Can sports journalism survive in the era of the athlete?

March 28, 2024
Sports, and the people who play them, have never been more popular, but for sports journalism, things have never felt so bleak. (Photo by Visionhaus/Corbis via Getty Images.)

Todd Frazier is trying to figure out how to mute himself. 

It’s January, and he’s on the set of the digital show he cohosts, in the training complex—the vibe is CrossFit gym with sports-bar decor—just behind his house in suburban New Jersey. Everywhere you look are mementos from Frazier’s long career as a power-hitting third baseman for teams including the Reds and Mets: game-worn cleats, signed lineup cards, a letter from Joe Torre (then MLB’s rules czar) fining him $750 for cursing out an umpire. (“You f-ed me three f-ing times! Now you are going to throw me out?” It’s framed in the bathroom.) 

“If you move the cursor over here, you just can click this button,” a producer demonstrates, pointing to one of the monitors in front of him.

Nearly three years after his last game, Frazier is still getting used to this new role. He’s dressed like a player in the offseason—a maroon long-sleeve tee, black workout pants, and no shoes. His show, Foul Territory, features Frazier as one of a rotating cast of former players who appear a couple of times a week, mostly from their homes; the main hosts are Scott Braun, a former anchor for the MLB Network, journeyman catcher Erik Kratz, and A.J. Pierzynski, a retired catcher for the Chicago White Sox. It streams every weekday on YouTube, from 1 to 3pm.

In recent years, shows like this—hosted by athletes, some retired, many not—seem to be everywhere. Tom Brady has the Let’s Go! podcast, now in its third year. The brothers Jason and Travis Kelce, both (until Jason retired this month) active NFL players, host New Heights, where they discuss everything from their most recent games to Travis’s burgeoning relationship with Taylor Swift. (“We gotta talk about it,” Jason began, apologetically.) There’s Podcast P, with Paul George; On Base, with Mookie Betts; I Am Athlete, with Brandon Marshall; Green Light with Chris Long; Bussin’ with the Boys, with Will Compton—the list goes on.

The shows are usually simply produced. Their appeal lies in offering fans the sense of being welcomed into the private spaces where athletes talk among themselves—an amiable environment of private stories and inside jokes—without adding in too many unwanted topics or uncomfortable questions. When the basketball star Nikola Jokić, who almost never grants interviews, recently appeared on Curious Mike, a video podcast hosted by his teammate Michael Porter Jr., he praised the host for asking “the best questions since I came to the NBA.”

All the fun has drawn in huge audiences—and, inevitably, lots of money. The Kelce brothers are backed by Wave Sports and Entertainment, a growing production company that boasts three athlete-led podcasts in its portfolio. (The newest, 7pm in Brooklyn, with Carmelo Anthony, launched in November.) I Am Athlete, meanwhile, has spun itself into a fully fledged media company and “fiercely restless creative studio.” (It describes its content as a “safe place for athletes, celebrities, and entertainers to one up and share their stories in their own narratives.”) The biggest of them all, The Pat McAfee Show, hosted by the former NFL punter, was licensed last year by ESPN, at a reported $85 million valuation.

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Foul Territory is one of the few digital shows that focus exclusively on Major League Baseball. “I was around current and former players all day, and we’d have the same conversation all the time: ‘Where is the Pat McAfee of baseball?’” Braun told me the first time we talked. “I think football and basketball have done an incredible job of promoting their players, but for some reason that didn’t happen with baseball.” 

So far, the show’s livestreams draw a modest audience, but selected clips, chopped up and digested for social media, can bring in millions of views. They’ve made news (Lance Lynn on the White Sox clubhouse culture; Trevor May on the “phantom” injured list) and landed impressive interviews, like the time former Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Corbin Burnes appeared one day after being traded in a blockbuster deal to the Baltimore Orioles. (He video-called from his car.) Last May, the show scored its first viral moment when Mets slugger Pete Alonso told the story of the time he had to use the bathroom so badly during an at-bat that he committed to swinging for the fences—or getting out—on the first pitch. “I mistimed my pregame coffee,” he said. “If I had to run the bases, honestly, I would have gotten picked off on purpose.” (The guys now refer to the saga as the “poop homer.”) Foul Territory, Frazier says, is all about creating space for moments like that to occur. “There’s nothing really for us like this,” he said. 

Braun has arrived on the set—he lives in Florida but travels constantly for the show—and is settling into his seat next to Frazier. During shows, he’s the well-informed voice of reason, keeping the conversation flowing and navigating the transitions between segments; Pierzynski, who was once voted the “most hated” player in the game, is “not afraid to ask anything,” Frazier said.

Today’s guests include Rowdy Tellez, a first baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Todd Kalas, the Astros’ play-by-play announcer. The producer retreats into his soundproof control room—a portable sauna, positioned just out of sight of the cameras.

In Braun’s and Frazier’s ears, another producer, sitting in her home on a video call, urges the guys to stop their chitchatting.

“All right, gang,” she says. “Three, two, one… and we’re live.”

For nearly as long as sports have been televised, athletes have sought to stay in the spotlight by retiring into the broadcast booth. Former players bring unique insight and direct knowledge of the things taking place in front of them—or those about to. When Tony Romo, the former Cowboys quarterback, debuted as a color commentator, on CBS in 2017, he stunned audiences by correctly predicting a number of plays based solely on the offensive and defensive formations.

These days, athletes are greatly expanding their remit. Peyton Manning now runs Omaha Productions, which produces a companion broadcast to ESPN’s Monday Night Football, airing on ESPN2; he also executive-produced (with the NFL) Netflix’s 2023 show Quarterback, which followed a handful of stars through a season. Tom Brady executive-produced the ten-part ESPN docuseries about his own career, Man in the Arena. Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Greek-born basketball star, is a collaborator in a new Amazon Prime documentary about his life; so is Roger Federer, whose upcoming Amazon doc started out as personal footage he supposedly commissioned for a “home video.”

Sometimes the athletes’ involvement is clear, sometimes it’s not: Giannis isn’t actually listed as a producer on his film, but a press release from Amazon mentions that it was coproduced by a company called Improbable Media, which (an internet search will tell you) Giannis founded this year. Netflix’s recent Untold series, which includes exclusive episodes on Johnny Manziel and Manti Te‘o, doesn’t list any of the featured players as producers—although the series was initially pitched and coproduced by the Players’ Tribune, a digital publication founded in 2014 by Derek Jeter. (A spokesman for Netflix told CJR that the company “retains creative control and final cut” on its sports-related series.)

All of this is happening at a moment when sports, and the people who play them, have never been more popular—96 of the top 100 broadcasts in the US last year were football games, according to Sportico—while for sports journalism, things have never been so bleak.

In the past year alone, HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, a Peabody- and duPont-winning investigative show, came to an end; and Outside the Lines, ESPN’s beloved deep-dive, was canceled as a standalone show. (The rubric still appears, in neutered form, as segments on SportsCenter. “It exists in name only,” a current employee told me.) The sequence was similar, if less comprehensive, on the print side: Sports Illustrated, the magazine that broke the story of baseball players using performance-enhancing drugs, turned into an AI-generated clickbait farm, before laying off nearly all of its staff; Deadspin was gutted; and the New York Times, which led the coverage into what the NFL knew about the link between concussions and brain damage, disbanded its in-house sports section. (The Times now covers sports primarily through The Athletic, a startup it acquired in 2022; the Washington Post retains a well-regarded sports section.)

“We’re in a time of information abundance,” says Brian Moritz, a sports media researcher at St. Bonaventure University. “But actual journalists—the people who hold systems and power structures accountable—they’re being totally phased out.”

‘We’re in a time of information abundance. But actual journalists—they’re being totally phased out.’

There is perhaps no place where the sports world’s deteriorating relationship with news is more painful to witness than ESPN. The company’s digital operation still has a robust investigative unit, as well as reporters assigned to individual teams (mainly in football), but on-screen over the past decade or so, the focus has systematically shifted away from news offerings and toward debate and analysis. Where there was once Outside the Lines and The Sports Reporters, today there is First Take (a cacophonous morning show), Around the Horn, and McAfee—part of what one veteran sports reporter calls the “networks of screaming men.” “When ESPN does great journalism, it’s like a dog standing up on its hind legs,” Robert Lipsyte, the company’s former ombudsman, told the Hartford Courant in 2019, around the time the company shuttered ESPN the Magazine. “It’s unexpected and it’s really terrific, but that’s not the way the dog walks.”

In 2017, ESPN laid off around a hundred people—a tenth of its newsgathering operation, according to the Post. Three years later, the company shed another three hundred, and eliminated two hundred more open positions—the largest such move in company history, per Front Office Sports. Last summer, around the same time McAfee’s show went on the air, the company cut another hundred or so people, prompting an ugly round of juxtaposing headlines. “Ruthless Layoffs After Massive Pat McAfee Deal,” read one.

Andy Hall, a spokesman for ESPN, told CJR that news is still central to the network’s mission, and he pointed to a recent speech by Jimmy Pitaro, the company’s chairman, in which he said, “Quality journalism has never been more of a priority at ESPN.” Hall also denied that there was any connection between the McAfee deal and last year’s layoffs.

Mike Soltys, who was among those let go at the time—and, it should be noted, spent three decades at the company as a PR executive—agrees that it’s “overly simplistic” to look at the layoffs that way. Still, he acknowledged, “you are getting less of the types of stories that 30 for 30 became so well known for, so I get the journalistic angle on it. But ultimately viewers like shows [like the Tom Brady series], and ESPN is trying to get the most viewers.”

Sports have always existed in a place between news and entertainment. But there are lines—or there used to be. In 2006, when ESPN announced it was partnering with Barry Bonds to produce a reality series about his hunt for the home run title, at the height of the scandal over his reported use of steroids, the network’s ombudsman publicly argued that the show should be shelved. (The whole situation, he added, “boggles the mind.”) It was canceled before the first season fully aired. 

Now the same networks that host journalistic sports content all have intricate partnerships with the leagues, for content and live games. In November, Charissa Thompson, a host for Amazon Prime’s Thursday Night Football, revealed on a podcast that, in a previous job, she made up reports from coaches when they didn’t stop to talk to her at halftime. Her comments ignited a firestorm among purists, but there was never any real fallout. She wasn’t suspended by the streamer, nor did she or Amazon make any public comment about it when she appeared again on their platform—that same night, for the Thursday game. (She apologized on her Instagram a day later.)

Braun prefers to think of Foul Territory as his way of escaping that closed loop. He started dreaming about the show five or six years ago, when he was midway through his stint at MLB Network—a cable channel that wasn’t just in bed with a league, it was owned by one. “It got very corporate there very fast,” he said. By 2022, it was clear there was more he wanted to be able to say. 

The first episode aired on March 1 of last year; the hosts took the bold position that “injuries suck.” Over the next few weeks, the guys became more comfortable with the space they had to say what was on their minds—in particular, when it came to team owners. 

‘Nobody covers baseball now. Turn on ESPN—it’s just not there.’

In late April, after much public deliberation, the Oakland A’s officially announced that they would be leaving California and building a new stadium in Las Vegas. The show talked about it constantly over the next few weeks. “The fans have been…shat on,” one of the ex-player hosts said. “As a baseball fan, it sucks.” 

“We are by far the most vocal show about the Oakland A’s situation and how fucked up it is, and we talk about it all the time,” Braun told me. 

He went on: “Nobody covers baseball now. Turn on ESPN, it’s not happening—the mainstream national coverage is just not there.” But on your own show, he added, “you can just say whatever the fuck you want.”

The show is certainly more fun to watch during moments like this—at least it’s when the players are having the best time. But it’s also clear the show greatly benefits from having actual news to talk about—trade deals and free agents and events taking place on the field. On YouTube, almost every one of its most watched clips are those that feature Ken Rosenthal, a longtime sports reporter for Fox baseball and The Athletic. (He also has a standalone Web series, called Fair Territory.)

At the taping I attended, you could feel some tension between the version of the show that the retired players experienced and the one Braun wanted it to be. During a lull in the conversation, Braun mentioned that he’d recently appeared on a local New York news channel to promote the show. The producers, he said, were all fans of Foul Territory, and they’d asked Braun how he and his cohosts got such great answers out of high-profile guests like Yankees manager Aaron Boone.

“We just ask!” Frazier scoffed.

Braun nodded. “We just ask them,” he said.

“We weren’t really, like, digging at him,” Frazier went on. “Some people go on there and they’re like, ‘Why don’t you start this guy here?’ ‘What the heck’s your problem?’ You don’t do that to a guy who’s, one, well respected, and two, has a tough job as it is, in my opinion.”

Braun shifted in his seat a bit. “Buuuut…we don’t bullshit, we’re still asking the questions,” he said. “There’s just a way to ask them.”

“Right,” Frazier said.

Braun: “There’s just a way to do it without feeling like you’re in attack mode. That’s not how you ask a question if you want to get a good answer.”

Pierzynski, who had been sitting quietly on a monitor at home, chimed in. “You wanna know how we ask them? We ask real questions how we want to be asked questions. Because we were players, so we know what guys would ask, and how to get guys going in baseball. Because we’ve all done it for so long, and been around it for so long, so we know what guys are going to react to the best way. And that’s why the interviews on this show are better than anywhere else.”

‘It’s great entertainment. It’s clever, it’s fun. But it’s not journalism.’

Shows where everyone is on the same team are, it’s fair to say, often quite enjoyable to watch. But is that enough? In a time when people are struggling to find outlets where they can make news, it’s hard to know if a proliferation of shows that talk about it really fills that hole—even if the people doing it are well-intentioned. The bigger danger in this moment of abundance is that audiences (and, maybe more importantly, executives) could be lulled into thinking they aren’t really missing out on anything.

A few years ago, when The Athletic was launching with a subscription-based model, Moritz and a colleague conducted a study of the “Why I Joined” essays that new writers penned. Many, they found, felt that by leaving a traditional newsroom they would be liberated to focus on the stories fans really wanted.

“I get it, it made sense, but also, part of journalism is doing the stories fans don’t want,” Moritz said. “How do you write something critical when at the end of the day the team winning makes people happy?”

Real Sports, the HBO show that ended last year, regularly did this, breaking ground including on sexual misconduct in Bikram yoga and child slavery in camel racing. “If there ever was an industry that needed regularized watchdogging, it’s this one,” says Josh Fine, a producer and investigative reporter who spent seventeen years at the show. “Like any large industry, there’s a lot of abuses in sports, and it’s the role of journalists to expose those and make sure the public knows about them.” 

Several of the underemployed sports reporters I spoke to for this story suggested that the next looming crisis is legal sports gambling, now a $10 billion industry. If there’s going to be in-depth reporting on the problems that arise, it may not come from traditional sports outlets, many of which are heavily sponsored by betting companies and have even incorporated betting lines into their products. (This is especially true of the athlete-led shows; Foul Territory is supported in part by BetMGM.) Earlier this year, with the Super Bowl being held in Las Vegas, the gambling mecca of America, ESPN rolled out a four-part series on the industry, only one segment of which was overtly critical. It aired at 9am on a Sunday, preceded by ads from BetMGM and FanDuel, and didn’t appear online for weeks. (Another segment—a milquetoast appraisal of the industry’s growth into the “mainstream”—was posted immediately to the company’s co-branded “ESPN Bet” YouTube page.)

Real Sports might have covered all this, but toward the end of its run, it was struggling not just against economic realities, but with the fact that a documentary news show needed athletes to participate—and athletes simply didn’t need it anymore.

“It’s been harder and harder just to get your bookings,” said Andrea Kremer, a correspondent on the show for seventeen years. “I have to be optimistic about things, but I don’t see how a Real Sports comes back. You might never see another program like it. I’m very concerned about that.”

Of the content filling the void, she said, “It’s great entertainment. It’s clever, it’s fun. But it’s not journalism. And that’s okay, because I’m not saying there’s only room for journalism. There should be room at the table for all of these things. But it can’t be in place of journalism.”

Last December, Tyler Dunne, a thirty-six-year-old independent journalist in Buffalo, was putting the finishing touches on a blockbuster three-part series about the local NFL team. Among the things he’d uncovered was that the coach, Sean McDermott, had once cited the 9/11 hijackers as part of an inspirational speech.

Dunne, who previously covered the team for the Buffalo News, started his standalone site, Go Long, in 2020. He was entirely dependent on subscribers, whose support and affinities could be fickle depending on the state of the team. He wasn’t sure how they would respond to a piece so directly critical of the organization, in the middle of the season. “I got two kids—this is how I feed my family,” he said. 

After the piece came out, he faced the expected backlash from the team, which sent McDermott out both to apologize for his remarks and to defend himself. (The team hadn’t granted Dunne press credentials since 2022.) The local press corps also seemed to be mostly tuning him out. “Many were avoiding it like the plague,” he said. “By and large the entire beat didn’t write about it, and instead just waited for Thursday afternoon for Sean to have his press conference, and then reported on that.”

But by the most important metric, he did just fine: his subscriptions skyrocketed. “To be honest, I came out of this super encouraged about the state of journalism,” he said.

Journalists have a bad habit of getting stuck in the models they are used to, and panicking when circumstances force them to try something new. When I asked Braun about the role shows like his may be playing in news getting phased out from the sports media ecosystem, he rejected the premise.

“I hope that we’re helping to emphasize and publicize great journalism,” he said. “We’re trying to be as real as possible. We’re certainly not going on and BS’ing—I feel like that’s the whole essence of this platform.”

Braun also said that if things go really well, maybe they can expand one day.

“There’s no limitations in what we’re doing,” he said. “If someone wants to work on an investigative show, call me.”

Correction: A previous version of this story referred incorrectly to the terms of a deal between ESPN and The Pat McAfee Show. The network licensed the show, it did not acquire it.

Josh Hersh is an editor at CJR.