short takes

Into the Fold

How the online sports community has become part of the mainstream
July 16, 2009

Regular watchers of ESPN —that is, all sports fans—may have noticed the network has begun allotting more airtime to the voices of fans. In July, a new show called Sports Nation will “focus on topics that dominate fans’ e-mail exchanges and blogs,” proclaims a press release. (ESPN rival Versus has plans for a similar show.) Episodes of SportsCenter now include regular “Blog Buzz” segments to take the pulse of the Internet. And the “Worldwide Leader” runs daily polls and features fan commentary.

This programming strategy isn’t just an attempt to monetize audience participation—it’s a canny co-opting of the enemy. Emerging from the industry’s vast fan base, sports bloggers have policed the mainstream sports media in unprecedented ways. Their growth has mirrored the rise of political blogs that check the government and the establishment media that cover it. Yet while sites like Daily Kos and The Huffington Post still maintain opposition status, sports blogs are becoming part of the mass-media establishment they set themselves against.

The breakthrough moment took place in the spring and summer of 2007. Mike Florio, a lawyer and NFL fan who runs the Web site Pro Football Talk, noticed that the mainstream sports media were taking very casually allegations that a dog-fighting ring was being run out of the home of Michael Vick, then the Atlanta Falcons’ star quarterback. Parsing the case, Florio insisted on his site that this was very bad news for Vick. His considerable readership in nfl-media circles kept the story afloat, until ESPN and Sports Illustrated finally unleashed their investigative units on Vick. The rest, of course, is history.
It was a triumph for the blogosphere similar to that of Josh Marshall and Talking Points Memo almost single-handedly fanning the flames of the U.S. attorneys scandal.

Other examples targeted the likes of ESPN more directly. When Michael Irvin, at the time an ESPN analyst, made racially insensitive remarks on a radio show, the brushfire created on sports blogs forced Irvin to apologize. (He was quietly let go a few months later.) And massive online protest to Monday Night Football’s habit of forcing celebrities into game coverage led to ESPN dropping in-game guests.

Recognizing an unwinnable war when they see one (ESPN famously blacklisted former Deadspin editor Will Leitch, which Leitch naturally assumed as a badge of honor), the mainstream sports media have decided to keep these guerrillas close. Sportscasters seldom deride bloggers as people writing from their mothers’ basements anymore—theirs is a more symbiotic relationship now. Popular bloggers, gone mainstream at AOL Fanhouse, opine alongside veteran sportswriters like Jason Whitlock and Jay Mariotti, a pair who have been heavily criticized in the blogosphere. ESPN has embraced’s D. J. Gallo, and Henry Abbott of the True Hoop blog.

That doesn’t mean the next time one of the big boys goofs, the blogs won’t make it a cause célèbre. But the mainstream’s willingness to incorporate these voices into the fold has quieted the continual uproar heard online just a few years ago. Perhaps that was the plan.

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Robert Weintraub is the author of The House That Ruth Built. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and Slate, and a television writer/producer based in Atlanta.