Nearly 1,000 times for the better part of four years, Dan Shanoff rose before dawn to learn everything that sports fans needed to know, formulate his opinions, and compile it all into a handy, snappy digest on ESPN.com known as "The Daily Quickie." Last August, he wrote his last Quickie for the leading sports website, but he's preserved the tradition at his own blog, rapidly gaining a following among sports fans (and Gilbert Arenas).
Beyond his sports blogging, Shanoff thinks big about sports and media. (His initial response to my question about what he'd do if he ran Sports Illustrated would have made for a compelling, if overly long, cover letter for a job as a digital strategist.) In the interview below, edited for clarity, he also defends ESPN from its critics, thanks his nemesis the BCS, and extols the couch as the ideal sports-viewing venue. (Also, you can hear Shanoff 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. Shanoff founded Varsity Letters and able guided it before handing the reins over to Gelf last fall. Thanks, Dan.)
"There is nothing less cool than when your first time blogging on a story is on its second day. If nothing else, sports-blogging has gotten very competitive: If you're not first (or early), you've already lost your relevancy."
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.
Dan Shanoff: First of all, there's no way I'd blow the whole thing up. That's crazy. The number of very smarteven brilliantstrategic moves they have made is too high to count. You can mock the brief era of ludicrous programming choices (which have almost all been canceled by now, thankfully), but for all their bluster, they are few and far between. Sure, ESPN Mobile was an expensive mistake, but they course-corrected and, ironically, it's now a powerful symbol of what they SHOULD be doing: Reaching sports fans anywhere fans want to be reached.
Now, as for the first two things I would do if I was running ESPN:
(1) Create an internal "markets" system (and perhaps a wiki) that would allow creative thinking to flow (a) faster and (b) from the bottom-up.
(2) Give that Dan Shanoff guy his popular and brilliant daily column back at a humongous pay increase.
GM: Same question, different media company: Sports Illustrated.
DS: SI has a real problemthe same problem it has had for 10 years: Older consumers don't think of SI as a cross-platform brand, and younger consumers don't find SI particularly relevant in a world of increasing choice and quality.
SI's opportunity is the same as it was back in 1998 when I was working for SI.com and battling the ridiculous and myopic magazine-side condescension and enmity toward the online side: What is SI's unique value proposition in a world where simply being a great magazine isn't sustainable? (Online video? Social networking? More soft-core porn? Those moves are better as PaidContent.org fodder than actually sticky with users.)
I'd scale back the online editorial operation substantially: Don't even bother with "commodity" content like scores or headline newsstuff that everyone else has (and everyone else has way more people looking at)and try to satisfy the far more potent opportunity of creating exclusive, original content in a timely way. (Their only notable stuff, at least online, is that kind of content: Dwyer, Wahl, Mandel, Z, King.)
SI shouldn't aspire to be the default sports site of fans; they should aspire to have the same value the magazine always had for sports fans: The added bonus, the added value.
"I don't do 'gravitas' particularly well: Death. Illness. Disability. It's hard to mock someone who is in pain, rather than someone who is simply a douchebag."GM: Bloggers are known for writing in their pajamas. What's your preferred workwear?
DS: Replica NBA or college basketball shorts.
GM: How much do you make from your blog? (Hey, we had to ask.)
DS: Zero. Nada. Zilch. (I will now go cry for a little while.)
GM: Which athlete has provided you with the most material?
GM: Are there any people or topics you won't make fun of? Why are they off limits?
DS: I don't do "gravitas" particularly well: Death. Illness. Disability. It's hard to mock someone who is in pain, rather than someone who is simply a douchebag.
"The number of very smarteven brilliantstrategic moves ESPN has made is too high to count. You can mock the brief era of ludicrous programming choices (which have almost all been canceled by now, thankfully), but for all their bluster, they are few and far between."GM: Which post of yours do you regret the most, and why's that? (Link, please.)
DS: I'm too much of a self-editor to really regret writing something. Way more than that, I often regret NOT writing about something (or ENOUGH about something) that turns into a big story. There is nothing less cool than when your first time blogging on a story is on its second day. If nothing else, sports-blogging has gotten very competitive: If you're not first (or early), you've already lost your relevancy. (That said, there is a growing number of blogs who get the "I can't wait to read what they said about it" treatment. But it's very topic-specific.)
GM: Would you rather cover the big game from the press box or your couch? Why?
DS: Couch, every time, and that goes back even before the Quickie to my first job in online sports writing in 1995. Why? Because that's how 99.9999 percent of fans are consuming it, and I want my point of view to reflect that shared experience.
My favorite example is the Super Bowl a few years ago: If you were covering the game from the press box, you would have had no idea that the defining moment of the gameperhaps of any Super Bowl everwas Janet Jackson flashing her boob.
GM: What's your favorite sports blog not among those featured at the next Varsity Letters? Why?
DS: The D.C. Sports Bog, written by Dan Steinberg and the lead sports blog of the Washington Post, if only because I'm a media-industry junkie and "the Bog" should be the template for how every newspaper should be approaching blogs, whether in the sports section or anywhere else.
GM: Who's your favorite mainstream sportswriter? Least favorite? Why?
DS: My favorite mainstream sportswriter is Sam Walker of the Wall Street Journal, whose pieces are always thought-provoking and go far beyond the conventional wisdom that dominates most sportswriting. (But to be honest, for the last 6-12 months, I've been much more immersed in the "non-mainstream" writing talent that is packed into the sports-blog universe.)
My least favorite mainstream sportswriter is any who don't understand (or who don't WANT to understand): (1) new media and how it affects the sportswriter's industry; (2) online consumption by readers and how it affects the sportswriter's role; and (3) blogging (or bloggers) and how they productively fit in the sportswriter's picture.
Because, implicitly, that means the sportswriter doesn't have the intellectual or professional curiosity to understand their audience. (Oh, you want me to name names? Let's start with the inimitable Sam Smith of the Chicago Tribune, who should inspire every reader to run weeping into the welcoming bosom of Chad Ford.)
"To me, tone is simply the foundation of voice, and I think that while content comes and goes, voice is the constant that will keep people coming back for more."GM: Has a mainstream journalist ever ripped your stuff off without acknowledgment?
DS: Not to my knowledge, but I did have this hilarious experience one time: Back in 2002, I had written an Onion-style parody for Page 2 about T.O., complete with "quotes" from Owens himselfI can't remember the specifics or find the URL, but needless to say the entire piece was obviously fabulated satire. So imagine my surprise when a day or so later, I spotted the quote in a double-whammy (1) used as if it was real AND (2) used without attribution to my column (where it would have been the only place to see it)in the body of a column by the most widely known newspaper sports columnist in the Midwest.
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?
DS: Rather than worry about being judged on my tone, I WELCOME being judged on tone! To me, tone is simply the foundation of voice, and I think that while content comes and goes, voice is the constant that will keep people coming back for more.
Here's a good example: There's no question that PTI's format was the breakthrough idea in sports TV of the last decade. But try to watch it when Kornheiser and Wilbon aren't hosting. It's the same "content" (format plus headlines), but the voice is totally disruptedthe show is a shadow of itself when Tony and Mike are there. And you realize that the reason the show is such a huge success is that it married the perfect format (content) with perfect voice.
However, there's no question that much of the value of my columnand this is directly related to the value of the Quickie back on ESPN.comderives from being a place you can stop in the morning for a survey of all the big stories in sports for the day, albeit filtered through an appealing voice.
Fans might tune in to PTI even though they already know the headlines, because they want Tony and Mike's take on it. For me, because I set up the Quickie with a leading value proposition of "Get it in the morning when you need to know it most," it took a long time for me to cultivate a voice that was appealing and authoritative enough to match the content. But it was a way better column when that happened, and I've found that carry over even more with the blog.