The Decade of the Sports Blog
Writing a history of the sports blog in the closing moments of 2009 is like writing about the rise and fall of Rome in 1 A.D. In other words, any attempt to tell you how sports blogs changed sports, sports media and fandom at this point in time is necessarily incomplete. Every day, new issues arise and new paths are forged.
We are at a point where we can draw an outline of what led to the seismic explosion of the popularity of sports blogs, and talk about who made the online sports world what it has become.
Sports blogs cannot really be considered separately from their greater roots, which I'd characterize as growing from two sources. Clearly, there was interest in sports discourse long before 2005 (the year of sports blogging boom) -- forums and non-blog amateur or semi-professional websites served as the communities and alternative sources of those years. Many popular forums and non-blog websites thrive even today, but the medium itself (blogs, that is) is an inextricable yarn in the narrative.
To that I credit the boom in tech and political blogs early this decade. Blogging has been around in some form since the mid-1990s, but the medium didn't reach any sense of the mainstream until 2001 and beyond. It was around that point where blogging platforms became easier to understand, and where fans realized there was something vaguely democratic about the web. Sports certainly lagged behind politics in adopting the medium, but the parallels became immediately evident.
In fact, they became so apparent that in 2003 leading early political blogger Markos Moulitsas Zuniga convinced friend Tyler Bleszinski to begin a blog about the Oakland Athletics, with the central theory that blogs work best in highly partisan subjects, like politics and ... sports. On television, ESPN has proved this with Crossfire knock-offs Pardon the Interruption and Around the Horn; Moulitsas and Bleszinksi proved this with a massive network of team-based blogs (SB Nation, now headed by former AOL exec Jim Bankoff).
Many credit Gawker Media's Deadspin with the explosion of the sports blogging movement, and this is rather accurate, but we can't forget that a nascent scene had been firmly established in a smaller scale well ahead of Deadspin's late 2005 launch. Hell, David Pinto, a former writer for ESPN's Baseball Tonight had been writing his blog Baseball Musings since 2002! Ditto for NHL blogger (and former FanHouse blogger) Eric McErlain, who launched Off Wing Opinion that same year. (There are dozens of other examples.)
In 2003, we began to see growth in the team-based blog sector (the early bread and butter of the scene), particular in baseball. Writers really began to explore the outer reaches of sportswriting on the web, with Free Darko (launched months before Deadspin) standing as a prime example. Still others, like former freelancer Henry Abbott, used the new medium to basically start a one-man newspaper of sorts, bringing light to issues (such as NBA power broker William Wesley) fans and other writers would take a keen interest in. (Abbott's blog TrueHoop was later purchased by ESPN.) Pro athletes got in the mix, as well, as everyone from prospects -- such as D-League hoopster Rod "Boom Tho" Benson (seen above) -- to established stars like Gilbert Arenas and Curt Schilling opined, mused and ranted freely online to a welcoming audience.
Certainly, Deadspin marked a new era of sports blogging, one of competition (with both the traditional media and each other), growth (or, in more accurate words, monetization) and genre change. Deadspin was the first monumentally successful general sports blog, feeding off its Gawker mothership's penchant for humanizing (or perhaps dehumanizing, depending on your perspective/fame level) those just outside the traditional spotlight. This meant eavesdropping on a purported Stu Scott bootycall, drawing attention to photos of Arizona quarterback Matt Leinart in a hot tub and inaccurately reporting that the trainer of Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols had been named in an affidavit as a referrer for steroids.
That just hadn't been a part of the sports blogging landscape before Deadspin. The blog didn't invent irreverence (ESPN launched Page 2 at the turn of the millennium, and there's a substantial history of three-dot sports columnists in newspapers across the country), but it made irreverence the driving force. Almost suddenly, sports television personalities like Chris Berman had to keep their barroom swag in check, athletes had infinite more reason to decline photo ops with fans, and editors across the nation had a new megalith competitor with substantially lower standards of discretion. The old boys network which made Mickey Mantle's boot-knocking more myth than scandal had been blown apart, and no one (not the media, the player or the groupie) was safe.
As Deadspin thrived off the attention (positive and negative, both massive), others sought to mimic, and we saw an explosion of non-team sports blogs. Most offered a different twist -- a particular brand of humor, a certain prism through which the travails of athletes and teams were seen. Some targeted professionalism (FanHouse was launched by AOL a year after Deadspin) and others went for the comedy jugular (Kissing Suzy Kolber was effectively a Deadspin spin-off focused on the NFL). Most, honestly, were not well-written. The latest style in this mold has been that of the traffic whore; blame AdSense for making rudimentary blogs slightly profitable, and Deadspin for showing the righteous path to pageviews.
But that isn't to say Deadspin's early legacy is only that of forging a cottage industry of sports snark. Will Leitch, the founding editor of the blog, made a serious and valuable effort to recognize exemplary team and niche blogs, and of promoting worthwhile voices. Getting linked by Leitch became an art form of sorts, with a simple reference providing a cascade of hits. In many cases, the traffic was drive-by only. But as Deadspin grew and as it became the entry point of sports blogging for fans, it really did became an atlas of sorts. As blogs in general became more understood by the average web user, this service has lessened in importance. But it was vital just a few years ago.
Of course, these days even Stephen A. Smith (an early target of Deadspin and others) has a blog, and the term really refers to the medium only. No longer can "bloggers unite!" for any sort of cause, in large part because any cause bloggers would unite against likely has a blog. ESPN's new SportsCenter.com, for crepes' sake, is essentially a blog. FanHouse itself, the first major corporate driven sports blog, now looks more like ESPN.com than a Wordpress production. This conclusion isn't misshapen nostalgia -- I do not imply a Rubicon has been crossed. I just mean to say that whatever a sports blog was in 2005, or 2006 or even 2007 does not remotely compare to what a sports blog is today, or will be in the next decade. Sports fans have gained tremendous resources in the rise of the sports blogs, with actual media options (both local and national) now. I feel that the democratizing nature of the internet will allow that new power to expand and thrive into the new decade.
But whether that will come in the form of the sports blog (whatever that is these days) remains to be seen.