Whilst some might say that ESPN’s Bill Simmons epitomises the typical American sports fan-writer today, the keyboard of Will Leitch has provided a different but vastly popular take on sports over the past two years. Will is probably the most influential sports blogger around: the site he edits, Deadspin, now attracts over seven million page views a month.
After the jump, we talk with Will about his forthcoming new book, sports fans and soccer in America.
Why are we interviewing a guy running a sports site that only periodically covers soccer in depth? Irreverence and wit are easy to spot as reasons for Deadspin’s popularity, but it also comes from their resolute resistance to the idea of American sports fans becoming the dribbling drones ESPN dream of, something we can certainly approve of here. And, unlike some U.S. sports sites we could mention, Deadspin is not afraid of soccer.
Will Leitch’s forthcoming book, which you can preorder on Amazon right now, will build on this approach. It’s called God Save the Fan, acidly subtitled “How Preening Sportscasters, Soulless Leagues, and Athletes Who Speak in the Third Person Have Taken the Fun Out of Sports (And How We Can Get It Back)”. And no, it’s not just a rehash of Deadspin posts: it’ll be a collection of fresh essays from Will’s presumably worn-out keyboard.
Will was kind enough to answer a few absurdly verbose questions from me about his new book, on Deadspin, and also the prospects for soccer in America.
Tell me about your forthcoming book, God Save the Fan. What’s it about and why did you decide to write it?
It’s an extension of what made me decide to start Deadspin in the first place; it just seems that of all that’s considered in any decision made in sports, the fan is the last person to even be thought of. This is unlike almost any other industry; we are, after all, the customers. The book is a series of essays, some short, some long, about fan empowerment in general, and the nature of fandom in specific. I also hope that it is funny. There might be some points made, but if it’s not funny, I’m kind of screwed.
You said in an interview on The Starting Five that the book is about ‘fan empowerment’. Have fans lost power in the world of sports? How can that be remedied?
Well, I don’t want to give it away, but it’s not like the Coca-Cola formula either; the trick is realizing that we hold all the power — we pay for all this — and recognizing the best ways to wield that power. Also, the book has a 2,000 word essay on Rick Ankiel. So it hops around a bit.
Blogs like Deadspin have become serious players in the world of sports media. Do you think the trend will be towards more popularity for blogs like Deadspin or more traditional corporate sites like ESPN.com?
Well, I try not to get too carried away; Deadspin might have grown in popularity, but ESPN still dwarfs it dramatically. I think traditional corporate sites will always have an inherent advantage, but only if they recognize what fans actually want to read. I think they don’t quite understand that the average fan sees through most of the junk they try to slip past us. But no matter what, people will keep getting information from blogs, independent or otherwise. It’s just a quick, easy, efficient and enjoyable way to absorb information.
I recently watched a Chicago Fire game from the pressbox. Apart from the outstanding pre-game cheesecake, it was an excruciatingly dull experience. What have your own experiences been, given your reverse experience covering the St. Louis Cardinals and later becoming a sports blogger?
I covered the Illini, not that Cardinals — a mistake in the initial story — but I”ll hark back to what I always say about press boxes: They’re no fun, they suck the soul out of sports fandom and no one should ever want to go there. They make you think about sports as a job. The minute I start thinking of Deadspin as a job, I’ll quit.
Many supporter groups of MLS teams, despite being small in number, take great pride in creating their own supporter experience through chants or huge banners or just jumping around in a frenzy of support after a goal. In NBA or MLB games the fan experience is more orchestrated, with pizza racing on the jumbo screen or neon lights flashing ‘cheer’. Could fans of mainstream American sports turn to soccer for a more authentic experience?
I think that’s outstanding; it has to be exciting to start new things like that. It makes me want to be a part of it. I’m always surprised the MLS doesn’t have a bigger Web presence. I enjoy MLS a lot, actually, but I don’t think it’s going to ever break big until the quality of play compared with the rest of the world improves. We Americans like to think the best of everybody comes here. I’m not sure this is news.
The internet and niche cable channels have allowed a generation of soccer fans to experience the game far more richly than ever. But can it ever gain serious traction without breaking into Sportscenter regularly?
It can, but as I said before, they need the best players here. Once In A Lifetime, the Pele documentary, shows how soccer CAN be more popular. I’m not sure David Beckham is the answer, though.
How much interest is there when you cover soccer on Deadspin? Has the reaction of your readers surprised you when you cover the game?
A lot, actually. I never understand why people who don’t like soccer seem to be so anti-soccer. It’s very easy to just skip over something you don’t want to read. David Hirshey’s coverage is regularly outstanding, and it’s made me more of a soccer fan myself. I’ve definitely found that the higher the education bracket, the more soccer fans there are. At least in America.
That said, I already miss the World Cup. They should really have that more often.