Dear young sports blogger,
It's a humbling and weirdly disconcerting thing to get an email like yours, one that asks me how I got my "job" writing about sports and how someone could follow in my footsteps. It's humbling to imagine there are actual young adults out there who look up to me as some sort of success, and disconcerting because I have no idea what to tell you.
It may come as somewhat of a surprise, but many of the writers whose work you admire also have full-time "real" jobs that allows them to live while banging out words about their favorite sports teams—"blotter" (or whatever we're calling people who are bloggers now) may be a career aspiration for some, but for most people it's just a very time-consuming hobby.
And that's where I'm at. Until that fine day comes when I can ditch the day job, I'm going to take every gig that I can find, including—still, after about three years of doing this hoping that it might be sustainable—writing things for free from time to time, either because it's a subject that I feel passionate about or just to continue to hone my craft.
Which brings to the Deadspin piece by that kid who spent two years slaving away at Bleacher Report for bupkis and getting a lot of promises of employment dangled in front of him before walking away with $200 and a "fare thee well; thou art a gallant youth" for his labors.
You wanted to know how to break into the biz without doing what that kid did, without a serious stint of giving away the goods for nothing. And my answer is... I have no idea. I think it's almost impossible not to. There are just too many people out there who love watching games and think that with a bit of luck and a lot of bootstrap-pulling they could become the next Bill Simmons or Zach Lowe or any number of guys who started out as mere bloggers and are now considered leading lights in the industry.
The thing is, I've been down this road before in a totally different field. You may not know this, but I spent a good 15 years as a downtown New York City actor, playwright, and producer. Oddly enough, the difficulties and the obstacles to succeeding in that cutthroat game are not dissimilar to this brave new world of sportswriting we're in.
The archetype of the struggling NYC actor is pretty much a cliché, but what's not as widely known is that if you want to do plays, or actually work while going to audition after audition, you're going to spend a lot of time not getting paid. The economics of that scene might be even more brutal than those of blogging. Even if you want rent a small Off-Off Broadway house, one that has fewer than 99 seats, it'll cost you $4,000 a week at a minimum. If you want to run a show for three weeks, you're already looking at a $12,000 price tag.
And that's before you start doing things like purchasing the materials to build sets and sew costumes, renting lighting packages, and hiring professionals to design and build these things—and unlike those who tread the boards, they don't work for free. And then you have to promote the show, and hire producers, and find ways to encourage people to come see it and possibly review it, and on and on such that it's almost impossible to make anything that people will come see for less than $30,000, and that's if you're not paying anyone to, you know, act.
Which means that all the thespians are working day jobs serving you drinks and/or food at your favorite restaurants and bars. Then they're rehearsing an additional 30-35 hours a week in their "free" time. I did this for a while. It was grueling, but I believed in the theater that the company I had founded with some others was doing. Forming a theater company is a lot like starting your own blog: Long hours, no money, doing work that they hope is original or different enough to catch on somewhere with the hopes of an actual payoff if/when that momentous day comes.
But most people don't form a company or start a blog for the money. You do it because you feel you can create something that's original, maybe even important, and will enrich the lives of the audience or readers in a way that hasn't been done before.
And we succeeded. We made plays that got great reviews in the Times and were seen by thousands of folks. We performed in big-time theaters in the city, Germany, and Southeast Asia. But in the end, it was unsustainable. People got tired, or bitter, or wanted families or any number of things that precluded what was at times an insane, sleep-free lifestyle. (In a related story, here you can watch me go postal in a play of ours called The Comfort and Safety of Your Own Home.)
Granted, theater has its own built-in issue: Nobody likes plays, whereas sports are kind of a big deal.
I'll let you in on a little secret: I am scared as fuck.
But to answer your original question, which was how you get around having to give away your work for free, I asked a few of my colleagues to see what they thought. Like me, they didn't have much of a solution. From Matt Moore, NBA writer for CBSSports.com and Editor Emeritus of Hardwood Paroxysm:
Writing for free is going to be part of the modern career arc. It simply is, with how the internet is structured. Want to get around that? You had better be able to sweet talk your way into the best gigs right off the bat, or you had better start your own site, and monetize off of SEO and the lowest common denominator content from the get-go. Otherwise, you're stuck down here in the great maw with the rest of us.
Aaron McGuire, Gothic Ginobili:
Sportswriting is a career path that has a virtually never-ending supply of people who are willing to do your job for free. To make it a profession, you need to stand out from the crowd without being too abrasive, write with flair without being too flighty, and have a skill of some sort that allows you to specialize without losing your flexibility to write outside your comfort zone.
And then there are the things you really should be doing in any artistic endeavor: network (otherwise known as meeting people), diversify your portfolio, and if you find great editors and mentors, hang on to them with every ounce of strength you've got.
Also, you need to start writing like it's your job long before it becomes your actual job. Everyone says this, but that's because it's true.
Write. Write all the time. The best thing you can do to make yourself better is to write about as many things as possible. It helps with honing what you do, it helps with building an audience, and it helps with figuring what you do well and what you enjoy doing. Maybe you don't like doing play breakdowns but you love esoteric discussion. Maybe you're not crazy about cap talk but you get really into X's and O's. And the only way to keep yourself as part of the discussion is to write. When I was supremely frustrated with my inability to get a gig in late 2009 (AFTER ONLY TWO YEARS WRITING!), Tom Ziller gave me some great advice. Quit whining and write. What you're doing isn't enough? Write more. Because that's the only thing you can control.
He's totally right. Because this is going to be by definition a labor of love, you might as well do it whenever and wherever possible. Of course, that feeds right back into the cycle of people and sites exploiting that love by getting you to generate free content. But you started writing about sports because you love sports (and also, hopefully, writing), so yeah. Keep doing it.
All the wise council in the world, however, won't change the fact that the road you (and I) face is incredibly fraught with peril, and even if you do everything right, whether or not you succeed is going to be about luck and being in the right place at the right time. There are incredibly gifted writers who have vanished and people you or I consider awful hacks who have plum gigs, and that's partly due to things totally outside of anyone's control.
I'll let you in on a little secret: I am scared as fuck. I'm wracked with the fear that by choosing to do this, I'm repeating the sins of my youth and I should probably find something safe and comfortable (yeah, good luck with that in this job market) that doesn't make me wake a lot of mornings with a salt-tinged outline of sweat on my sheets. Any coldly logical assessment of your/my chances would have a sane man/woman fleeing as fast as his/her feet could carry him/her.
This is a crazy thing to attempt. It's practically impossible.
The one comfort I take is that, years ago, when I was in an acting class, a teacher I really loved gave me a piece of advice that I try to remind myself of when I'm clutching the pillow and rocking back and forth, trying to shake off the worst case of the willies that you could imagine.
I was struggling with some aspect of the pedagogy (what it was, I can't recall) and whining/pleading for a compliment, telling him, "I'm terrible. I should just quit now," and so on. He told me this: That after hundreds of plays and a few major films under his belt, with a de factor tenured spot in an highly lauded program, he has those exact same thoughts each and every single day.
And then he said, "I think everyone does, especially if you are good. This is a crazy thing to attempt. It's practically impossible. That's just a fact. And if you don't ask yourself if you really, really want to do it... Well then, you're just doing it out of habit or some other motivation that isn't from your heart. A real artist is always questioning why."
I think he's right. It's OK not to know why you're involved in this nutty, quixotic enterprise, and it's OK to feel a bit lost at times—examining yourself, actually, can improve your work. That doesn't make it easier, but at least there's a point to this jagged-nerved self-inquisition, rather than just dumb fear.
So yeah, listen to the smart things these people say. Keep working, keep asking. The situation's kind of fucked and there's no remedy anywhere on the horizon. But I like reading people who write about things they care about. There's a lot of fretting about the massive influx of bloggers somehow diluting the quality of sportswriting as a whole, but 1) please don't let that discourage you, and 2) I couldn't disagree more. More voices are better. Some of them, by definition, will suck, but some of them will be amazing and inspiring.
I have no idea what the future holds for you (or me), but I want to read about it.
Robert Silverman is still sorta optimistic. Follow him on Twitter.