Brooklyn's Answer to Bristol
Will Leitch, World Wide Web leader in sports
In September of 2005, online publishing force Gawker Media they of their flagship and eponym's mapped celebrity sightings, the devastating take on the cultural void of Hollywood that is Defamer, and the gossip-driven political musings of Wonkette.com launched Deadspin: "Sports News Without Access, Favor, or Discretion." No one could have anticipated how exponentially the Web empire's pith factor would be raised or have predicted that the site itself would be drawing more than 7 million visitors in a month after barely a year in business.
Headed up by Will Leitch, Brooklyn author and freelance writer by way of the Midwest and BlackTable.com, Deadspin is the conversation you have with friends in your backseat and your brother on your cell phone as you drive home drunk after the game; it's the way the games are experienced by someone who finds fulfillment in paying close attention, before they're logged as catchphrase-littered highlights devoid of context and meaning. It's a quality-of-life thing. It's funny. It's a distraction from work. It's a place to meet people and organize opinion. Taken together, it's the democratization of society's response to the impact of sports. It's a cog becoming a wrench in the works of their corresponding marketing and media machinery.
Not surprisingly, it's making enemies, from the Disney-owned ESPN to mourners of the late Barbaro. In fact, it was the World Wide Leader in Sports' cartoonish longtime anchor Chris Berman whose pickup line to a woman with matching leather pants and jacket at a bar last April would explode into a pop-cultural in-joke and Barbaro who recently squared off in the site's Sportshuman of the Year Tournament, a survive-and-advance affair decided by polls among Deadspin's devoted community. For the results, see www.deadspin.com/sports/barbaro/your-shoty-winner-barbaro-226906.php. For a telephone interview with Leitch, see below.
Will Leitch: It's still about those two or three hours of a game, when nothing else matters. There's nothing else in my life that's that black and white: "If they win, I'm happy. If they lose, I'm sad." I like that. That's why I don't cover much gambling on the site. Why I couldn't do the gambling site when Gawker asked me to, before I pitched this one. I once put down a $20 bet: Illinois was favored by 51/2 over Penn in the tournament. I said, "Sure, I'll take that bet!" They were up by 8 with two minutes to go. I was miserable.
Austin Chronicle: That's my worst nightmare.
WL: Exactly. You're supposed to be happy when your team's ahead by 8 with two minutes to go in an NCAA tournament game, not agonizing over the fact that they're only 21/2 points ahead of the spread. That's not fun. The site is founded on fun: There's a purity to it. For one, I can't think of anything else on the planet that will make me jump up and start yelling, besides maybe a spider.
AC: Apparently, there's a lot of people jumping up and yelling and then coming to Deadspin to discuss it. It's phenomenal, the kind of community that has developed on the site. People have taken to it like it's a social-networking-type thing.
WL: I had absolutely no intentions of that happening, and it would have never worked if I had. It's more of the general attitude of the site: No one comes to Deadspin saying, "Wow, let's hear what Will's opinions on sports are." That's not the point. They come to share stories and joke around and argue like they would with friends and family.
AC: And you kind of play the straight man to the people who comment. You set the stories up on a tee, and they get the laughs.
WL: Yeah, and I think it's better that way.
AC: Because you're not very funny?
WL: [laughs] I'm like a game-show host. Because it's supposed to be the way reasonably intelligent people actually talk about sports. It's comforting to me that it has turned into a community. In hindsight, it had to be that way.
AC: I guess I'd like to know what kind of control you have. How much input does Gawker have, and how much has been your vision?
WL: I've had an advantage in that no one at Gawker really knows anything about sports. There are a few sites for them where I think everybody's looking over their shoulders a little bit, but from the beginning I think they kinda figured that anything they got out of this site was house money. They were very hesitant to do a sports site. ... They didn't really know what they were getting. They thought it might be, like, all stats stuff or just message-board screaming. I said, "Seriously, there are so many stories out there that average sports fans are talking about that aren't getting through. They have to hit so many hurdles just to get into the discussion." I think that was a different tack for them. I never wanted the site to be "Hey, here's something going on in the world: Let's crap on it!" I don't really have that sensibility myself. I'm a stupid Southern Illinois kid. My friends play practical jokes on me. So, I mean, some people have described the site as snarky; I prefer "cheeky."
AC: Historically, though, you haven't exactly been shy about making fun of people.
WL: It's amazing. The sports world is so self-serious that to even criticize something is to have people respond, "Oh, you're so negative." It's, like, come on. I am a consumer. I am your boss. That's what people forget about sports. Whenever's there's a labor dispute, "Well, how are they going to split up all this money?" We're the ones who gave them the money. Every single thing that happens in sports, it's because the fans allow it to happen. Everything. It's fashionable to talk about sports as a business, but you never hear about consumers; you just hear about "fans." Every time you see a commercial involving a fan, it's a fat guy who's painted his chest and is screaming, tipping a beer over a girl or something. Deadspin's full of its fair share of fart jokes, but hopefully it also shows that the average sports fan is a lot smarter than people give them credit for.
AC: How important is it for you to give the average sports fan, the consumer, a voice?
WL: It's really fun for me to see. In a New York Times story a few months ago, they must have been really late on deadline or something, because their man-on-the-street quotes were all from Deadspin commenters. ... It does seem like sports blogs have increased considerably since Deadspin started. I'm not saying it's because of Deadspin; this was all going to happen, whether it was me or somebody else.
AC: Well, why has it happened when it has?
WL: Well, why the hell does [ESPN columnist and TV personality] Skip Bayless have any authority over any human who walks the Earth and likes sports and has something to say? I think you see this changing more and more in "mainstream" media. It can only get better when there are more voices out there. People can't just coast anymore. You have to keep bringing it, because good writers on the Web are. And we know people like Bayless are full of shit. And, in the bigger picture, we know ESPN is not an impartial observer but rather an integral player in the way we consume sports. People think Deadspin's anti-ESPN, but we're just calling them out as a large corporate entity. We've pointed things out about them just as their analysts might point things out about an athlete.
AC: Have you gotten a sense of any resentment on the part of the traditional sports media?
WL: It basically depends on whether people have a sense of humor about themselves. I find it amazing that anyone could possibly get offended by anything that anyone writes on the Web about them. It's the Web. If you Google "Will Leitch" right now, the first thing that comes up is "Will Leitch Sucks." You're going to get ripped on. This is the first blog I've ever done, but I've done online writing, magazine writing. I've written all over the place. The first rule is that if you're going to put your name out there, you can't be thin-skinned. If you're really that freaked out about people saying bad things about you, be a banker.
AC: Let's talk about "You're With Me, Leather."
WL: It was very poetic. I talked to a friend of mine a while back, and he actually didn't know it started on Deadspin. That thing took off in a way I could never imagine. My favorite one was when they actually had a scene about it on that TV show Las Vegas. It was like watching someone read my home diary on television. It was very bizarre. Originally, it was just a funny story. The person who gave it to me was a legit journalist. A reporter. It became a way for people to be in on an in-joke, but it also became a way to criticize ESPN without actually wasting the time. It was a really bizarre thing to watch that mushroom. I'm still bewildered by it. I always thought that Berman could have had fun with it. But that sort of speaks to the self-seriousness over there.
AC: On the other hand, I wonder about the challenge of taking on serious reporting, which you've chosen to do at times. One example not just because we're both Cardinals fans and this issue is close to our hearts is what came up with the Jason Grimsley illegal-drugs federal search-warrant affidavit and your reporting of Albert Pujols' trainer's name being in there based on an anonymous source. That was another defining moment for you and the site. Did it make you gun-shy? How tough is it to maintain that balance between freewheeling and really being a resource for people?
WL: To me, the best I could do with that was that once my source came to me and said, "Looks like I was wrong," I didn't want to bury it on our equivalent of Page 13D. I really felt like it should be out there. It was frustrating. If you go to a site and you don't believe what's up there, then you're not going to come back. There are some sites that attempt to create controversy. People have to know that I'm trying to be fair, that I don't just throw stuff up there to cause a fuss. I think that's key. Blogs are just a medium. That's all they are. They're a quick, easy, fun way to get information, so people are obviously gravitating toward that. I never worry about whether I have to stand up for the credibility of blogs. I just do my own thing, and hopefully people like it and want to come back. It's a responsibility, and I take it seriously, because it's my job, but that's about as big of a stand as I'm willing to take. I answer to the readers.
Jocks and Jokes: The Deadspin Phenomenon
Tuesday, March 13, 5pm, Room 9AB