The Sports Bubble

by Kyle Whelliston

Friday, January 16, 2009 · Season 5
TMM-1240 · 1,496 words · 7 min read




INDIANAPOLIS -- We are on the cusp of a wonderful new chapter in American history. Our great nation will once again be a place of logic and reason, a country where simple answers don't cut it, where perpetual double-digit percentage growth is no longer expected nor demanded, where an enterprise's true worth is measured by its value to the marketplace instead of its ability to be subsidized. At least we hope against hope that this will be the case.

I write this to you in the literal shadow of a true icon of America's Nonsense Era. Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the 2010 Final Four, rises up next to the Indianapolis skyline like a giant Monopoly hotel. It's a place where American-style football is played eight times a year. The regular tenant pays its employees millions of dollars each, paychecks funded by VIP tickets sold to the very same advertisers and companies struggling to explain themselves in the new logic-based economy. Working fans were priced out of the building before it was even built, and they can stay home and watch the games on free television anyway.

Does all of this make any sustainable sense to you? Doesn't this strike you as completely fucking ridiculous? Big-time American sports is just another bubble, with as fragile a meniscus as those of the dot-com boom or the failed, suburban house-as-ATM movement.

No part of the Sports Bubble, not even the attached layer of media soap-scum, is immune to structural weakness. Just under a month ago, while staying in this very city, I was given advance warning that ESPN.com is planning 50 percent cuts to its college sports coverage, and I was put on notice that my contributions would likely be halved in the new year. Earlier today, I was notified that beginning in February, I will indeed be cut in half -- writing and chatting every other week instead of weekly.

Now, if I know my audience the way I think I do, I know what you're thinking. ESPN is not "screwing mid-majors." These were cuts ordered by faraway men in suits who have bottom lines and share prices to protect, and this situation is not unlike the ongoing bloodbath at Sports Illustrated. I'm not the only one affected, and I'm fortunate enough not to be cut completely -- a fate that will befall others.

Let me make this perfectly clear: I will never engage in any Worldwide Leader-bashing, even if I'm gone for good at the end of the 2008-09 season. I consider those writers whom have taken that route the lowest form of tactless vermin, and I have no respect for them. Those put in the position of actually making these cuts and delivering the news are good people with consciences and families and mortgages, and I can confirm that the day-to-day operations in Bristol -- despite rumors to the contrary -- are handled by actual human beings, not soulless robots.

If you're looking for the sole reason why this site is what it is now, it has four letters. The 100 Games Project was regional and provincial, and ESPN gave me the chance to visit mid-majors from coast to coast. And they don't pay for my travel 99 percent of the time, since I'm not a staff writer, so it's been a zero-sum and zero-profit equation. (Although, in retrospect, this probably wasn't the right year to dissipate Basketball State's margins by hiring a full staff of contributors. But I'll never regret that.)

This also didn't happen because I'm a "bad writer," although there are plenty of people who let me know every single day that they think I am. Nobody who's ever been successful has ever spent time worrying about what people think or defending their work to the peanut gallery. But if you've ever seen your favorite rock band dissolve after being dropped by its record label, you know that "good" and "commercially viable" are mutually exclusive, and ever more will be so. This has nothing to do with subjective "quality."

Suits work in calendar and fiscal years while we operate in "seasons," but there's no denying the awkward and horrible timing of this. I'm in the middle of a season-long road trip that's already been planned out, and halving my incoming funds means I simply can't stay on the road. It would mean the book project is dead, and I'm already working without an advance because my publisher went out of business last fall. I'd also miss the Mock Selection in Indianapolis next month, something I was lucky enough to be picked for. Instead, I'd spend my days sitting at home doing phone interviews to play out my 2008-09 string.

But you know and I know that this site, and this journey, has never been about watching games through a TV filter. The Mid-Majority has always been about the open road, risk, struggle, and sleeping in truck stops. Since the site opened four years ago, I've attended 484 games from coast to coast. If I can't do this the right way, I'd rather be doing something else.

I'm consumed by an unbearable lightness, however, because I'm in a much better position than a lot of other writers. I have thousands of yous. So I'm just going to place this hat here on the ground, and slowly tip-toe away.

[link removed]

This isn't the first time for that button, and there was some real mixed-bag success with donation drives in the early years. But none was as big a drive as this one. In order to stay out on the road for the rest of the season, taking into account my 50 percent cut in ESPN income, I'll need $4,000 in additional funds. I don't expect any corporate sponsors to swoop in -- the tight, devoted fanbase means it's a bad branding investment (as evidenced by a .03 percent clickthrough rate on the Google ads). I was out on the fundraising trail last summer, so I know people are scared and hurting and hesitant to take their wallets out. I also know that there are plenty of "investors" out there who want to be a "guest writer" or have me otherwise lick their ass. So my expectations for this are low.

But I draw faith and inspiration from recent events. Wikipedia just raised a gajillion sawbucks in a donation drive, and donors received the same old collection of Battlestar Galactica episode recaps they'd had beforehand. We elected a president who spammed American inboxes and raised zillions through a web form. And more germaine to the situation at hand: a beautiful young redheaded reporter, left out in the cold during the presidential campaign when her magazine went under, raised enough money through a PayPal link to stay on the trail. And she was covering a candidate who'd already lost!

All I can offer you is more of the same -- perhaps greater transparency with my travel plans and finances as well. And, of course, an acknowledgement in the book, whenever that comes out. If you need a thumbnail sketch or a rate card, $5 buys me a Veggie Delite sandwich at Subway, $10 is a truck-stop shower, $20 for a tank of gas (at Jan. 16 rates), $40 for my once-a-week three-star hotel from Hotwire, $200 equals a Southwest plane ticket, and $400 is good for a week's worth of rental-car wheels. (If you'll allow me a single moment of presumption, any overage or unused funds will go to Samaritan's Feet, which we'll discuss more on Monday.)

If you can't afford or are unwilling to give, here's some free advice: it's time for all of us to ratchet back our reliance on corporations, and fly or die on our own. I've been living off the Sports Bubble for so long that I've lost touch with the actual value of what I do, and I have no tangible idea if this operation would survive with a lessened subsidy. Nobody asked me to start covering mid-majors this way, nobody demanded it at any point, and the market didn't require a smartass traveling reporter who talks as much about losing as winning, who posts more about philosophy than basketball. It seemed like the right way to do it, so that's the way I do it.

Believe me, there's a certain calm in knowing that this can only continue if it makes logical sense for it to continue. Ventures like the Mid-Majority will only survive if they are supported by their audiences, and those that are not directly accountable to the people -- or overly reliant on the teats of Big Commerce -- will be prone to sudden and catastrophic failure. That's right in line with our nation's new Obama-era reality.

But I'm not above soliciting donations from those who are still safely inside the Sports Bubble, somebody for whom a Mid-Majority bailout would be like tossing a coin in the fountain. Kyle Korver? Jason Thompson? George Hill? Are you out there, can you help a brother out?

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UPDATE 1/20: Fired.

UPDATE 1/24: Thank You.