By Sammy Bovitz
When I first moved to New York City, I was a kid accustomed to reading the LA Times sports page. It was so well done. Bill Plaschke led a crew of great sportswriters, and I slowly started to compile a list in my head of what makes a great sports page or website. In no particular order, here are those factors…
- A great lead writer. This writer is elite at their job and is a motivating factor for readers to choose that page. Examples of this are Plaschke, Bill Simmons (when he was still writing columns for ESPN), Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci, et cetera. Headliner writers like these are a draw unto themselves because they can be counted on to write a fantastic front page article even when the rest of the page isn’t on their A-game.
- Great local and national writing alike. Other national sports sections or websites, such as the Athletic or ESPN, have great local, on-the-scene beat reporters. ESPN and the Athletic hire the very best to cover each individual team. The LA Times has fantastic local writers to cover local pro teams, like the Dodgers, and even dedicates time to college and high school sports as well. But there should still be plenty of articles that do a good job taking a big-picture look at leagues as a whole or writing feature stories that are not necessarily local once in a while.
- Going outside the world of sports in a purposeful way. Sports sections should expand their vision beyond the sports world, but you absolutely cannot write articles like that just for the sake of saying you’ve done it. Stories that explore the politics of the sports industry are important; for example, the Fair Pay to Play Act or NBA-China stand-off. You can’t travel to a remote country and interview a bunch of kids about sports just for the sake of saying “See? We’re not just a sports page!” Stories that go beyond sports, like all stories, must serve a purpose.
- Commitment by the people at the top. Yes, not everyone reads the sports section, but the community who does is fairly large and wants the company to be as committed to writing the page as they are reading it. Regardless of whether the company is sports-based or not.
- Dedicated season previews. The LA Times does this brilliantly whenever baseball, basketball, or football season rolls around. A few articles on the local teams, a couple stories for national coverage and predictions, and a couple features on the most interesting storylines.
I could go on, but those are the most essential features. A couple of elite writers, great local and national coverage, going beyond sports correctly, commitment by the people at the top, a few great season previews, and you have what you need for a successful sports section.
Now let’s run down the Times’ problems with all five…
- The Times prides itself on only hiring the very best, , but they have few quality sports news writers. I’ve never seen a byline in the Times that makes me think that the article is a must-read. Plaschke did that for me in the LA Times, and Ken Rosenthal does that for me now in the Athletic. The Times doesn’t have the one elite talent that I turn the page for every day, and that’s a shame. Like I said, they pride themselves on having the very best writers in the world. They have good writers, sure, but not the very best.
- The local coverage of the Times lacks quantity and quality. I read the Times’ sports page for three years and the local game stories that I’ve read, whether about the Yankees, Knicks, Giants, or whoever, have been lacking. The art of the game story is dying, sure, but the Times doesn’t do it well when they do write game stories. They’re clearly not prioritized on the page. Some days, I’ve watched a local game, found it fascinating, and wanted to hear a local take on it from a reputable newspaper, such as the Times.The next day, the game story would simply not be there. It is of course great to have feature stories, but you should still make sure to cover the interesting local games when they occur. Even when they have covered said games, though, they’ve often been too short and have a fairly bare-bones format. Some basic stats, a game summary, a couple quotes, and perhaps a bit of analysis.. National coverage is perhaps worse. Rarely have I seen a well done story on an NBA Finals game or a World Series matchup from the past few years in The Times. The Super Bowl was always sufficiently covered, but it’s the biggest event in America. If you don’t cover it, you’re not a sports page, so I never gave the Times too much credit for their coverage there. I didn’t see many national stories throughout the regular seasons of popular sport either. This lack of national coverage of popular sports was a big reason why I just stopped reading the page.
- Going beyond sports correctly, a test the Times fails in an even more embarrassing fashion than the previous two. The Times have perfected the art of the sports story that goes beyond sports in a meaningless way. I’ve read so many articles on the dogs at Iditarod or the charitable foundation that a player has started in their home country in a sprawling Times cover story. I’m not opposed to these articles, but in the Times they’re all mind-numbingly boring and far too long. A fantastic example of an article like this that was well done was a Sports Illustrated story on Masai Ujiri giving back to his community. Ujiri tells his story to Andrew Sharp in an article that stays on track and tells his story in an in-depth and interesting way without feeling too long. The reader simply reads the story and doesn’t get bored or confused, two things the Times fails to execute. The Times’ handling of sports stories that go beyond sports are fine, mainly because the Times excels at topics that are not sports. These articles are often not assigned to sportswriters and often sideline the sport entirely, trying to make a point about the other topic the issue covers instead. This isn’t indefensible, as these are not just sports stories, but you cannot forget the roots of any story. The Times do this when a story that goes beyond sports comes up. They’ve sometimes even hidden these stories in the main section and completely neglect to mention the article’s existence in the sports section. Even when the stories were well thought out, I still preferred reading the superior articles on ESPN, the Athletic, Sports Illustrated, the LA Times, the Ringer, and even SB Nation, among others. If the Times cannot match the sports journalistic standards of the blogs and websites they claim to be above, they are not above them.
- Commitment. This is another problem for the Times. The Times is simply not committed to its sports page. I don’t really need to go into this too much, but on weekdays the sports page is fairly short and hidden inside the business page. Even on weekends, when the section stands alone, it’s still fairly short. The sports page is one of their last priorities. That’s not unjustifiable, but you can clearly tell their lack of caring due to the short sections they put out daily, and it leads to sports fans, such as myself, feeling unengaged and dissatisfied.
- Season previews. This is probably the least important out of the five, but the Times doesn’t check this box either. There’s usually a couple local stories and maybe a couple national stories, but the sports page doesn’t really treat season starts as big events, which is ridiculous considering its job is to inform the reader about the most important and interesting sports stories. The LA Times usually has sprawling special sections covering major sports leagues (NBA, NFL, MLB) locally and nationally.
Simply put, the New York Times sports page is bad. It checks zero of the five boxes on my list. I read the sports page for three years and was so infuriated with the page’s quality that I had to stop reading it. Now, I get my sports news from ESPN, the Athletic, Sports Illustrated, the Ringer, SB Nation, the Los Angeles Times, and a few others. Let’s see how the pages I just listed stack up to the Times in terms of my list…
ESPN: 5 out of 5. They have a couple elite writers at the top of their game, local and national coverage alike,go beyond sports correctly, are committed, and have fantastic season previews. I don’t read articles on there as much as I used to, but it’s still the biggest sports page out there.
The Athletic: 5 out of 5. They are the gold standard, in my opinion, of in-depth sportswriting. The 5 dollar per month subscription allows them to hire the very best sportswriters. Bonus points for their podcast network, which adds to their treasure trove of national and local coverage for their wide array of coverage, even motorsports and local WNBA teams are covered.
Sports Illustrated: 4 out of 5. Sports Illustrated’s new parent company is not as committed as I’d like, but other than that they pass this test with flying colors. They’ve been successfully covering sports for over 60 years for a reason.
The Ringer: 5 out of 5. Not exclusively a sports site (it also covers pop culture), but Bill Simmons’ media venture is fantastic in its sports coverage, and its culture and farther-reaching sports stories are great too. I don’t love their lack of MLB coverage, but honestly that’s my one gripe with the site.
SB Nation: 5 out of 5. Bonus points for having the best sports content creator of all time in Jon Bois. Even if you are not a sports fan, his videos for the site are top quality and painstakingly researched. All are worth a watch, but the one I’d recommend is a two-part video called The Bob Emergency. For over 100 minutes, he recounts the very best of 150 years of athletes with the first name Bob. It’s incredible and much deeper than one would think.
Los Angeles Times: 4.5 out of 5. I’m taking a half-point off here because they don’t have the best farther-reaching coverage (i.e. non-sports stories). Other than that, I’m just as happy reading their page at 14 years old as I was when I was 8.
The New York Times got a zero out of 5 in comparison to publications some believe they are above. The arguments that they are not as focused on sports as these other ones make sense until you get to the LA Times, which is clearly not a sports page. It is an entire, several-topic newspaper.
My solution for the Times? Start over. Hire a new editor of the page to make radical and creative changes to the way things are done, including unique platforms to tell sports stories (podcasting, videos, etc.). Hire a bunch of new, young sportswriters (keep a few of the current ones, but only a few). My staff for the Times would look like this:
- The aforementioned editor. One writer each for the Yankees, Mets, Giants, Jets, Knicks, and Nets. A hockey writer and a soccer writer, to cover both local and national news.
- A national team of about 3 people each to cover national baseball, basketball, and football news, including the NCAA (9 total, 3 per sport). These people should be able to do both in-depth stories and game stories, as well as all coming together for season previews. You can also use local writers and have them as a part of this team in addition to their local role, but not as a part of the 9.
- A writer or two to analyze the business and political side of sports, in order to better understand stories that are far-reaching beyond the sports world. This writer should also be able to write about sports media.
- A wild card writer to write bizarre or off-the-beaten path stories in a weird column that is not published every day, giving time for the stories to take shape and be edited thoroughly.
- Finally, a marquee writer that has already been established as elite. Take or discover someone and turn him into the face of your section. The Times should find their Bill Plaschke or Ken Rosenthal to truly make the page come together.
The Times sports page needs to change for the better before I consider reading it again. In the meantime, I will sit back and read one of the many sports sections or websites that are easily superior.