By Simon Houpt
The world is moving so quickly these days, even three-year-olds are having mid-life crises. Why, it was only in the spring of 2009 that a few sports bloggers got together in the basement of a New York sports bar for a raucous bit of backslapping they called Blogs With Balls (BWB), where they talked passionately about their hobby (and, in some cases, their profession).
Now, as dozens of North America’s top sports bloggers convene in downtown Toronto on Friday and Saturday for Blogs With Balls 5.0, one of the conference’s organizers says the name no longer fits.
And the way BWB is grappling with its identity reflects not only the wider changes in the blogging world – a large media category that went from hobby to profession over the course of a decade – but also how so-called legacy media has become more dynamic in response.
“It’s not about blogs anymore,” said Kyle Bunch in an interview this week. “It’s now about blogs and Facebook and Twitter and Instagram – all of this distributed conversation that’s happening, that really takes things way past blogs.”
He and his colleagues at BWB, he said, have spent a considerable amount of time trying to figure out a new name for their gathering.
“Probably the worst thing about our brand is we built this great name, but now it’s tied to something that really feels like a relic of the past,” he said. “As crazy as it sounds for something that was named in 2009.”
In the past few years, the blog world has also lost one of the central pillars of its identity, as people began flowing more freely back and forth between new and old media. The stale Us vs. Them dynamic still comes up at the conferences, Mr. Bunch said. But when it does, “I almost cringe a little bit.”
The lines between the worlds “have completely blurred,” said Jim Bankoff, chairman and chief executive officer of SB Nation, a rapidly growing Washington, D.C.-based online sports network. “People get caught up – they hear the word ‘blog,’ and they think: Oh, it’s someone keeping a personal diary. I think those days are kind of gone. Now, there’s a professional class of blogging, or online storytelling and online community-building.”
News organizations in the United States (and Canada, to a lesser extent) are hiring people who started as bloggers, while editors and reporters dropped by money-losing newspapers are going in the other direction.
SB Nation now provides a platform for hundreds of bloggers, some of whom are paid little and some of whom are paid at very competitive rates. Last year, SB Nation’s parent company, Vox Media, launched The Verge to cover the intersection of technology and culture. It is getting set to launch Polygon, which will cover video gaming and online gaming. Amy K. Nelson, who will appear at a BWB panel on Friday morning, had worked for seven years at ESPN before moving to SB Nation last year. “SB Nation was offering her the change to take it to the next level by doing original video production,” noted Mr. Bunch.
Elliotte Friedman, the CBC broadcaster (and, yes, blogger) said opportunities for hungry and passionate fans are exploding. “Whenever I speak to young people who want to get into sports, I tell them: If you fail, it’s probably your fault, because now you have more chances to have a voice than ever,” he said. “The Internet has evened out the playing field.”
He cited the success of the Basketball Jones, a blog and podcast based at The Score created by a small crew of Canadian b-ball fans. “Ten to 15 years ago, there [wouldn’t have been] anything that existed for those guys to do. But instead, they created a name for themselves, they did it all on their own, and now they’re huge in the basketball world.”
Still, for those of us who believe in old-fashioned journalistic values like objectivity, the effect that blogs have had on other sports media can be troubling. Bloggers usually identify themselves primarily as fans; while that gives them an extraordinary depth of knowledge, they may not always have the necessary distance to cover their beats impartially. Would we want fans of particular political parties to be covering Ottawa?
Mr. Friedman said those concerns are misplaced. “You can be a fan of politics without it letting it compromise your judgment,” he said. “I’m a fan of hockey but that doesn’t mean I like what’s going on right now. You can love something and still be honest and critical about it.”