Matt Ufford has his "dream job," as he told The Big Picture recently. The ex-Marine and Brooklyn resident writes on With Leather about the seamy side of sports, including, recently, Greg Maddux's habit of urinating on teammates, and certain soccer cheerleaders' habit of wearing less than a habit, and then stripping. (The blog is named for a legendary comment by ESPN's Chris Berman.)
Ufford also writes for the NFL blog Kissing Suzy Kolber and comments on Deadspin as Captain Caveman, and he writes about his beloved Seahawks at the NFL FanHouse. In the interview below, edited for clarity, Ufford laments the decline of SportsCenter, explains how a decision a year ago made his life much happier, and appreciates all the material provided by Tom Brady. (Also, you can hear Ufford and other online sports writers read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, March 7, in New York's Lower East Side.)
"I try not to be snarky when people die, but that's about it. And I'm not worried about being judged by my tone. It's what makes the site worthwhile even when the stories aren't. Well, that and the pictures of scantily clad women."
Gelf Magazine: If you were running ESPN, what are the two things you'd do first? (Or would you just blow the whole thing up and start over?) Explain why.
Matt Ufford: I actually watch very little ESPN, so my gripes aren't as numerous as most other bloggers'. But the first thing I'd do is eliminate the Disney corporate synergy. I think a common (and justified) perception is that ESPN has lost a lot of credibility as a source of sports journalism because it's getting a lot of its "info-tainment" stories fed to it by corporate masters. The lead story should be the biggest event in sports, not the sporting event that happened to be on ABC.
Step 2: Make SportsCenter smart again. It's been a long time since [Dan] Patrick and [Keith] Olbermann made it the best show on television; now it's a bunch of guys (and occasionally Linda Cohn) trying to make up the next catchphrase. It's ingratiating and unforgivable. There's no good reason why the writing for SC isn't as good as that of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report.
GM: Same question, different media company: Sports Illustrated.
MU: The magazine is still the best source for long-form sportswriting, but in order to change with the times it needs a better imprint in two mediums: the internet and television. So they should ink a deal with a major TV network, similar to what ABC has with ESPN. I'm not sure whether that means challenging ESPN with another sports channel (say, aligning with Fox Sports Net) or merely giving some of their writers network facetime on NBC Sports (like Peter King on Sunday Night Football). But right now they're affiliated with CNN, and I don't see that doing much for them. [Eds. note: CNN/SI the channel didn't work out too well.]
As for the Internet, there's no sense in mirroring everything ESPN.com does, because ESPN.com does the basics of sports coverage better than anybody else. They have to offer markedly different content, along the lines of what AOL has done with the FanHouse. And I think that blogs may be the key: embracing the medium of blogging instead of fearing it may be the only way to make inroads on the Worldwide Leader (while keeping an industry stalwart afloat). Take [Peter] King's Monday Morning Quarterback column, for example. What sense does it make to have a weekly column on the Web when people check the Internet every day? Blow that thing up and make King blog. He's already embraced the informal style and off-topic nature of blogs.
"Make SportsCenter smart again. It's ingratiating and unforgivable. There's no good reason why the writing for SC isn't as good as that of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report."GM: Bloggers are known for writing in their pajamas. What's your preferred workwear?
MU: I work in the common area of my apartment, so I tend to be fully dressed in deference to my roommates: jeans and a T-shirt, maybe a hoodie if it's cold. Being clothed makes for easier coffee runs, too.
GM: How much do you make from your blog? (Hey, we had to ask.)
MU: From With Leather, I make enough to live in Brooklyn but not Manhattan. From Kissing Suzy Kolber, none of us has ever made a penny off of it, because we don't have ads. We used to be vehemently opposed to it, but we're starting to reconsider.
GM: Which athlete has provided you with the most material?
MU: Probably Tom Brady. Because With Leather focuses on sports gossip and sex, "Dreamboat" is really the perfect icon, especially over the last couple of months, from the Bridget Moynahan break-up to the Gisele rebound to the announcement of Moynahan's pregnancy to his Paris getaway with Gisele. Oh, and I guess he was in the NFL playoffs.
GM: Are there any people or topics you won't make fun of? Why are they off limits?
MU: No. However, I tend to avoid media criticism, because Deadspin and The Big Lead already do it so well, and becausehonestlyit's pretty boring to me. Do I really want to be one more blog saying Chris Berman's schtick is tired? I'm not saying I don't pick fights, but I pick them carefully.
GM: Which post of yours do you regret the most, and why's that?
"I decided that if I didn't like someone's writing, I'd just stop reading him. So, no Skip Bayless, no Jay Mariotti, no Scoop Jackson. My life's a lot happier now."MU: I can't say there is one. I suppose the easy answer is the KSK post with the photo of Peter King's daughter that we pulled, but I don't regret that. The point of that post was to say to King, "Hey, stop writing about your life and your family, and write about football." That post ruffled some feathers at Time Inc., and careful readers of King probably noticed that his family doesn't get included in his columns any more. So it was a huge headache for everyone involved, including us at KSK, but in the end I think we all came out of it a little bit wiser.
GM: Would you rather cover the big game from the press box or your couch? Why?
MU: I'm rarely interested in the game. I'd rather cover the after-party. From the open bar.
GM: What's your favorite sports blog not among those featured at the next Varsity Letters? Why?
MU: Hard to say. I'd venture either FreeDarko or U.S.S. Mariner, which I've been reading non-stop now that baseball season is just around the corner. They're nothing alike: FD feels like an incomprehensible graduate philosophy class with a head-scratching slideshow, and USSM is a sabermetric evaluation of how badly mismanaged my favorite baseball team is. But the common thread they share with all of my favorite blogs is this: They have original voices, and they produce original content. With so many voices in the blogosphere, it's hard to stand out, and these two do it really well.
"I'm rarely interested in the game. I'd rather cover the after-party. From the open bar."GM: Who's your favorite mainstream sportswriter? Least favorite? Why?
MU: I'd estimate that 90-95% of the sportswriting I read is from blogs, so picking someone from the mainstream is hard. Wright Thompson produces consistently excellent feature writing for ESPN. SI's S.L. Price is great, and I grew up loving E.M. Swift. But I don't think there's anybody who I make it a point to read on a regular basis.
As for my least favorite again, I don't know. A little less than a year ago, I decided that if I didn't like someone's writing, I'd just stop reading him. So, no Skip Bayless, no Jay Mariotti, no Scoop Jackson, et cetera. My life's a lot happier now.
GM: Has a mainstream journalist ever ripped your stuff off without acknowledgment?
MU: Not my stuff personally.
GM: Where does your blog strike the balance between sincere and snarky? Do you worry about being judged by readers based on your tone rather than content?
MU: I don't think there's much of a balance. I try not to be snarky when people die, but that's about it. And I'm not worried about being judged by my toneit's the hallmark of the site. The content will vary in quality depending on the day or week, but the tone is always there. It's what makes the site worthwhile even when the stories aren't. Well, that and the pictures of scantily clad women.