When Gelf last checked in with Dan Shanoff, he was half a year into his new life as a sports blogger. The former ESPN.com columnist had transferred his Daily Quickie formatan opinionated wrap-up of each weekday morning's sports newsonto his site. Nearly a year later, our follow-up interview finds Shanoff settling comfortably into life as an independent internet guru. In addition to his blog, Shanoff also writes a weekly college-football column for Deadspin, where commenters rejoice in ripping into his beloved Florida Gators and quarterback Tim Tebow. And he has founded a blog about his son Gabe, who just "sat around" at the age of nine months when we last spoke, but who is now, at 19 months, a Tebow fanatic. (Shanoff has also expanded beyond sports, as vice president of content for Associated Content, a platform for independent online publishers such as himself.)
"If my own experience in becoming a Florida fan so late in life has taught me anything, it is that it is incredibly important for my kid to create his own sports allegiances, mindfully."
Befitting his new multi-faceted role online, Shanoff routinely tosses off phrases such as social media and online communities. Often in his work, Shanoff calls on his own online community to respond, and respond they did to a piece he wrote about his late-in-life conversion to Gators fandom. He said his jump on the bandwagon of his wife's favorite team was the truest kind of sports love; his readers mostly disagreed. You can hear Shanoff read from an adapted version of that piece, ask him questions, and do the same with other sportswriters at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, January 3rd, in New York's Lower East Side.
In the interview below, conducted by email and edited for clarity, Shanoff tells Gelf why he misses, and doesn't miss, working for ESPN.com; how Deadspin's commenters are "fundamentally retarded, but riding a tide of brilliance"; and what his wife thought of his transformation into a Florida fan.
Gelf Magazine: Do you miss writing for ESPN.com?
Dan Shanoff: I miss the audience (although there is something satisfying, in a different way, about generating whatever traffic I do based on my work, not because I happen to be linked from the front page of ESPN.com). I miss the credibility that came with the affiliation (although there is now a powerful credibility that comes with being part of the sports blogosphere). I miss the daily interaction with many of my ESPN.com colleagues (although, again, I interact on a near-daily basis with many incredibly talented folks through the sports-blog universe).
Oh, and I miss the monthly paycheck!
GM: Do you think ESPN.com could use the Quickie again?
DS: I think the fact that I have basically continued writing the column under the banner of the DanShanoff.com blogand it has continued to generate a large loyal audienceaffirms that the initial concept of the column and the voice I developed still resonates with consumers.
But I'm not sure ESPN.com needs the Quickie. They have gone another way with their programming strategy. (You could argue the A.M. Jump was a Quickie derivativethen again, the Jump barely lasted a year. Based on that, I feel really good that the Quickie lasted nearly four years.)
"The Deadspin commenters are generally the funniest, most quick-witted sports analysts in America."GM: How different are Deadspin's readers than ESPN's? How do you feel when the Deadspin commenters pile on you, like some did with your latest college-football piece?
DS: The latest piece? It was a week-in, week-out punishment!
Deadspin's readers are looking for the counter-cultural perspective that Will and Deadspin provide. Even in a tightly compressed sports-media cycle where something could run on Deadspin and end up on PTI a few hours later, the Deadspin readers are generally early-movers on the storylines that later get picked up by fans at large, either through ESPN or elsewhere. Obviously, there are some storylines that ESPN will drive, but the ones that it won'tor can'tis where Deadspin readers get the most value from the site. Yes, that includes clever use of cursing to make a valid sports-argument point.
Then there are the Deadspin commenters, who are generally the funniest, most quick-witted sports analysts in America. It's like the people who call into Jim Rome or other sports-talk radio are like the "before" version of Charlie in Flowers for Algernon," when he was mentally challenged. The Deadspin commenters are like the super-smart "post-drugs" version of Charliestill fundamentally retarded, but riding a tide of brilliancethat's the daily commenting stream. It's one of the strongest communities in online media, and it adds immeasurable value to the site. (See my Christmas ode to the Commenters from last week on Deadspin.)
Writing the college football guest-post every week was a spectacularand spectacularly enlighteningexperience. I feel like my ability to take abuse was pushed to its maximum, and I came out fine. Obviously, I read it allno blogging narcissist could resist. Plenty of the commenters made valid points, albeit chased with venom. Some were fairly nasty, which I recently described to someone as tasting like eating a "barbed wire Rice Krispie treat." The worst part was that my mom would read the post, then read the comments. Needless to say, she was slightly more offended than I was.
Someone wrote this to me just today, and I understood this going in: College football elicits a more passionate response than any other sport, hands down. People simply don't feel the same way about the NBA or baseball or even the NFL. The murkiness of the college-football ranking systemthe subjectivity of it that runs from Week 1 through the crowning of a national champleaves a lot of room for interpretation. If "interpretation" means telling me I'm a fluffer for Tim Tebow.
If you have delicate sensibilities, you shouldn't write for Deadspin. If you have delicate sensibilities, you shouldn't read comments based on posts about you. If you have delicate sensibilities, you probably shouldn't be reading the site altogether. The only thing I would change next year is that I would spend my Mondays in the comments section of my post, giving back as good as I get. It's not defensive; it's fun.
"In the last month, Gabe has taken to shouting 'Go Tebow!'at virtually everything. Now I can't shut it off, and it's like I created a monster."GM: You have a blog called Varsity Dad. What happens if your son decides not to be a Florida fan, or even not a sports fan?
DS: Paying more attention to Varsity Dad is one of my biggest resolutions of 2008, because I think there's so much potential thereand the reaction I got from fans who double as parents was so positive when I launched the site last spring.
And my own experience raising a sports fan is just now getting interesting. My son just turned 19 months and for the first 18 months, he basically sat around. Oh, sure, I could put him in a Florida jersey my in-laws bought him, but that was about it. In the last month, he has taken to shouting "Go Tebow!"at virtually everything. Now I can't shut it off, and it's like I created a monster. This is the hazard of imposing your sports fandom on your kid.
If my own experience over the last six years in becoming a Florida fan so late in life has taught me anything, it is that it is incredibly important for my kid to create his own sports allegiances, mindfully.
On the other hand, I recognize the limitations of my own situationand the pivotal role that fandom can play when it starts in childhood, particularly through a relationship with a parent. Mostly, I have learned to be incredibly tolerant of anyone's current fan allegianceno matter how (or when) they arrived at it. Sincerity is where the authenticity comes from.
Take this "Pink Hat" civil war that the self-obsessed Boston sports fans got into over Red Sox fans. My favorite part is the way the Red Sox "die-hards" mocked the "Pink Hats" as if any of them gave a rat's ass about the Patriots until the Pats won their first Super Bowl. If they say they did, they're lying or fooling themselves. And they gave up on the Celtics, too, right up until they traded for KG. Now, it's like they never abandoned the team (even though they all did). I just find it ludicrous that anyone would feel so insecure about their own fandom that they would make competing with others in the same fan basewho generally aren't competing backinto such a large part of their fandom. It's kind of pathetic, actually.
That's a roundabout way of saying: My son can root for Florida or not. I'm certainly not one to judge. (My wife, on the other hand, as a Florida lifer, would like to see him be a Florida die-hard forever. If he became a Georgia or FSU fan, I think she might disown him.) However, I do think a parent and child who share the same fan appreciation and affiliation can create some very special memories together that transcend sports fandom and become integral to the relationship itself.
Now, if he didn't like sports at all? Tougher question. I actually think there's a certain minimum level of sports interest that anyone/everyone should have in order to simply function in societyparticularly "guy society." Being able to talk about sports is social currencyperhaps its most potent form.
But I feel the same way about TV or movies or books or politics or current events or food or technology or home improvement or most popular Google keywords or anything else: There is a certain cultural literacy one should have in order to be a functioning person. I would much rather Gabe become a well-rounded thinker than a sports nut, to be honest. If he ends up a sports nut, that's great, but I hope he takes the time to try to understand other things.
GM: In 2012, which magazine will have a bigger circulationSI or ESPN?
DS: The answer will be irrelevant; if SI is still worried about winning a magazine circulation war in 2012, they will be in even bigger trouble than they are already. By 2012hell, by 2007the name of the game is cross-platform reach. Whether I'm consuming SI on paper, on their Web site, on my iPhone or Blackberry, on my social-networking page, or wherever I want to access them, that is how SI needs to think about things (which is the main reason why they acquired the FanNation community platform, among other things).
But ESPN's competitors simply can't compete with them on total reach; the key is to find the spots to be competitive for consumer attention (and, consequently, ad revenue). In the end, SI would be best served to not spend their energy worrying about their competition; they should worry about their consumers. Platforms can change, but ad dollars will always follow for those who deliver consumers.
"The murkiness at the end of the college-football season is frustrating, but you can't deny that it is compelling."GM: Which job in sports media would you covet the most? Least?
DS: Let me start with the conventional answers. Most: George Bodenheimer. John Skipper. Erik Rydholm. Tony Kornheiser.
Now, the unconventional answer: Actually, this is going to sound lame (and probably a little pathetic) but I think writing the Daily Quickie was the best job in sports media I could have had. Certainly the best writing job. Consider: I had a daily platformof my own creationon ESPN.com to have my say about anything and everything in sports. It's pretty amazing to wake up each morning believing you have the best gig in sports media.
Least: Any job without significant impact on the sports-media landscape. When I was 23 and working as an editor at ESPN.com (ESPNet SportsZone!) I used to think that being Editor-in-Chief of ESPN.com would be the greatest job in the world. And maybe if I had stuck with it that might have happened. But now, more than a decade later, I recognize that there are bigger opportunities out there.
GM: What should college-football fans root for to happen next year, to ensure a playoff?
DS: This year was as insane as any year and it still didn't move the needle on a playoff. Nothing will, at least until the existing BCS deal expires. At that point, the SEC and Big 12 have to be willing to create a playoff without the Pac-10 and Big Ten, hoping the Rose Cabal's bluff is called by the national pressure from fans, media and sponsors.
Even then, it will be hard to make fans happy: Plus-One? A joke. 4 teams? Try picking only 4 from this year's group. 8 teams? Better. 16 teams? Best, but how do you fairly split playoff spots between power-conference runner-ups and weakling-conference champs?
After the season we just had, what we really need is a season like 2005, when USC and Texas were the consensus Top 2 teams all season long and capped it with the greatest title game in the sport's history and some much-needed clarity. (Personally, I would like to see that come down to USC and Florida. But I'm obviously biased.)
I am hardly a purist, but I am one of those folks who thinks college football's regular season is the best in sports precisely because it is a season-long playoff, albeit a de facto one. The murkiness at the end of the season is frustrating, but you can't deny that it is compelling.
GM: How many Pro Bowls will Tim Tebow make?
DS: I would swap out "many" for "ANY." Given the historically dismal NFL performance of Heisman-winning QBs (or products of Urban Meyer's spread offense, like Alex Smith), you either think that Tebow will make any Pro Bowls or he will make none ever. I am in the "any" camp.
I am among Tebow's biggest fans, but I laughed when I heard Jerry Jones say that Tebow would be the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft if he came out this year. Then I heard from an NFL scout who told me that he thinks Tebow would be a Top 5 pick this year based on potential aloneand he is a lock for a high pick whenever he enters the draft.
No question: Tebow throws a wobbly, off-target ball masked by a fantastic system and a couple of NFL-caliber receivers. His bullish running style won't last a half-dozen plays a game in the NFL. I think he will work that out as he plays the next two years in college. (And he insists he's staying two more years.)
But Bill Belichick said something about Tebow earlier this season that resonated: Because Tebow is a threat to runbetween the tackles, like a traditional running backon any given play, a coach can use the traditional tailback or fullback slot anywhere else on the field, creating mismatches and playing virtually 12 on 11. That may not be enough to get Tebow to multiple Pro Bowls, but it is enough to make him an intriguing and productive potential Pro Bowl QB.
GM: What do you think of Robert Weintraub's SSW for Deadspin?
DS: I like the quick-hit formatting and Rob knows his stuff when it comes to the NFL.
He has such a savvy understanding of TV production, I would have loved for him to take a page from The Daily Show and base it on actual quotes from Sean Salisbury spouting banal conventional wisdom one week, only to reverse course on it the next.
On a related note, there is an overwhelming need for fans to use social-media tools and collaborate on holding sports TV talking heads to accountat least exposing them as no more "expert" than a well-prepared blog commenter (probably even less). Some sites already do this: You can generally find a breakdown of "expert picks," but we're really missing the comprehensive Project Scoresheet-style focus on the type of unaccountable "analysis" that is so prevalent these days.
"In the end, I'm a 'boob job' fan: I look good; I jiggle like new for years and years; and yet I feel a little 'off.' "GM: What did your wife think of your bandwagon piece? Some commenters felt like it insulted her.
DS: Like every other lifelong or quote-unquote "real" Florida fan, her opinion of my Gator fandom can be summed up by one word: Bemusement. She didn't find the piece insulting; she found it quaint, which is almost more of a problem. There's a quick story that symbolizes where she stands on this:
The night of the 2007 Florida-Ohio State NCAA championship basketball game, she and I are watching the game. We're both excited. As the game is concluding and it is obvious that Florida is going to win, she raised her arms in triumph with a look on her face of pure joy. I wondered to myself: "Am I feeling this moment as deeply as she is?" And so I verbalized the thought.
She said, quite sympathetically but no less directly: "Actually, you're not." It was kind of a shock for me, actuallylike hearing her describe how much she used to be in love with another man. Despite my professed love for the Gators (and love for my wife), this championship moment was not a shared experience. It was her experience; it was my experience. But they were vastly different.
She didn't begrudge my fandomand she didn't dispute the sincerity of my enthusiasm. She just wanted to make it clear that we were on different levels and, yes, her level was deeper than my level.
It was a moment of clarity for me: When you have recent love for a team, you can share the in-the-now moments with other fans. But deep-seeded personal historybiological fandom or childhood-geography fandom or college fandomcreates original DNA; everything else is a clone.
To be crass: It's the difference between having a great pair of breasts, naturally, and having a great pair of breasts through cosmetic surgery.
In the end, I'm a "boob job" fan: I look good; I jiggle like new for years and years; and yet I feel a little "off."
GM: You're named executive producer of ESPN. What's the first show you introduce?
DS: "The Skip Bayless Super-Happy Fun Hour!" No, seriously: "Dan Shanoff Is Burning (When He Pees)."