Sports on Earth was an ambitious effort from USA Today and MLB Advanced Media launched in 2012 and aimed at bringing highbrow sportswriting to a wider audience. The past tense of the verb has to be used because in a stunning turn of events today, it appears that Sports on Earth has come to an abrupt and untimely end.
Gannett (USA Today’s parent company) decided to split its publishing and digital businesses today. While sweeping changes are likely in the future, one domino that appears to have already fallen is USA Today pulling out of the Sports on Earth project. This was a statement given to NBA writer Kevin Draper from USA Today on the matter.
Will Leitch, arguably the face of Sports on Earth in its current incarnation, sent this tweet, which seemed to reflect the belief that there was still a solid future ahead for the site in spite of the rumors about its demise.
And then the tweets from Sports on Earth staffers came… and they told a different story. A story of Sports on Earth’s complete thrashing. What unfolded on Twitter was unlike anything I’ve seen before in this industry as sportswriters employed by the site openly wondered whether or not they still had jobs, some seemingly as in the dark as the general public was about the fate of Sports on Earth. Writers being laid off is a drama that we’ve seen far too much of in recent years, but this one played out in real-time for everyone to witness.
I really do hope that these staffers weren’t finding out about their future employment via Twitter and there was some semblance of organization behind the scenes at the website. Or, at least what is now left of the website. Former Sports on Earth staffer Emma Span tweeted some of the gruesome details. For instance, that 95% of the staff had been laid off:
Finally, Leitch returned on his personal Tumblr site to offer this sobering view of today’s events:
Today has been a lousy day. Many people whose work I absolutely adore lost their gigs at Sports On Earth today. This was a surprise to me, to say the least.
I am not one of those losing my job today. This makes it difficult for me to say anything; as someone who has been laid off literally dozens of times, I know there isn’t anything someone who is staying can say to someone who is going that doesn’t sound awful and patronizing. Sports On Earth is going to continue, and I, along with the others staying, will do our best to do a great site, but it won’t be the same, obviously. All I can say is that I’m sad and that I miss them already and I will read them everywhere they go forever.
The success of Grantland was always going to lead to an explosion of sites placing an emphasis on an eclectic hub of longform sportswriting. To that end, Sports on Earth achieved what it set out to do. One only has to look at the roster of talented writers to see the fruits of SoE’s labors. A lineup ranging from Will Leitch to Leigh Montville to Wendy Thurm to Mike Tanier to Patrick Hruby wouldn’t be seen elsewhere, and they were all present at Sports on Earth.
Although the website didn’t reach the heights and mass appeal of Grantland, it certainly found its niche amongst the sports media intelligentsia. There was rarely a day that went by when someone didn’t RT a Sports on Earth piece into my timeline as a beacon of great sportswriting. Sometimes the sports media can get too caught up in the godliness of its own work and suffer from exhaustion from patting each other on the back, but in many cases it was deserved with Sports on Earth. Whenever talented sportswriters lose a job, it’s a bad day for any of us who write about sports, no matter the platform. And it’s a bad day for sports as a whole.
With MLB’s sole backing, it appears Sports on Earth will continue in some form as a baseball-oriented site. Although lacking any real information about Sports on Earth’s demise and/or future, it’s just guesswork at this moment. (For what it’s worth, the SportonEarth.com URL can be had for $500 if MLBAM is interested.) *Update: NFL writer Mike Tanier tweeted that he’s staying on at Sports on Earth, so it looks like there will still be some kind of general sports element with whatever staff is left.
Whatever the second incarnation of SoE will be, it will not exist as the diverse and quality sportswriting hub it had come to be known for in the sports world. And that’s a shame. Hopefully the skilled group of writers that made Sports on Earth a center for solid, insightful writing will be able to find work elsewhere.