Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

May 22, 2007

One Sports Fan's Dream Year

Jim Gorant soaked in the fan experience at 10 events, including Wimbledon, the Kentucky Derby, and the Super Bowl. Then he got paid to write about it.

Carl Bialik

Ohio State-Michigan made the cut. Alabama-Auburn didn't. Wimbledon beat out the U.S. Open. Regular-season games at Fenway Park and Wrigley Field were chosen over the World Series and NHL and NBA playoffs. And, somehow, the World Cup wasn't on the list.

Jim Gorant/Photo by Stan Grossfeld
"In the age of blogs and ESPN, everyone is an expert and the experts are idiots. Everyone presents his opinion as the only opinion."

Jim Gorant/Photo by Stan Grossfeld

The most controversial part of Jim Gorant's forthcoming book Fanatic: Ten Things All Sports Fans Should Do Before They Die is his choice of the 10 events to attend (all the things to do involve watching other people in a sport—or golf, or horse racing, or Nascar). Once you've gotten past the second-guessing (he could have seen Zidane's head-butt live!), and the jealousy that might be provoked by the realization Gorant was getting paid to go to all these events and enjoy them as a fan, settle in for 10 genial, observant tours of memorable sporting events and the fans that make them special.

In the following interview—conducted by email, and edited for clarity—Gorant talks about the book, reveals which events just missed the cut, and offers his opinion of Bill Simmons. (Also, you can hear Gorant and other sports-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, July 5, in New York's Lower East Side.)

Gelf Magazine: What were the hardest events to skip? What would have been the next five events? The next 10?

Jim Gorant: The next two on the list were a game from the finals of World Cup soccer and the Bassmaster Classic (which is supposed to be just mind-blowing—a packed arena, blaring rock music, 15,000 people going nuts as guys hold up big ugly fish). Unfortunately, as a guy with a full-time job, a family, and a deadline, I just could not make them happen. After those two, there are a few other college football rivalries I'd like to get a piece of, I'd love to catch a Game Seven in any round of the Stanley Cup playoffs; the Americas Cup; New Zealand-Australia rugby; any number of European soccer showdowns; and possibly even Duke-Carolina at Cameron, although I'd hate to become yet another recruiting tool for Coach K. One of the fun things about this whole concept is that you can go on and on, and very few sports fans would come up with the same list.

GM: You write that the NBA is unwatchable. Did you try watching last year's playoffs? I thought a lot of it was pretty fantastic.

JG: I wrote that before last year's playoffs took place, and I have to admit they did offer up some good TV. Part of the reason SI named Dwayne Wade Sportsman of the Year was for his role, along with LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, in rejuvenating the NBA. But the excitement and urgency of last year's playoffs just highlight what's wrong with the league overall: The season's way too long and there's too much money, which creates both out-of-control egos and players who can't care because almost everything is devoid of meaning. The NBA is made for SportsCenter: catch a few highlights and get on with your day.

GM: Did you have the book deal in hand before you started your journey, or did you sell the idea after you'd begun?

JG: It was almost simultaneous. I definitely would've gone either way, but it probably would've looked a little different and been spread out over a longer time frame if not for the book.

GM: You seemed to be on a tight schedule, and there were some close scrapes where you had trouble getting into games. What was the closest you came to having your plan derailed? Did you have a backup plan in case one of the 10 didn't work out?

JG: It was very close at Wimbledon and at Wrigley I actually did not get into the bleachers, which was the plan. I started out in the stadium and didn't realize I couldn't cross into the bleachers once the game started. That was a huge disappointment, both for the book and for me personally. I think I was able to make a virtue of it in the chapter, but I still wonder what could have been on that one. In any case, there was no backup plan. [Eds. Note: Gorant was on a tight schedule and had just one shot at each event. He'd hoped to soak in the Wrigley bleacher culture, which was a theme of that chapter.]

GM: What was your biggest disappointment among the 10 events?

JG: The Wrigley incident was probably it.

GM: Did you get big-event fatigue by the end, where the sheer volume of amazing sports events made it hard to appreciate them? Or was it a joy throughout?

JG: Generally, it was great, from start to finish. I developed a certain ennui about tailgates and packed houses—those things that are virtually the same at all big events—but I became a connoisseur of the quirks and individualities that made each event different. In other words, I was no longer impressed by masses drinking in parking lots, but I could really get into uncovering what exactly the long-time fans were putting in their flasks.

GM: You were trying to get the fan's perspective on attending these sporting events, yet in some instances you used your SI connections to get into games or related events. Does that make it tough for the average fan to relate to those episodes, and to follow your lead?

JG: No. There were very few things I did or places I went that the average fan could not go, and those few privileges I did take advantage of, I did only because they added depth to the book. As with so many things in life, most of the barriers I crossed are related only to time and money.
On another level, though, I'm not sure it matters. I never set out to write a travel guide or a how-to, but rather to take people along on a journey they would probably never go on themselves. I was doing the legwork; they could just come along for the ride. Next time they watch that event on TV, they will have a deeper perspective. A lot of people may go to a few of these events, but very few will ever hit all 10.

GM: Speaking of the fan's perspective, do you have a favorite writer for encapsulating the fan's voice? What do you think of Sports Guy on

JG: I don't. I don't really see anyone out there doing that (and maybe that's just because I'm not looking). Most fans don't even have a fan's perspective anymore. One thing I've noticed is that in the age of blogs and ESPN, everyone is an expert and the experts are idiots. Everyone presents his opinion as the only opinion and any contradictory opinion as idiocy. There's very little wiggle room; either you agree or you're a know-nothing moron.
As for the Sports Guy, I've only read him four or five times, but my take is that he's basically a comedy writer working within the realm of sports. I've had dozens of people recommend him to me, and when they do, they always say, "you have to read this guy, he's hilarious." It's not "he's interesting" or "intelligent" or "provocative" or "supplies really original insights and reporting." It's simply that he's funny and makes a lot of cultural references that resonate with people of a certain age. Having said that, you'd be a fool not to recognize that he's touched on something that really works as a form of entertainment. It's something like a traditional column mixed with a diary. Whatever you want to label it—comedic-op-ed, blogging, stream-of-consciousness—the key in the end is that it's done well. He is funny. My sense is that a lot of people out there have tried to duplicate the formula, but none that I know of have succeeded.

"I came to be a senior editor at Sports Illustrated without ever having been the sort of beat writer who gets worn down by travel and difficulties dealing with players and the monotony of writing game stories."
GM: Have you read Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer? How about Among the Thugs? What are your impressions of them? Any other favorite books about fandom?

JG: I'm familiar with the first and I have read the second and loved it. I think Fanatic probably owes a debt of gratitude to both, but the key difference is that each of them penetrates one specific fan experience whereas my book jumps among a whole bunch. Speaking metaphorically, they are huge steak dinners where mine is more of a buffet.

GM: You encounter some interesting characters along the way. Have you sent them copies of the book? Are you still in touch with them?

JG: Yes, I've remained in touch with a number of them—the folks I stayed with at the Daytona 500, one of the guys I got to know at the Final Four, and Michael Giglio, who plays a role in the Red Sox chapter—in particular. Then, of course, there were a few I knew before I started, and I remain in touch with them as well. I haven't given anyone the book yet because I only have uncorrected proofs and I don't like to let people read those unless I have to, but once I get finished copies of the book, I'll be sending out quite a few.

GM: What exactly do you do for SI? Does working in a sports job make you jaded at all about sports?

JG: I work on our golf coverage, mostly as an editor although I do also write. When golf slows down in the fall I'll get pulled in on other projects, such as the 50 Years of Faces In the Crowd issue we did last year. And no I'm not jaded, which I think is why I was able to write a book like this, which really is about the joy of being a sports fan. One of the things I wrote about in the book is that I did not come to SI the usual way. I was not a sportswriter who finally got tapped for the job of a lifetime. I had been a magazine writer for 15 years covering all sorts of subjects from fitness to profiles of politicians. About nine years ago I started playing and then writing about golf, which led to a few assignments for SI. When a job opened up there working on golf, I was able to talk my way into it. That's how I came to be a senior editor at Sports Illustrated without ever having gone to so many of these events and without ever having been the sort of beat writer who gets worn down by travel and difficulties dealing with players and the monotony of writing game stories. It allows me, I hope, both at the magazine and in the book, to bring both a level of expertise and a fresh perspective.

GM: Who are your favorite SI writers?

JG: Tough question. Like an Oscar acceptance, you're sure to leave someone out or offend, but…I'll go with Tom Verducci, Scott Price, Jon Wertheim, and John Garrity.

GM: What will SI look like in 5 years? How about 15?

JG: After the most recent redesign, I think, in five years, the magazine will look similar to its current incarnation. The point was to condense the front of the book and fill it with news, a player's perspective, and fun features. The back of the book offers columns that present an insider's take, and the real focus of the magazine becomes the leads and features. These are the things that set SI apart, the great writing and long-form journalism and the big, beautiful photography. In 15 years? Well, the number 2022 will be somewhere on the cover. Other than that, I can only guess.

Related in Gelf: Interviews with Scott Price, one of Gorant's favorite SI writers; and Warren St. John, author of Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer.

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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- Books
- posted on Sep 06, 07
Jonathan Evans

I notice that this article was posted back in may, granted it is now September. After reading this, I believe that Jim Gorant is one of the luckiest people around. Obviously, luck didn't have much to do with it given is complex background and years of experience in other areas, but as a Sports Journalism major, it would definately be my dream to experience events such as these. I am the typical American student who used to focus on the nuclear sports of our country - Football, Baseball, Basketball, and Hockey. I do focus on all levels, whether it be pro, college, or minor leagues. I am from Erie, PA and we have an OHL Hockey team, as well as a AA Minor League Baseball Team. Just within the past couple years, I have become friends from places in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and several countries throughout Asia. I also know two brothers from Jordan who now reside in Sydney Austrailia. It blew my mind away to find out interesting information from other cultures world wide, especially on the sports circuit. I used to hate soccer - couldn't stand to play it (moreover because I wasn't good) and definately couldn't stand to watch it. Soccer has been brought to my attention by these friends and throughout the past year and a half I have really developed a great appreciation for the sport. It is the most popular in the world, and the level of competition throughout the world is outstanding. I watched the World Cup last year and made it one of my life time goals to get to one, because it looks to be an experience like no other. I have been to places such as Yankee Stadium, sat near the Dawg Pound in Cleveland, and watched the Indians world series team play in the 90's at Jacobs Field, but theres are merely scraped of what I would like to experience in my lifetime. It looks like Gorant outlined several amazing places in his book, and if I had the chance I would thank Gorant personally for putting his experiences out there. No true sports fan should go a lifetime without experiencing what the "world", and not just what "USA", has to offer.

Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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