There’s a saying in life that things—good, bad, otherwise—happen in threes. It should come as no shock then that big news on the sports media vanity front has come in triplicate as well, with Jason Whitlock out as head of ESPN’s upcoming ‘The Undefeated,’ Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo reportedly pitching (or being pitched) a vanity project around breaking basketball news and the news on Wednesday broken by THR.com that Bill Simmons is working on a deal with HBO.
The on-going conversation about vanity sites got some of us thinking: who in today’s everyone-has-a-voice world of sports media deserves to have the loudest voice, with a handful of other voices all yelling about the same thing under a snazzy banner that reads “This Person’s Voice” and, okay, I lost where I was taking this.
Who in sports media could possibly handle the sheer size and spotlight of a vanity website?
Simmons, ironically, got too big for Grantland and ESPN, so much that they felt they had to pull him even before his contract was up. Whitlock, per reports and insidery talk, wasn’t what ESPN wanted when it came to the hardest part of leading a vanity sports site: being a competent leader. The guy can write—how well has always been up for debate, but then again style over substance and/or controversial subject matter was never Whitlock’s forte—but ESPN obviously found out that handing over vanity sites to just anyone, even someone with the notoriety of Whitlock, has become something of a losing venture.
Nate Silver could probably prove that point statistically improbable and splash a fancy algorithm or two my way to validate the existence of his 538 website on ESPN’s platform. Still, the idea of a giving a vanity site to a sports personality is a risky proposition without much long-term provable reward.
Unless, however, we redefine what a vanity site is. Greg Wyshynski not only runs Yahoo’s Puck Daddy blog, he ostensibly is the Puck Daddy, with a staff of writers under him. Jason McIntyre is and always has been The Big Lead, even if he isn’t writing all the articles. Mike Florio is ProFootballTalk as well, and to some extent Will Leitch, though he hasn’t worked there for, what, half a decade, will always be Deadspin to those of us who long for the good ol’ days of that site.
The sheer notion of a vanity site isn’t new, nor was it created by or for Simmons or Peter King. (This coming from a guy who has a career now because of a show called On the DL Podcast some years back.) It’s just different when an existing media company gives an established talking and/or writing head a big budget and a snazzy subdomain to keep him around or poach him from somewhere else. Is Clay Travis’s Outkick the Coverage a vanity site? I mean anything with that guy is a vanity something, but is it what we’ve come to think of as the Peter King theMMQB.com type of site? There’s far less risk in what Travis is doing than what SI did for King, so contextually speaking, it’s less vain than others.
What about Peter Gammons? Does anyone go to GammonsDaily.com? The site, run by TruMedia Networks, was supposed to be the next in the wave of vanity sites and truly nobody talks about it at all. The Twitter page for Gammons Daily has under 9,000 followers and not so much as a banner image on it, despite a consistent stream of links being sent out. Gammons himself has half a million followers on Twitter and his personal Twitter feed has zero mention of his vanity site, nor any links as far as one can scroll to send back to his stories there. Or anyone’s stories there.
Chris Sheridan runs Sheridan Hoops on the Complex Sports platform and boasts a long list of scribes under him in some freelance capacity or other. His bio’s second paragraph reads, “There was a time, pre-internet, when every newspaper in America had a wire editor that would await Sheridan’s stories at the conclusion of big games and news events, and he developed a reputation as one of the best deadline writers in the business.” I’ve read it three times and I can’t figure out if that’s a positive or not in 2015. Is that a vanity site, or just a souped up version of what Murray Chass does?
With Simmons gone until HBO or whoever else gives him a platform back and Whitlock gone from his venture at ESPN, there aren’t many working vanity sites outside of King at SI, which was given to him in what was seen at the time as a desperate move to keep him, and smartly so. Florio’s PFT empire was self built before he sold out to NBC, so that isn’t the same as what SI did for King.
Who, then, other than Woj, could demand the King treatment? Frankly, is Woj even at that level?
I don’t know if anyone is, especially after seeing how Simmons and ESPN split. Why would any big media company give any single person that much power ever again? It doesn’t make good business sense, something the Whitlock debacle is proving a thousand times over.
So there aren’t really any names that are big enough to give a vanity site to. There were names, but big media companies satiated those egos by giving former scribes cushy TV gigs. In another era, Stephen A. Smith would have the biggest and most hilariously-produced vanity site on the planet. Instead, today he has the most talked about show on ESPN and a national radio show.
There was a time a few years ago that maybe Joe Posnanski could have pulled this off—and maybe that’s what Sports On Earth was supposed to be—but the last few years of his career since the fallout of his Paterno book have certainly changed his status, rightly or not.
Besides, it’s easier in a lot of ways to just be a media personality than it is to run a vanity site and also be a media personality. Bomani Jones is a rising star in our industry and would have been an interesting choice to run a race-and-culture-centric website for ESPN. At one point, Jones was part of The Shadow League, an independent site partially funded without much fanfare by ESPN. THAT is and was The Undefeated before Whitlock came along. Good as the content is at The Shadow League, it’s not nearly as big as it could have been, and Jones—who by the looks of it hasn’t written for the site in nearly two years—seems content doing national TV and radio, leaving the writing to others.
Back to SI (where outside of ESPN Woj might have the best chance of getting a vanity deal) could King’s success give someone like Tom Verducci the same opportunity? Would Verducci even want it, with how much he’s already on TV with MLB Network and Fox? Rob Neyer left ESPN to start something of a vanity project at SB Nation before leaving there and going to Fox to start Just a Bit Outside, which feels more like a baseball collective than a vanity project. With little branding behind that, it’s not close to what King has. It’s not on the same planet as Grantland. Truly, it’s hard to think anyone in baseball would have the cache to do what King has done at SI.
Other than Derek Jeter.
The Players’ Tribune is actually the best vanity site in American sports. Someone deserves a gift basket.
Is it only Woj, then? The thing about Woj is that while he has more scoops than basically every media person covering the NBA combined, Twitter can often cannibalize your traffic when news breaks. It’s one thing to get a scoop, and for Yahoo, Woj’s scoops add an incredible sense of legitimacy to their sports department, but if he’s on his own and is reliant on traffic more then prestige, can that same model work? If he’s at another huge house like SI or ESPN or Fox, will they put more stock in that added prestige or will he have to deliver numbers like King’s site has to justify the salary, staff and platform?
And, again, is there anyone else even remotely close to that vanity-site level?
Really there’s only one person in all of sports media who might be able to have a solid vanity site and it’s a guy who used to work in newspapers and now is one of the lead newsbreakers on TV: Jay Glazer.
Glazer is PERFECT with a capital everything for a vanity site. He has the name, he breaks enough news to drive consistent traffic to the site and while he’s nowhere near the writer that most vanity sites need to add long-form quality to a more robust offering than merely a constant stream of news and notes could provide, Glazer knows everyone, and players on top of players would be stacked to write for his site.
The guy seriously works with half the NFL in his gym, which is genius considering how often he uses them to break news for Fox. Glazer is probably the only person who could warrant a vanity site. I bet Subway is already building the banner ads.