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The Failing Economics of Basketball Writing: Or, Living the Scab Life

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Grappling with our role in the decline in professional writing opportunities.

Minnesota Timberwolves Introduce New Players - Presser Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the tidal wave that has been demolishing traditional and new sports media. Layoffs are a constant state of affairs, with high-profile names at SB Nation and ESPN being laid off, and are now felt in the corners of the Minnesota Timberwolves writing universe, as Dane Moore at Zone Coverage was recently laid off and Britt Robson has been furloughed by The Athletic.

This is happening within the incredibly depressing context of record unemployment. Conservatively, the unemployment rate is at nearly 15% as of May 8th, but it is likely to be much higher. As such, it is unsurprising that sports journalism has been caught in the wake of the pandemic, particularly as news sites across the spectrum are laying off or furloughing staff.

But like other media, sports journalism was already aggressively facing an uncertain world. It is now all too common for venture capitalists to take over sites like Deadspin and Sports Illustrated and strip them down to the bones, turning them into sites that are more akin to the SB Nation model, with less accomplished writers churning out content.

Even the supposed saving grace of sports journalism, The Athletic, is dependent on venture capital money and poaching the remaining beat writers across the country in the hopes that the subscription model will turn a profit someday. If The Athletic falters due to the pandemic, who is going to snap up the writers? The local newspapers that were struggling to afford them anyway?

Simply put, the supply and the demand for basketball writing do not match up with making money. There are probably 10 to 15 writers that are writing explicitly about the Timberwolves on various formal to semi-formal platforms. Many of these writers are, theoretically, trying to turn this into a career, which includes the now essential Twitter-life, complete with what can only be an exhausting marathon to live-tweet 82 games throughout the year.

Who is going to pay these people? Most of them are unpaid or, like with SB Nation, nominally paid depending upon how consistent work is produced. In an ideal world, this sounds amazing, as it opens the door to fans more explicitly participating in the discourse of their team, whether on social media or blogs.

In reality, the problem is people like me. I’m the “scab” who makes it more likely that real journalists are fired. Because I’m the fan doing this for free (or mostly free).

The Internet age brought boundless opportunities for new writers to access readers. This site is perfect example of what the best of the Internet can be, as in the five years I have been writing at Canis Hoopus, I have seen so many writers leave this site for more formal writing opportunities. And by so many I mean one or two.

To peel back the curtain a bit, when I started writing at Canis in the back of my mind I dreamed about trying to turn this into something more real. However, I found that this worked better for me as a fun side project along with my career. I’ve been unpaid most of the time, or was paid about $50-$75 a month depending upon how willing I was to meet SB Nation’s expected contractual outputs, which is typically 1-3 posts a week.

That is all well and good for me, but not so good for the Star Tribune or other media outlets that are paying staff to cover the Timberwolves. I may not have access to the team nor relationships to add pull quotes to my articles, but I can still write previews, recaps, and substantive analysis. Canis also had John Meyer at games and basically has the same access as the real media platforms. It also helps that Canis f’ing rocks. It is pretty easy to take a glance across most SB Nation or even other media sites and see that Canis holds its own in content quality and community engagement.

But, it must cost SB Nation 5-10% to keep Canis afloat compared to what other media outlets budget to cover the Timberwolves. SB Nation can get away with the whole “fans writing for fans” thing because it is true. Very few of us have the interest to deal with the administrative complications of running a website. We simply click a few buttons, write a bit, and get paid a small stipend as the proverbial “blog boys.”

However, it is hard not to realize that we are the unpaid labor that must keep the costs down for other media outlets. Truly, this is not an SB Nation problem, this is an Internet problem. When the quality varies little while the costs vary greatly, the low-cost option will win out.

But we lose so much in this world. If there are no more outlets to hire people like Britt Robson, we lose thirty-years of Timberwolves history and the most grandiose prose to ever grace a description of Jordan McLaughlin dunks. If we lose the type of outlets that hire new writers like Dane Moore to grow and shine, we lose people who grind every day to better understand the NBA and the Timberwolves. And that is just our small neck of the woods.

What we do not lose is people like me. I’m a fan writing for the fan that cannot help but feel that I am adding to our losses by writing more. But even if I step away, there are 15 college students who would kill for an opportunity to write about their team and just need the platform to start.