and forth between the networks and they’re all for the same goal to kind of be first and give you analysis on what happened. That spin was the opposite.
They didn’t really want to give you analysis what happened. They wanted to take maybe the funny play that happened and made that. Their whole game story or they wanted to bring light, something that wasn’t funny, that was very serious and sports. And show you exactly why you haven’t heard about it or why you need to, or they were going to do investigative journalism on something random that had nothing to do with sports, but they knew that their audience wasn’t just the typical sports fan.
They had other interests, and in fact, many of the writers. Got there by being fans of the site. And so that distinct voice that they had, something that all publications are really looking to have and that loyalty is, is something that they really worked hard to develop over the last 10 or so years, which is why for a lot of people, when it was gone so quickly, it was really a sad travesty.
Jordan: The Exodus kind of began. While it did begin, when management issued an edict telling the deputy editor who was acting as the managing editor to stick to sports, to only. Cover things that pertain to the sports world. Don’t talk about Donald Trump. Don’t talk about the political situation in America, et cetera, et cetera.
And he was then fired for not doing that. And the staff resigned on mass in protest because they wouldn’t stick to sports. Have you ever been told to stick to sports?
Donnovan: I mean, in my mentions and in comments all the time, I, aye can’t think of Story that I’ve written that had any sort of relation to something that wasn’t solely X’s and O’s where there wasn’t via some platform.
Someone who said stick to sports or something of that ilk.
Jordan: What do people mean when they say that to you?
Donnovan: I, that they’re too dumb to be able to understand anything else? I don’t know, to be honest. I really, I really don’t because. When we give you a great human interest story about a, a player who has battled a disease or had a family member that they lost and were able to overcome that, Oh, that’s not sports.
Right? The fact that Matt Stafford’s wife battled cancer and stronger and. Their relationship is closer. It’s a great story. It’s not, it’s not. Sports has nothing to do with how he reads the high, low safety, but it’s interesting. So to me, what that says is, well, I believe you have a stance on something and I don’t want to hear your stance.
On X. I just want to hear your stance on sports cause people don’t tell you to stick to sports when you’re doing human interest stories because what’s the other stance on? It’s great that math Stafford’s wife is now cancer free. There is no other stance, but if you want to go in the other direction and maybe do something about.
Um, maybe women’s empowerment, um, and getting more opportunities for them in, in supports or, um, yeah, the, the, the racial undertones that we have in sports. Well then people feel like their status quo is threatened and they want you just to give them the game report. And. Sadly, I mean, I’m not interested in, in doing it, but I think what we’ve seen over the last five or so years is that there is a real audience for things that aren’t just sports, but, but it’s also very, very divisive and there’s an audience that pushes against it as well.
Jordan: How does the fact that, look, we both work in media. It’s tough for people out there to get jobs when those jobs go away. Like those guys who and girls who left Deadspin there’s nothing out there guaranteed for them. How does the precarious employment situation impact coverage in sports and elsewhere?
Donnovan: Well, that’s the leverage that our employers have in our industry because we know at any time that there are more people that want jobs in this industry, um, that are actually in it right now. Right? So it’s a supply and demand issue. And those economics make you make decisions at times. To just take care of your economics and keep your job and keep your run.
And that’s what made that, not just the, the resignations. At Deadspin by the editors. The fact that everyone on mass left. So, so just crazy. Like it’s not as if this was a section of, of their newsroom or a couple people who are, you know, towards the end and you know, they could see retirement.
They just didn’t want to stick around and play these games. Young writers, old writers, people with a huge following, people with no phone, they all left and they all not just left. They trolled their bosses on the way out. They scheduled tweets virtually making fun of the fact that the website had no leader for when they were gone.
They put in stories, hyperlinks about how bad that their management is. Before many of them left, they did a story about how bad their management was and they were all vocal on Twitter about exactly why they are leaving. Um, so I mean, kudos to them. I applaud them all because I, I’m not certain I would be that brave even though I’d like to think that I am, but when it was happening in real time, and to see them all basically declaring that they’re leaving in real time on Twitter and seeing how people were reacting, I kind of said to myself, if they started a new website, because whatever Deadspin is going to be is it’s not going to be Deadspin it’s and it, and it can’t be anymore.
They started a new website. If they started spin dead. Right now. Not only would they do well, I think they would do even better than they did before. Cause it’s like One of those things where you don’t really realize how much you like something until it’s gone
Jordan: And it’s replaced by crappy gamers.
Donnovan: Yes. Pretty much. Yeah. So, um, I, I, and I’m, I’m in this era where we just feel like there’s this funnel of content coming out nonstop, nonstop, nonstop. I can’t fathom that one of the biggest sports blogs we had. Stopped, like they just stopped cause they didn’t have any people to work for them.
And the one person that they hired in the interim was hit with so much online kind of vitriol that he said, I’m, I’m, I’ve had, and I’m out of here. So yeah, it’s, it’s crazy. I, I kinda wouldn’t be surprised if like the ringer just started a Deadspin division or slate started the Deadspin division and just brought them all.
Over, but either way, you don’t know that’s going to be the case when you’re at the legend, you’re about to jump and they all did it. Uh, but I think it shows you how much they actually really, really love that site and what they’re doing and how much they believed in it and how much they fundamentally, we’re willing to push up against not just the change in what they were doing, but why there was a change in what they were supposed to do.
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Jordan: The labor market in the media that we just discussed. How is that reflected in the sports world? Because some of the same dynamics are at play and it’s part of the reason why sticking to sports doesn’t really accomplish the coverage we’re talking about.
Donnovan: Yeah. I mean, it’s tricky when you look at the economics.
Why do people. Say, well, you need to sit the sports from an executive level. Well, I mean advertisers wanting to be something to everyone. They don’t want to put anyone in a box. And if you are being political in some of your coverage, well that takes away from maybe an advertiser who wants to be a political in what they support.
Also, if we’re being honest, if we look at the top of the food chain. Lot of the people who run or own immediate businesses, they got there as very powerful people tied to politics, whether it’s some sort of lobbying or having a vested interest in a. Potential country. If we’re talking about the MBA or politicians, if we’re talking about Rupert Murdoch, and so naturally you can understand why they would want to have a, a very close watch on the type of rhetoric and speech that’s being given by people who work for them.
Whether it’s through their work or what we’ve seen with ESPN, even on your personal social accounts, they want to really, you know, cleanse any political talk from them. The issue though is that sports is so big that it touches all parts of our culture. It is a culture. It is. And when leagues, you know, get tax exemption and antitrust status from governments, that shows you just how big they are, how much power they have.
So it’s impossible to cover the Houston rockets and not acknowledge that there. General manager put out a tweet that many parts of the United States would be innocuous about, you know, freedom in Hong Kong. what that meant to the business relations of the Houston rockets, who because they had Yao Ming and Chinese superstar on their team is.
Basically the chosen team of the far East, what it meant to the league as a whole, when teams were in China and events were shut down, uh, because of it and what it might mean to the NBA salary cap moving forward. When you know, potential revenue from China that the league depends on, could go away and by some people’s projections of salary cap could be impacted by upwards of 10%.
And naturally if you’re ESPN, it’s tricky because you are a league partner. You are in business with the MBA and you want to continue to be so you, their interests are your interests, but you’re also a broadcast partner. And if you’re paying a, or getting money from company like 10 cent, which is basically like the ESPN and Amazon of China.
You don’t also want to upset them with what your coverage is, so it impacts your business relationships on multiple levels. All of this stuff is intertwined, which is why it needs to be covered because as many say, sunlight is the greatest disinfectant. We want all of this to be on the up and up, but you can see why sometimes the powers that be would rather you just talk about.
James Harden’s play and not the fact that he’s motivated to have a good relationship in China because Adidas is motivated to sell shoes in China.
Jordan: What role does access play speaking to dead spins tagline, when you’re in, when you’re in the locker rooms, you’re in the locker rooms a lot. It’s tough.
Donnovan: It is. And it is. Yeah. It is And sometimes that spin would push the envelope and, and I think at times get to the point where they even mean. And that is a privilege that you have when you are writing from afar and you don’t have to see any of the stakeholders. And when your bottom line. Isn’t dependent on any of the stakeholders, so they can push the envelope a little bit farther than other people can, which is a, a privilege that they have.
Um, and if you are beholden to a rights holder or a partner with them, then it is a bit tricky, which is why Deadspin had such a loyal following because people knew that they. We’re not in the rights game in terms of having television rights or streaming rights, and they probably never would be.
That was never their intention. They always wanted it to be different and provide a different perspective. I think the new owners are looking at the long game and they’re saying to themselves, well, that just doesn’t make any sense. Why would you cut yourself off away from these huge. Market that have potential growth.
And their answer was, well, ESPN is doing that and Fox is doing that. We are doing something different. We, we don’t want to do that. So you can see the two sides were, the owners were saying, well, it doesn’t make business sense to cut off these ties and relationships, but they are saying, I think they do have a point.
Even if some advertisers might be scared away if we were very political or or crass at times, which they were what advertisers like are audiences. Okay. And more importantly, loyal audiences and our audiences. I mean. They’re strong, but they certainly were loyal. And if you had a nice, friendly website that just replayed the highlights from the last night, and, uh, you know, bloopers of a guy trying to catch a ball and dropping his beer all over him, that’ll get a lot of clicks and that’ll be shared virally.
But it’s not necessarily bring back traffic time and time again. And you know, from. Someone who has experience helping to manage a site. You really want a loyal audience. It’s the bedrock of of what a website is, and then after you have that insecured it, then you look and try and get unique visitors and in fact, well, they’re able to do is do both.
They had a loyal audience who knew they were going to Come to Deadspin for something different, but because they didn’t stick to sports, because they talked about cooking pots and recipes and ranking of dog breeds and ranking of music genres.
Jordan: It should be noted that not all their non-sports stuff was like, Oh, we’re going to talk politics here. Hardcore. In fact, most of it was like. Frivolous and fun.
Donnovan: Exactly. And even their non sport stuff that was tied to sports. It was doing investigative work about the string of sex that Brett Farve sent, or the fact that Manti Teo had a girlfriend that was make-believe and he was catfished like those were the types of stories that they were putting the same amount of journalistic, uh, muscle and resources in a, as ESPN would, uh, on breaking a big story.
They were just doing it on a random stuff that. People didn’t know they cared about until it ended up on Deadspin and then they did.
Jordan: Well, we mentioned, now that we mentioned that I did use to work at SportsNet, and you still work at SportsNet without speaking to them specifically, but in your career and in my career, I think of the stories you’ve written about sports that you’re most proud of, how many of them were about the game on the field?
Donnovan: Zero. Like I say, to be honest, the sports stories that are about. The game in the field. I mean, I can’t really recall them. They’re there. They’re there, they’re gone. They’re gone right there. They don’t mean that much, but even if we were just talking about the metrics and. This is what I think set the Deadspin staff through the roof, is that they had the data that their non-sports stories were important in their new owners.
One refuted the data, and then after they left on mass, provided their own data, which, which has since been debunked. All the stories that I’ve done that have really, really done well. Sun’s one have been about. Something tied to sports, but sports was just the entryway to talk about something totally different.
one of the biggest stories I’ve done was about a 93 year old Lithuanian grandmother who’s a refugee to Canada and is obsessed with the Raptors. And only because that was the one thing that tied her back home, because basketball is big in Lithuania and with when it did well in the Olympics right after they got their independence.
So it’s really about. Point of pride for the entire country. So, so that story went into immigration, went to the geopolitical history of Europe. Uh, it went to starting a better life for Canada. Basketball was, was in the background. It was, it was just how I heard about the story. Um, and so in a sense, I suppose.
Part of that story is political. It’s not necessarily talking about Donald Trump and his relationship with Colin Kaepernick or the Chinese government and the relationship with the NBA, but it certainly wasn’t sticking to sports. Certainly it wasn’t talking about transactions, trades and a starting lineup.
Jordan: Somebody who read that piece and wanted to believe that you had a political reason for doing it could come to that conclusion.
Donnovan: Yes. Yeah. Yeah.
Jordan: And jump in your management,
Donnovan: Right. Probably. Probably. And that, and that piece actually was, was more. Read and viewed at one point in time in Lithuania than it was in Canada.
But as we continue to cover sports more and more, and as there is so much on the internet for us to choose from. It’s really the stories that don’t stick to sports that are going to stand out and be lasting. So as a business model, I think, in fact, we should probably lean the other way.
Jordan: Thanks, Donovan.
Jordan: Donovan Bennett of SportsNet. That was the Big Story for more from us, including sports stories that are not sports stories at thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can also find us on Twitter at @thebigstoryfpn. Do not use that three word phrase. Listen to us wherever you get podcasts, subscribe for free.
Give us a rating. Give us a review. You can find us on Apple and Google and Stitcher and Spotify and more. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings we’ll talk tomorrow.
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