Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Sports

March 4, 2008

Where Sport Isn't a Day Job

In Ireland, hurling and Gaelic football are amateur through their highest levels. An American journalist immersed himself in the games to seek a renewed love of writing.

Carl Bialik

Andy Mendlowitz, a 30-year-old burned out by newspaper journalism and unencumbered by family or pets, quit his reporting job and headed to Ireland, without a book contract, to write about the nation's top amateur sportsmen. Hurlers and Gaelic football players aren't paid, aren't traded, and work day jobs before training at night in the hope of qualifying for nationally televised championships.

Andy Mendlowitz
"It's like high-school sports at the highest level. You could literally see the hurling version of A-Rod walking down the street or going shopping."

Andy Mendlowitz

Like these athletes, Mendlowitz was pursuing his dream without any immediate financial award. He returned home with visions of a lucrative book deal; 60 query letters to agents later, he decided to publish Ireland's Professional Amateurs: A Sports Season At Its Purest outside the publishing mainstream. Now he's promoting the book on his own—Gelf heard about it from an email from him—and seeking another book idea that can be done on the cheap. And he doesn't regret a second of it.

Mendlowitz, age 34, spoke to Gelf about print-on-demand publishing, why Scott Boras isn't headed to Ireland, the pitfalls of self-promotion, and why all writers should pursue their dream stories. The interview was conducted by email and edited for clarity. You can hear Mendlowitz and other sportswriters read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, March 6th, in New York's Lower East Side.

Gelf Magazine: Could hurling or Gaelic football ever become popular among Americans, either as participatory sport or as spectator sports?

Andy Mendlowitz: In a way, that's like asking if baseball will ever become popular in Ireland or England. It's just hard for foreign sports to break in on new turf. At least soccer is popular worldwide. Hurling and Gaelic football are primarily played in Ireland. Ex-pats have spread the sports to pockets elsewhere, such as the UK and Australia. In the US, you'll always have the die-hard hurling and Gaelic football fan who goes to a pub at 9 on a Sunday morning to watch the big game from Ireland, but I don't think the sports will ever break into the American mainstream.
However, there is a vibrant participatory scene in the US, with close to 150 teams in 40 cities. In the past, mostly immigrants played the sports. Now, fewer are coming because of a better Irish economy. American teams are concerned with the sports' future, and are trying to attract children of all backgrounds. Kids like the fast-paced games and it's a fun/different way to stay in shape during the summer. Teams now carry Asian, black, and Latino players. One coach told me his team resembles the UN. The San Francisco clubs convinced the city's elementary schools to teach Gaelic football during gym class. Milwaukee has 220 American-born adult hurlers and a youth league. Other cities are making similar recruitment pushes with funding from the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) office in Dublin. Now, I don't see youth Gaelic football or hurling teams ever taking numbers away from the established American high school sports, but the Irish sports will survive.
If more schools teach the sports, I can see maybe one day a regular-season Irish game—like what the NFL did in London—attract 10,000 or so fans in New York, Boston, or Chicago, but for many it would be a novelty.

GM: Your subtitle is, "A Sports Season at Its Purest." But there is, of course, lots of money changing hands over these sports, even if the players aren't being paid. Is the amateur system fair? Will it survive?

AM: This is a timely question. The Irish government and the Gaelic Athletic Association recently approved grant payments to the inter-county teams based on their success, which would work out to between 1,400 to 2,500 euros a player. Many fans, administrators, and even players are against the grants, afraid it will open the door to full-blown professionalism. The debate is now the hot issue in Ireland.
As an outsider, it's a tough question for me to answer. My first instinct was no, that it wasn't fair. Especially coming from the American mentality, I thought it was ludicrous—at least for the top-level players who practice or work out every night, and play on national TV in front of big crowds and then go to work bruised the next day. The governing body pulls in 20 million euros a year through ticket sales from the All-Ireland tournament alone. Why shouldn't they get paid?
But then I observed the benefits of the amateur system, which includes no trades or free agency. The spirit and passion of the fans and players are incredible—unrivaled, really. It's like high-school sports at the highest level. You could literally see the hurling version of A-Rod walking down the street or going shopping. Consider this: How many Yankees fans hated Wade Boggs or Roger Clemens or Johnny Damon when they were Red Sox, but were forced to cheer for them a year later? I know I did. And it pissed me off. Imagine if you were a Montreal Expos fan in the late 1990s knowing you could follow great young talent like Pedro Martinez and Vladimir Guerrero for the next 15 years. Or think how proud you would have been if the New York Giants won the Super Bowl with several players from your neighborhood. From a player's perspective, he's teammates with lifelong friends and he gets to wear the same jersey that his dad and grandfather wore. That's all elements of the Gaelic sports setup. After a while, it didn't seem so crazy.
You need to remember, Irish patriots formed the GAA in 1884 to preserve a part of their heritage in the face of English opposition. Gaining independence took precedence. Representing your county and parish on the field was seen as an honor. Plus, Ireland was such a poor country that payments just weren't an option. Big money really only entered the game in the last 20 years. Individual endorsements weren't legal until 1997, with the first sneaker deal coming in 2003. A players' association formed in 1999. At the time, some teams treated their players like second-class athletes. Now all that has changed, and the top players are well looked after in terms of expenses, healthy meals after practice, free team vacations, proper equipment, gym memberships, etc. (Some players use their names to secure jobs, particularly in sales.) That's one of the GAA's arguments for remaining amateur. Another is that the Association gives back to the game. When I was there, the GAA made 35.4 million euros for the year, but kept only 330,000. Most of the money went to things like coaching clinics, field improvements, providing heart defibrillators, and other projects. I think there's a real chance the sports will remain amateur if the benefits continue. Even if the grants are instituted, it seems reasonable to give the players two thousand euros for eight months of training. In other words, Scott Boras won't exactly be needed in Ireland and the loyalty to your hometown team won't be broken.

"I had visions of immediately generating buzz in the publishing world and getting a big advance and a movie deal. My only problems would be fighting off the groupies and choosing what to write next. Then reality hit. Reality sucks."
GM: You describe in the prologue your growing ennui with US sports. Have you found since you've returned that you've regained interest? Are you able to follow the Irish sports from here?

AM: Well, I'm currently wearing a New York Knicks hat. If I'm still admitting to being a Knicks fan after the three horrible seasons since I've been back, then I guess my interest has returned.
I never wanted to come off as bitter. I don't begrudge the athletes for making millions because they're the ones that bring in the money. I fell into a slump because I got sick of the greed. I wanted it to be more a game than a business. While in Ireland I took nearly a year off from following American sports. I missed the Super Bowl, March Madness, NBA playoffs, baseball pennant races. When I came back I suddenly had a clean slate and I started enjoying our sports more. Maybe hurling and Gaelic football brought back the fun aspect. But I got greedy, too. Now I care more about my fantasy team than my real teams. I love watching baseball and the NFL, but it's more to check out my guys. But rooting for the Giants through their Super Bowl run was fantastic.
I follow the Irish sports and players I met through articles on the Internet. I think it's something I'll continue for a while. Games are also shown every weekend in pubs and at Irish organizations, though I have yet to go.

GM: Do you worry that writing in the US is becoming a professional amateur pursuit? You've written for newspapers and now written a book, and both are tough media for profit-making, in part because so many amateurs are glad to do the writing for free.

AM: Did you take a peek at my checking account? Because recently it seems like it's more amateur amateur—hey, do I get paid for this interview? Just joking, but I don't think it's any different than it's ever been. I just started reading this book called New Grub Street by George Gissing about English writers struggling to make a living in the late 1800s. Journalists/authors were always lower on the pay scale than other professions and entertainers. You always had writers hustling for freelance work and assignments, scraping to make a living while wearing cheap clothes with food stains, and then you had the handful of stars who got the big bucks and management who wore the expensive shoes.
To the contrary, I think now is an exciting time to be a writer. The Internet has leveled the playing field. In essence, a 2,000-circulation newspaper has the same circulation as the New York Times. I can read the Irish Independent just as easily as I can my local paper sold at the Wawa around the corner. You can also cheaply produce a professional-looking book from print-on-demand technology. Most doors that were closed are now open. Fewer people can say no to you.
I think the profit-making issue comes down to what it always did: talent, public interest at the right time, your market and buzz—which the amateur blog writers and operators of niche-Web sites help produce. Many "amateurs" are bloggers who do it as a hobby with limited reporting and writing experience; they don't expect to get paid, and their readers know that. Or they write a self-published book for their ego to give to friends. But at some point, especially as it takes more time and becomes more high-level, most look to get paid, either through advertising or selling to a mega corporation. Even when Rupert Murdoch wanted another platform, he didn't settle for writing a free blog (granted, not everyone can afford to buy a newspaper company). Plus, many of those "amateurs" are writing to promote themselves and their business, and see the writing as a tradeoff for future sales or freelance/consulting jobs.
Now, there is a major concern in the newspaper industry because circulation is declining and classified advertising is going elsewhere. Many papers are freezing jobs, offering buyouts, and cutting travel expenses, which is disheartening to a sportswriter. Those are real concerns. But hopefully there will always be professional professional writing jobs, no matter what the medium is. It was true in the 1800s, and I think it will be true in the 2800s.

David Brady

David Brady, the Buffalo Bills of Gaelic football.

GM: When you've told Americans about your trip, have you found that they know anything about Gaelic football and hurling, or do you always have to explain it?

AM: Most of the time when I mention hurling I get a drinking joke like, "I just played hurling last night"—tee hee hee. Or I get, "Curling, as in the Winter Olympic sport with a broom?!?" I have to shake my head and explain that they're Irish field sports. I could do it in my sleep by now. But everyone becomes interested after I describe the sports and wants to learn more. I do come across people who are familiar or vaguely familiar with the sports, either through family members or Irish friends. Popular writers like Jim Caple, Peter King, and Steve Rushin have written about the sports, so they occasionally get a mainstream mention.

GM: I see you published with iUniverse. How was that experience? Did you have any editing/fact-checking help? What happened between when you returned from Ireland and when the book was published?

AM: So far I had a great experience with iUniverse—but people should be aware what they're getting into. First, a little background on why I used them. Before I left, I mainly focused on what I was writing about and didn't really look for a publisher or agent. I did send a few query letters, but that was it. When I returned, I had visions of immediately generating buzz in the publishing world and getting a big advance and a movie deal. My only problems would be fighting off the groupies and choosing what to write next. Then reality hit. Reality sucks. Of the 60 or so agents I contacted, about a dozen requested chapters and a proposal, which outlined the book. A handful rejected me nicely with two concerns: Either that the sports were too esoteric for the American market, or that I didn't write a running narrative that followed the same characters throughout. I started with agents because many publishing houses won't even consider unagented writers, or you get to the bottom of the slush pile.
So my next plan was to contact small-to-mid size publishers. But by then, too much time had passed. A search might have taken six months to a year, and then another year before it was actually out. While I consider the book timeless like a Friday Night Lights, I still needed it out soon. For example, a book about the 1986 Mets would have looked stupid coming out in 1990. So my only quick option was print on demand (POD)—which means the company publishes each book when it's ordered so there isn't a big inventory collecting dust somewhere—and I chose iUniverse. More established writers are using them, as are "celebrities" like Amy Fisher and Alan Thicke. I figured, who could be more literary than those two?
It took just under two months from the time I sent them the manuscript to having a book in my hand, which was great. In-between, they sent me a galley of the book in PDF file to read for mistakes. They designed a great cover after I provided a picture, but would have followed my instructions if I had any design talent. After that, you pretty much do everything else yourself unless you pay extra for it (such as the editing). They published exactly what I gave them.
On one hand, that's great—every writer bitches about editors and wants total control. On the other hand, it's overwhelming. Not only are you the writer, you have to be the editor, the fact-checker—everything. First, take just the writing: They won't point out any typos or grammar mistakes, no matter how obvious. You need to have your copy crisp. You have to write the back-cover copy, and all the chapter titles. If you want the first letter bolded of each chapter, you need to tell them. You have to think of every angle and take care of it. If you deleted a paragraph by mistake, you're screwed.
I knew I couldn't just hand them a book without editing, especially since it was my first one. So I hired an experienced freelance editor. The bad: She took four months longer than she said she would. That slowed me down horribly. The good: She knew what she was doing. She got me to think of it as a book instead of a piece of journalism. At her suggestion, I put in more character description, set up scenes better and cut out a lot of the fat. She urged me to tell more about my journey and to give the book a broader meaning than to just focus on the Irish people. After the first chapter, I got the hang of it. The editor didn't read the changes, so I used what I wrote.
It was a narrative-journalism boot camp conducted on the job. I mean, I went from writing 12-inch game articles and the occasional 40-inch feature to an 85,000-word book. (And I can't wait to write another one because I saw how I could have reported better at times).
I also had a couple of journalism friends and my brother read chapters. As for the fact-checking, I knew if I wanted to be taken seriously I couldn't have obvious errors. I literally looked at every name, number, fact, weird spelling, anecdote and double-checked it (if possible, with two sources). When it was right, I marked it with a yellow highlighter. By the end, the pages looked like a banana. It was very painstaking, but I was amazed at the mistakes I caught. I'm sure a handful got through, but I made every effort to be accurate.
I'm now in the promotion stage and I'm still doing everything myself. iUniverse doesn't send review copies or set up signings. A positive is they get Amazon, BarnesandNoble.com, Target.com, and other online sites to sell it. They also pay a 20- to 25-percent royalty, which is higher than the industry average, and they give sizable author discounts based on how many copies I buy (which I don't receive a royalty from). On the downside, some view POD as a stigma because anybody could get published, so iUniverse's collection offers a wide range of quality. I'm still learning about the distribution aspect, but apparently it's hard to get into bookstores—which isn't good. You just have to be creative with your niche market. For example, I'm looking at Irish import and gift stores and have a few other fun ideas. Nobody questions who the publisher is, they're just excited over the topic. Perhaps the best thing about iUniverse is that I retain my rights. I can now shop it around to an established US or Irish publisher, and there have been success stories.
The POD system isn't perfect, but I have a finished book out that's getting mainstream media attention and it's creating interest in the Irish-American community. The alternative would be still waiting, or worse, still writing those query letters.

"My project may prove to be a failure, but on my deathbed looking back, it'll be one of those great life experiences I wouldn't trade."
GM: What would you say to other writers tempted to leave everything behind and go to another country to write a book, even if they don't have a contract?

AM: Go for it. It doesn't have to be overseas; it could be going cross-country or to another part of your state. It all comes down to taking control of your destiny. It's easy to bitch about not getting a book deal, or how tough the job market is. The solution is simple: Create your own opportunity. Nobody's stopping you. I fear I just sounded like a bad Nike commercial, but it's the truth. Quitting your job and writing a book is the equivalent to an accountant leaving his firm and putting up his own shingle. You're working for yourself, and it's very liberating.
Now, I understand everybody's situation is different. If your goal is to become an NFL beat writer or to cover the White House or to become a columnist, then it makes sense to stay at your paper and break as many stories as you can. Or, if I was married and had a family, I couldn't have done it. I recommend looking at your life goals, but don't be afraid. I was inspired by a friend who quit his job to coach high-school cross-country and track for a season, because that was his dream. He eventually found another good job in his field. You can't always worry about your résumé.
In my case, it was the right move and I'm hoping the book leads to my next job. But use some caution. Have a plan. Just don't go into the wild, or parachute into Afghanistan looking for a story. Ireland was ideal because it was safe, US-friendly and people spoke English. I pulled a few audibles during my trip, but I mostly knew where I was going and stuck to my budget. Looking back, I probably could have stayed with more players and coaches for free or at low cost, so it can be done cheaply.
Also, unlike the Iraq war, have a good exit plan. Save money for when you get back and realize that you might have to do temp work or something like that for a while. Don't care about your ego. The bottom line is if you truly believe you have an interesting story, the talent, and a promotion plan, go for it. My project may prove to be a failure, but on my deathbed looking back, it'll be one of those great life experiences I wouldn't trade.

"The bad thing about promoting the book is it's taking me away from my next project. I'm a writer, not a P.T. Barnum, but it has to be done."
GM: What are you up to now? Will you write about sports in some new country now?

AM: Can I take this opportunity to post my résumé? I'm looking for freelance writing work or a staff position somewhere, and I'm busy trying to create buzz for the book and lining up appearances. I started to send it to my Irish sources. I heard back from a couple and they seem excited. Apparently there is more of a market for hurling and Gaelic football in Ireland than the US—who would have thought that?
The bad thing about promoting the book is it's taking me away from my next project. I'm a writer, not a P.T. Barnum, but it has to be done.
To answer your second question, I noticed there aren't too many sports travel books out there. I'd love to fill that void as a John Feinstein or Bill Bryson of the genre. I have many ideas that combine sports and culture in various countries. But realistically, I would need funding for another trip. So I'm trying to come up with a book idea based in the New York/New Jersey area that I can cheaply work on at night and the weekend. I also hope to sell the Irish book to an established publisher. Of course, if someone like a Matt Damon, Colin Farrell, Denis Leary, Jim Sheridan, or Neil Jordan wants to buy the movie rights—Hint: the hurling team that won 50,000 euros betting on itself—my life would be much easier.

Related in Gelf: Rus Bradburd on his experience coaching basketball in Ireland.

Carl Bialik

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







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Comments

- Sports
- posted on May 01, 08
Rosemary Foley

How can I get in touch with Andy about speaking at my organization's "Speakers' Night". in Worcester, MA. Cost etc.
We are the Worcester Hibernian Cultural Center (AOH/LAOH). Irish-American Organization.

Thank You,

Rosemary Foley

Rosemary Foley

- Sports
- posted on Feb 26, 10
Joe Ó Muircheartaigh

I am trying to get in touch with Andy Mendlowitz - I'm emailing from a newspaper in Ireland, The Clare People in County Clare. I have reviewed his book, but would like to contact him.

Joe Ó Muircheartaigh


Article by Carl Bialik

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

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