It has long been a fundamental tenet of the site Deadspin, which saw a mass exodus of employees this week, that in order to understand what happens in sports you have to look outside of them.
Two years ago, Sports Illustrated, which had been a weekly magazine for decades, began publishing just thirty-nine issues a year. The magazine’s revenue from print ads had been plummeting since the recession; it had dropped more than forty per cent in just the previous two years, from 100.1 million dollars, in 2015, to 57.4 million dollars, in 2017. Digital-ad revenue didn’t make up the difference, and subscriptions were down. Orders to cut costs came again and again from the publisher, Time Inc. At the start of 2018, Sports Illustrated went biweekly—around the same time that Time Inc. was sold to the media conglomerate Meredith Corporation, which published life-style magazines such as Southern Living and Cooking Light. Less than a year and a half later, in May, Meredith sold the intellectual property of Sports Illustrated to a group called Authentic Brands. When the deal was first announced, it was reported that Meredith would continue to publish the magazine for two more years. But, a few weeks after that, Authentic Brands licensed the magazine’s publishing rights to a company called Maven. A month ago, Maven laid off around a third of Sports Illustrated’s staff.
It seems that not one of the buyers had purchased Sports Illustrated because it valued the publication’s work. What concerned the buyers was how much money they could wring from their purchase. Authentic Brands held the licensing and trademark rights to celebrities like Marilyn Monroe and Muhammad Ali, and had never actually published a magazine. The company’s C.E.O., Jamie Salter, wanted to stick the Sports Illustrated name on everything from “medical clinics and sports-skills training classes to a gambling business,” Variety reported. He also wanted to make “better use of the magazine’s vast photo library.” Maven, meanwhile, laid out a scheme to launch a network of “team communities,” or local fan sites, which would post as much search-optimized content as possible, produced by news aggregators and low-paid, or even free, labor. The pitch to prospective content producers included lip service to the magazine’s tradition of deep reporting and award-winning prose, but it was impossible to imagine how the company could maintain high standards given the limited editorial and financial investments that it planned to make. Maven reportedly wanted new contributors to post stories or videos multiple times a day—at a salary of about twenty-five thousand dollars a year, with no benefits, plus bonuses for hitting traffic goals.
In 2018, Sports Illustrated had nearly three million subscribers. That was down from the magazine’s peak, and subscription numbers can be propped up by various short-term promotions. Still, that’s a lot of people. It was enough people, in fact, for the magazine to produce operating profits—not high ones, and only under cost-saving pressure, but, at least according to one Meredith spokesperson, Sports Illustrated was in the black. It had a strong and respected Web presence, and it employed well-known and influential journalists. Even during the past few months, under uncertain and demoralizing conditions, the magazine’s remaining staff has produced some of the most noteworthy stories in sports—investigations into allegations of sexual harassment against the former N.F.L. wide receiver Antonio Brown, for instance, and an instantly viral piece by Stephanie Apstein about an outburst by a Houston Astros executive following the American League Championship Series, which led to the firing of that executive during the World Series. Sports Illustrated may not have been thriving, but it wasn’t dead.
So why does Maven seem determined to kill it? Even if it hits whatever benchmarks Maven has set for it, the new Sports Illustrated will be unrecognizable. The plan isn’t to reinvest in the kind of reporting and writing that the magazine is famous for—the kind that illuminates the inner workings of sports organizations, or explains developments in strategy and analysis, or explores the lives of athletes, or investigates and exposes abuses of power. The plan is to attract “an intense community of fans”—not of Sports Illustrated but of specific teams—“who come back to the site everyday,” Bill Sornsin, the C.O.O., said in a presentation. “Nobody is actually a fan of ESPN or Sports Illustrated,” he explained. “They’re a fan of the New York Giants, or the Iowa Hawkeyes, or what have you. They’re a fan of their team.”
Actually, many people were fans of Sports Illustrated. The publication helped shape the way people watch, talk about, and write about sports. The current economic environment is challenging for serious sports journalism, maybe even more than it is for other sorts of news. But economic factors—Google and Facebook siphoning off ad revenues, the proliferation of game highlights on Twitter and other free outlets—don’t fully explain what is happening with sportswriting right now. Some of the people who are ostensibly funding it seem to have little interest in what it is and what it’s for.
I learned many of the details above from a piece titled “Inside TheMaven’s Plan to Turn Sports Illustrated Into a Rickety Content Mill,” which was published, in October, by Deadspin. I learned a lot of things from Deadspin over the years. It influenced and deepened my understanding of the conflicts between labor and management, the ways that organizations handle or mishandle cases of domestic violence, and many other things. The writing that it published was, by turns, stylish, crude, sarcastic, earnest, goofy, and snarky, even verging on mean. But that brashness was often part of the point—these writers weren’t cultivating access. They weren’t trying to be liked by the people they wrote about. That included me: after I wrote a piece for Grantland that accompanied a documentary produced by ESPN, about the first pitch that President George W. Bush threw at Yankee Stadium after 9/11, the site published a piece criticizing the network’s whole production and called my role in it “craven.” I had been put “in the unenviable position of writing a story about George W. Bush without straightforwardly acknowledging that the man belongs in a prison,” the writer of the post, Tom Ley, concluded. But, however harsh Deadspin’s writers were about their subjects, they respected their readers and they respected their mission, which was to write about sports—and not only sports. Because why, if you wrote about sports, would you pretend that sports weren’t part of the wider world?
The Deadspin piece that reported on Maven’s plans had three authors: Laura Wagner, David Roth, and Kelsey McKinney. All three of them quit this past week. So did the rest of the staff. Whatever happens next, it seems likely that Deadspin will not, in a meaningful way, continue to exist.
The story of Deadspin’s demise is much weirder than the decline of Sports Illustrated, a legacy-media publication. Years ago, one of its sister sites, Gawker, published a piece about the sexual orientation of a billionaire, and that billionaire didn’t like the story; he later decided to fund a lawsuit filed by the former wrestler Hulk Hogan, who believed that Gawker, in another piece, which included an explicit video, had invaded his privacy. The case went on for years, and Hogan ultimately won, and, as a result, Gawker Media, the parent company of Gawker, Deadspin, and a handful of other sites, filed for bankruptcy. Gawker Media was sold to Univision, which rebranded it as Gizmodo Media Group and then sold it to the private-equity firm Great Hill Partners, which then renamed it G/O Media. Deadspin’s editorial staff immediately clashed with its most recent management; in August, the site published a long investigation into G/O Media’s hiring practices, corporate culture, and failures to guarantee editorial independence. Shortly after, the editor in chief, Megan Greenwell, resigned over disagreements with ownership, which she also laid out in a long post.
The writing was on the wall then. On Monday, G/O Media sent a directive to Deadspin to keep its focus on sports, and not on politics, or pop culture, or how to make the best chili, or any of the other subjects that the site had made its own since its founding, in 2005. “Where such subjects touch on sports, they are fair game for Deadspin,” Paul Maidment, the editorial director of G/O Media, wrote. “Where they do not, they are not. We have plenty of other sites that write about politics, pop culture, the arts and the rest, and they are the appropriate places for such work.” Stick to sports, in other words.
“Stick to sports” has for years been a favorite phrase of the site, always used sardonically. The staff has been tireless in defending the right of athletes to speak up about issues they care about, and in pointing out the agendas behind those who wish they would stay silent. Or, as the longtime contributor Drew Magary put it in a post called “You’re Not Sticking to Sports When You Stick to Sports,” earlier this year, “Sports are a highly visible part of the world, and they are both underwritten and infiltrated by multiple political forces in that world. You think I wanna fucking talk about politics? I don’t. I swear. I just wanna smoke some dope and chill the fuck out and treat politics as something tedious and inconsequential. But that is not the country I live in.”
The memo from Maidment went out the same day that G/O Media was facing a minor insurrection from its Web sites, which jointly published a post criticizing new video ads on their home pages that had led to mass complaints by readers in their comment sections. G/O stepped in, removing the critical posts. The next day, Deadspin began posting stories that were flagrantly unconcerned with sports: one was about a pumpkin thief; another was about wedding attire. Barry Petchesky, a longtime staffer who was serving as the interim editor-in-chief after Greenwell’s resignation, was fired. After a frustrating staff-wide meeting with Maidment about the new stick-to-sports policy, other staffers started handing in their resignations, too. By the end of the week, the entire staff had quit. The first new post-exodus contributor, Alan Goldsher, wrote one story, was overwhelmed with vitriol on Twitter, and immediately quit.
G/O Media, facing incredible public backlash (Bernie Sanders and Cory Booker are among those who have voiced their support for the departing Deadspin staffers), has tried to justify its decision by saying that non-sports posts drew less traffic than sports posts. In doing so, they were echoing ESPN, which also has tried to restrict its reporting and commentary to sports-related analysis. ESPN has cited audience research that purports to show that a majority of its viewers favors such restrictions, which seems conveniently beneficial to the network’s powerful sports-league partners, most notably the N.F.L. Both ESPN and G/O Media have argued that the mandate to cover sports is, as G/O Media put it in a public statement, “incredibly broad.” But the limits of such a rule are as evident as they have ever been. When the N.B.A. became embroiled in a conflict with government interests in China, after the Houston Rockets’ general manager, Daryl Morey, posted a tweet in support of protesters in Hong Kong, ESPN’s news director sent a memo instructing on-air talent to avoid discussion of the political situation in China or Hong Kong—which seemed to violate the basic standards of journalism. How could one provide any understanding of why Morey’s tweets were so explosive without discussing politics? I learned about that ESPN memo from Deadspin, too.
Former Deadspin staffers have strongly disputed G/O Media’s contention that non-sports posts did not attract the highest traffic. In fact, they have claimed the opposite. (A story in the Los Angeles Times looked at the numbers and backed up the former staffers.) On another level, though, that argument doesn’t matter: it has long been a fundamental tenet of the site that in order to understand what happens in sports you have to look outside of them. You have to understand power, money, and the broader culture in which athletes—and the people in their orbit—operate. If you want to understand the flaws in the way the major sports leagues address domestic violence, for instance, you need to understand the problems with zero-tolerance policies. To understand anything in America right now, you have to talk about the context that has created Donald Trump, and the context that Trump, in turn, has helped to create. And another of Deadspin’s central themes has been that human beings should be allowed to talk about important things, and joke about ridiculous things, regardless of what their job is—not because they have a platform or a mandate but just because they’re human beings.
I don’t doubt that ESPN’s audience research suggested that many people prefer not to read about anything more controversial than going for a two-point conversion as they eat their Cheerios. That’s a human impulse, too. But the anxiety around preserving sports as a carefully insulated and entertaining distraction may be as damaging as treating them merely as a vehicle for short-term profits—and may not be entirely unrelated. Sports are played by real people, and organized by real people, and watched by real people, and they are influenced by vast sums of real money. There is something dehumanizing to pretend otherwise, and the best sportswriters have always realized that it takes nothing from the joy of watching people play a game to point that out.