Aaron Sokoloff

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The Sports Aficionado (TSA) is a generator and aggregator of amateur-written sports commentary. As editor, I manage the site’s infrastructure (which involved learning some fundamentals of coding), solicit and edit contributions, search for worthwhile links, and contribute columns myself. This project touches on three of the class’s core ideas: Benkler’s non-monetary networked production, Fried’s modern liberty, and empathic argument. I will first describe how these ideas apply to the project generally, and with that in mind consider three main aspects of the site: content, attracting contributors, and attracting readers.

Benkler’s relevance is straightforward: TSA combines, via the Internet, efforts of geographically diffuse contributors participating for non-monetary motives.

The relation to Fried’s work is less direct but, to me, resonant. Nowadays fans principally interact with sports through media. Playing sports is essentially unmediated; attending professional or college games involves some media because of the advertising and self-hype at the events; watching games on TV is fundamentally mediated; and then there is the world of post-game reports, interviews, talk shows, sports radio, and online analysis in which the media content overwhelms the sports content. Current sports fandom weighs heavily towards the latter categories, and the associated problem is that the media generally imposes certain narratives on the sports world, which are often at odds with reality (TSA recently considered one such example, the alleged dissension in the New York Giants’ locker room). Critically-minded fans thus often feel that a powerful media spin dominates the space in which an event they care about takes place. Creating an alternative commentary space in which the conventional media’s portrayal of sports is challenged or non-existent has an appeal: it is not remotely comparable in importance to Fried’s political examples, but I think it is animated by the same free-thinking impulse. Empathic argument is relevant because site must make readers want to join the project; empathizing with who they are is key to such an appeal. With these ideas in mind, I turn to the site’s content.

In terms of original material, TSA (as of the afternoon of December 14) contains 14 original columns. I believe the quality is generally solid but here the site must speak for itself. A second source of content is linkage to other amateur-written commentary sites. This aggregation increases the number of worthwhile articles that our readers are likely to encounter, while keeping the site current during lulls in original material.

To me, the real jump in the site’s content came when I started adding links to video content. There is much excellent athletic footage on YouTube and Google Video, which can be linked to as easily as to other blogs. These links have dramatically improved the site. For one, this helps the site measure up to professional sites like espn.com, which have extensive multimedia content. More fundamentally, they help remedy two related problems that I have realized plague alternative sports journalism: negative tone and distance from actual events.

Alternative journalism itself implies a dissatisfaction with mainstream options, thus making it oppositional and often negative in tone and underlying worldview. To consider two examples discussed in class, The Daily Show’s pervasive sarcasm and The Village Voice’s snide dismissiveness towards mainstream culture are two manifestations, whatever the overall merits of these works. Such a tone (in more than moderate quantity) is particularly unsuited for sportswriting, because the motivation for sportswriting ultimately comes from the enjoyment of sports, not in the schadenfreude of dismembering mainstream media. Unfortunately, writing that expresses appreciation of sports runs into the limitations amateur sportswriters face. Lacking the access credentials of professional writers, we rarely attend sporting events in person, thus largely missing out on direct observation. Watching sports on TV places us another step removed, and even here we have limited time available. We thus absorb most of our sports after the fact, reading about it online or watching highlights shows. Thus we often focus on the media itself, as well as on big-picture issues instead of ground-level action. For example, we have produced three articles considering college football’s Bowl Championship Series system, but no articles on actual games in any sport. This focus on macro-policy issues at the expense of actual events is probably also a function of the writers’ background and education: the contributors so far are generally graduates of elite universities with minimal athletic experience. I worry that we, like the speakers Professor Parker criticized at the dinner honoring Modern Liberty, are fundamentally missing the point.

Given these difficulties, video content might be the best remedy: there is no better antidote for sports-related cynicism or lost focus than by watching athletic greatness in action, such as the footage of Devin Hester and Greg Maddux I have linked to in posts here and here, respectively. Even if we consciously re-focus our content towards a balance of ground-level and big-picture issues, I think that video content is central to TSA’s future.

Regarding the solicitation of writers, this has not been as successful as I had hoped. I have tried to empathize with potential contributors in the site’s introductory piece, speaking directly from who I am to who I believe my potential contributors are, and have also tried to do the same in conversation with them. Many intense and critical fans I know are excited about the project, but actual contributions have often failed to materialize. Unfortunately, non-monetary motives notwithstanding, it takes time, effort and some drudgery to distill one’s views into a column, and the demands of school, jobs, and other commitments often prevent this. The fact that most people involved so far are those I have been friends with for years makes it difficult to impose deadlines, structure, or any kind of editorial authority, which unfortunately means that sometimes content just does not get produced. Perhaps one reason that diffuse online collaboration has been so successful is cyberspace’s anonymity: editors and managers do not have to navigate the tension inherent in managing people with whom they have a pre-existing social relationship.

One major milestone for this site will be when it receives its first contribution from somebody whom I did not personally solicit. Several of our writers have introduced TSA to other friends who have then expressed an interest in contributing, but no pieces have yet materialized.

Regarding solicitation of readers, we have had some success: TSA has twice received links from a relatively high-profile amateur sports blog, The Big Lead (the links are here and here). We have been listed as a “favorite” by one other blog on technorati and, perhaps the ultimate proof of one’s own existence in cyberspace, we now show up on Google. Overall, the site has had some success in generating and aggregating material to create an independent commentary space, and the first inklings of wider penetration are present. This is still a work-in-process. I believe that the key to success is maintaining the flow of content until it has time to spread from the current readers and contributors to their friends, and then to their friends, and so on, giving it the chance to become truly “viral.”