Last week Slate published a piece declaring Zach Lowe the best sportswriter around today. While that may be one publication’s opinion, there are certainly other opinions as well. So this week we asked our staff who their pick would be for North America’s best sportswriter…
Liam McGuire: There’s a bunch of candidates for me, Greg Howard (New York Times Magazine), Sean McIndoe (formerly Grantland, Sportsnet/Vice Sports) and Eric Koreen (Sportsnet/Vice Sports) are among my favorite to read for a variety of reasons, but if we’re getting down to the nitty-gritty of who’s the best, I have to agree with Slate. Zach Lowe is a tremendous writer. His writing makes me understand and love basketball even more than I do. His ability to articulate and break down game footage is second to none. Even if I have little interest in the subject he’s covering, I’ll read what he writes immediately. He’s that good.
Alex Putterman: First of all, Slate’s choice of Zach Lowe as America’s best sportswriter was a highly credible pick. I think Lowe is every bit as revolutionary as that article claims, with a combination of reporting, analysis and film study that represents the future of sportswriting. But with him already taken, I’m looking elsewhere in the NBA world and casting my vote for Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins. Jenkins is a wonderful writer, but the what really drives his brilliant features is his ability to evoke anecdotes and personality traits from his subjects and then present them in a meaningful but unpretentious way. Check out the first few hundred words of Jenkins’ profile of Draymond Green from last week. The passage the kind of florid language you see in a piece by, say, Wright Thompson (who is obviously also great but in a slightly less accessible way) but is tightly written and captivating while conveying the essence of his subject right off the bat. It’s the essence of what makes Jenkins special: He gets a great story and knows just how to tell it.
I have many favorite Lee Jenkins pieces. Jenkins’ relationship with LeBron James earned SI the scoop of the decade in James’ return announcement, but I was equally blown away by the depth of the his companion piece looking inside LeBron’s decision. His cover story on Adam Silver left me feeling like I deeply understood what drives the NBA commissioner. His piece on Lamar Odom after Odom’s drug overdose sensitively shed light into how the former player had reached a shocking low. And I still don’t understand how Jenkins turned around this story on Warriors assistant Nick U’Ren so quickly after U’Ren’s star moment during last year’s playoffs. But my favorite Jenkins piece isn’t even one of his many revelatory reported features but rather a relatively short essay arguing that Steph Curry deserved Sportsman of the Year honors in which he shows that his writing chops are as strong as anyone’s out there.
In the future, I would love to see Jenkins expand beyond NBA profiles and apply his incredible reporting and writing abilities to other subjects, but really I’m glad I get to read him at all. In thinking this through, I also considered Tom Verducci, Ramona Shelburne and Eli Saslow, who I consider the best writer who sometimes writes about sports, despite his not being a sportswriter, per se.
Joe Lucia: For me, this one is easy. There aren’t many writers whose work I immediately read when I see a link pop up, and most of those writers don’t write full columns. One of the columnists whose work I always jump on, however, is Jonah Keri of CBS and SI (and previously of Grantland). His writing style is informative, entertaining, and knowledgeable, and I know that even if I disagree with the points he ends up making, it won’t be because they’re poorly argued. His work is also stat-heavy, but it’s not overwhelming if you’re not familiar with the advanced stats he’s talking about. And in this day and age, bridging that gap is extremely important. Not many writers can do it, but Keri does with ease.
Ian Casselberry: While thinking this over, I realized how few great sportswriters I actually read these days. Most of the writers I read are of the “insider” variety who break news on Twitter, then maybe follow it up with a column. Part of that is job-related, naturally. We’re always looking for news. But it’s also probably a casualty of a shorter attention span, voracious online appetite and the ability to stash stuff on Pocket.
However, if there’s one writer who I’ll usually make sure to read, whether it’s a column or multi-part series, it’s Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post. Svrluga has been one of my favorite baseball writers since covering the first season of the Washington Nationals (which also resulted in one of my favorite baseball books, National Pastime), and I’ve continued to enjoy his work as he moved on to be a general sports columnist for the Post. He does an excellent job covering the Redskins and NFL, Capitals and NHL, and golf, but baseball is still his best sport, in my opinion. His series on the effects a long MLB season wreaks on different aspects of a baseball team — which later became his second book, The Grind — was one of the more enjoyable reads of the past two seasons and the sort of work not enough publications feature anymore.
Not only is Svrluga good at telling a story, often revealing something about the subjects he’s writing about. But another strength of his is detailing and uncovering the process that went into certain developments and events, such as trades, free agent signings, and contract negotiations. One good example of this is Svrluga’s story on Nationals pitcher Mike Bacsik, who gave up Barry Bonds’ 756th home run. A more recent one is going through Tiger Woods’ struggle to return to competitive golf and the difficulties he’s having in returning to form.
I’m surprised Svrluga hasn’t moved on to a more national platform with an outlet like Sports Illustrated, ESPN or Fox Sports. But the Washington Post, one of the country’s truly national newspapers, allows him to write the various kinds of articles he’s so good at, and covering D.C. sports often trickles into national stories as well, so he gets to expand his scope when necessary. I’d love to see him stay there and remain a signature columnist, rather than get lost with an even larger outlet.
Andrew Bucholtz: For me, there are a lot of great sportswriters out there to choose from, so this was a tough call. I strongly considered Stephen Brunt of Rogers Sportsnet and Joe Posnanski of NBC Sports; both have written tremendous books and continue to write incredibly insightful and nuanced columns on a wide variety of sports and subjects, and they’re also both excelling in multimedia venues, with Brunt’s strong radio work and remarkable video essays (perhaps the closest we’re regularly seeing to a video form of columns) and Posnanski’s often-insightful podcasts. However, I’m going to have to go with Bruce Arthur of The Toronto Star.
Arthur, who’s shone as a columnist for the Star and for the National Post before that, has the rare ability to consistently appeal to local, national and international audiences. That’s true whether he’s writing about a global issue such as Olympic doping, a national one such as the Grey Cup or a local one such as the Leafs’ or Raptors’ latest game. He’s a craftsman of language and excels both at research and at putting that research to use in ways that fit his piece; he also uses research to have informed perspectives on a wide variety of sports, even ones he’s not consistently covering day in and day out. He’s a strong reporter and interviewer, and he’s terrific at turning around an insightful game story or column (usually with post-game quotes, even) in a crazily-quick amount of time.
Arthur also is highly entertaining and interesting on Twitter, using it more consistently and effectively than the vast majority of mainstream media types and actually engaging with most of his audience and their feedback, and that’s been a big reason why his voice and perspective has spread beyond just Toronto or even just Canada. He’s shown his ability to excel in the multimedia realm, too, with radio and TV stints with TSN and even occasional appearances on ESPN platforms such as Around The Horn. Arthur strikes me as just the kind of mainstream media sportswriter our age needs; he’s an exceptionally talented writer, and one who usually goes for nuance over hot takes, but also one who has the ability to provide insight on a wide variety of platforms. His work is well-researched and well-crafted, and it makes his readers and listeners smarter and more informed. That flies in the face of the trend to embrace the first and hottest takes of the day, but Arthur’s finding plenty of success with his more thoughtful approach. Here’s hoping he’s able to keep it up.
Matt Yoder: This was a really tough question because in spite of some recent criticism, there’s more great sportswriting taking place than ever before. Deadspin, SB Nation, Uproxx, (cheap plug for our own site The Comeback), even Bleacher Report, and so many other online houses care not just about pageviews, but about producing quality, thought-provoking, original writing. But I am going mainstream with my choice to someone who still stands above the crowd – Wright Thompson.
Everyone does longform these days and everyone is looking for those vanity pieces that can add prestige and notoriety to your site. That is a thrust of the sports media that has proved costly in the past when not handled properly. But if there’s anyone who writes longform who never sells readers short, and is an amazing storyteller, it’s Thompson.