Passing the Torch

by mike in boston / @mikeinbostonemail

 

Job Opening: Head Opinionist

 

I am going to give credit to Richard Deitsch for the term “opinionist” since that is who I learned it from. Some use it to refer to people who mostly dish out hot takes. I’m not using it in a that sense, or in a pejorative sense at all. I just mean people who are primarily paid to give opinions and generate discussion.

 

As a teenager there were three people whose opinions drove the sports conversation: Stephen Brunt (Globe), Steve Simmons (Sun), and Damien Cox (Star). Recall this is a time when papers were still the top of the food chain, and the sports media world was much less fragmented. Brunt delivered the more intellectual and cultural approach to the sports issues of the week. Simmons and Cox competed on the day to day front, with Simmons being more of a generalist and Cox being a frequent and loud voice on the Leafs. Of the three he is the only one to have generated his own counter-blog. (RIP Coxbloc)

 

Simmons is the only one who has kept roughly the same role over the last decade, with Brunt leaving the Globe for a “choose your own adventure” position with Sportsnet, and Cox moving from being a lead columnist at the Star to a lead panelist on Sportsnet’s HNIC then on to lead co-host of PTS and now on to a next chapter that is yet to be announced.

 

 

Jonah and I disagree on many topics but the one thing about which we could not agree more is the tragic misuse of Brunt by Sportsnet during the Scott Moore era. Brunt’s best asset is his writing. This is not to disparage his other talents. It is a statement about “surfacing” value for the audience. There are a ton of people at Sportsnet who do (or could do) features on the Jays. Same with the TV hits at sporting events. There are also lots of people who could be #2 on the Jeff Blair Show. They wouldn’t be as interesting as Brunt but given the low value of that timeslot, returns would not be greatly diminished.

 

By contrast, if Brunt were writing 40 weekly columns a year people like me would be flocking to .ca to read them. Some folks might even stick around to watch a few videos and click on some ads.

 

 

Instead of proudly displaying that they have the best sports writer in the country, Sportsnet has gone in the opposite direction with Brunt. He was part of the bi-monthly, then monthly, and now shuttered Sportsnet Magazine. His columns and stories were published alongside transcripts of PTS interviews, Brady & Lang debates, Ken Reid opinion pieces and a slew of other concepts that were tried before the magazine was ultimately was shut down.

 

His writing in 2017 dwindled to a disappointing 11-12 articles (going by his author page). Rather than being part of the week to week sports conversation, several of his articles were bunched together followed by months of silence. He wrote 3 articles about Conor McGregor v Merryweather, and a few companion pieces to his video profiles on the Jays. That was almost half of what he wrote in all of 2017. His entire 2017 writing output was around half of his 2016 output. (That’s not a criticism of him, for the record. Everything good comes to an end some day.)

 

Rather than spend this entire column whining about the loss of Brunt’s superior writing I thought it would be good to highlight the work of the person who has stepped up to fill the void he left. However I can’t think of who that would be.

 

So here we are in 2018: Cox has an undefined role, Simmons is in his 60s working for a paper that may go bankrupt shortly (or undergo radical changes), and Brunt has effectively retired from being a columnist.

 

My question is this: who will fill these roles going forward?

 

An argument can be made that Dave Feschuk has moved into the Cox role at the Star. His articles occasionally generate a lot of controversy, but I’m not sure he has the capital yet that Cox had in his prime. He also has to compete with Bruce Arthur for columnist mindshare, and the two often cover the same topics. At the Sun, there are no mid-career people whose opinions are prominently featured, so even if the Sun survives I’m not sure who will drive the sports section 5 years from now. And the Globe? Well, Cathal is their only true columnist and was writing about TIFF this summer. You can draw your own conclusions on how they see the future of their sports department.

 

Perhaps this whole line of inquiry rests on a false premise: no one will replace these people, because the market doesn’t really want this kind of sports personality anymore. It’s a point worth considering. It certainly fits with my own reading habits. Between blogs, Twitter, national writers, and the locals most of my reading needs are met. However ultimately I don’t agree that the marketplace will exist without head opinionists ten years from now.

 

As much as specialization has changed the marketplace, the majority of sports media consumers are light and conventional eaters. (Leave aside live sports. That’s a different topic.) The average sports fan doesn’t read a dozen articles a day or listen to more than a few segments of radio or watch more than the highlights or intermission panel. If that’s true, then who informs the opinions of the average consumer? The mainstream slots are still the ones driving the conversation because that’s, as the expression goes, “where there fish are”. That means the lead columnists at the papers, the afternoon drive radio hosts, and the supper hour TV talking heads still have the largest audience and are for that reason the most influential.

 

If you don’t believe me look at people like Skip Bayless et al are whose opinions are often laughably uninformed or obviously disingenuous. Readers can dismantle those arguments in seconds but those people don’t have the same reach. This means the backlash mostly preaches to the choir while the “hot take” purveyors still control the pulpit.

 

As such, I see the role of prominent opinionist enduring for a while longer just because that’s how most people get their sports news. If so, then it is in all of our interests that interesting people take over the most important slots when they come available.

 

Over to you: Whose opinions do you care about? Who do you see stepping into the big roles over the next 5-10 years? Is the era of the opinionist over?

 

Polls

 

Forget about sources of opinions that you think are garbage. Just think about places you go and hear/read opinions that you value (regardless of whether you agree). Where do those tend to be? Note: I’m leaving Twitter off. I’m also restricting this to mainstream outlets since those are where the head opinion positions have traditionally been. Again: not which place you like most; not the place with the cleanest interface; just where you get opinions that matter to you. You can use “other” to submit anything I missed.

 

 

 

The Replacements

 

With the above topic in mind I also took a look at other influential/visible sports media positions that have changed or will change over the next while. I am not including newsreaders/highlights-hosts since I don’t consider those to be jobs where opinions matter. If you want to debate that point then take it up in the comments. (Note: some of these are not “official” replacements but just the people who have picked up the slack).

 

PAST:

 

  • Kristen Shilton replaces Jonas Siegel as TSN Leafs reporter

 

  • Ron Maclean replaces Strombo as HNIC host

 

  • The combo of Rob Longley and Steve Buffery replace Bob Elliott on Jays coverage for The Sun (1+ years ago)

 

  • Overdrive replaces Dave Naylor’s afternoon Drive Show (2 years ago next month)

 

  • Brunt leaves PTS, disrupting the McCown-Brunt-Cox line-up (2+ years ago)

 

 

FUTURE:

 

  • Don Cherry will eventually retire and the most influential hockey opinionist position will be vacant. (Bruce Arthur has the best idea for his replacement: Brian Burke. This is a genius idea.)

 

  • Dave Hodge is done as host of The Reporters. The show is one of TSN’s few high profile studio properties, so it is bound to be rebooted with a new host.

 

Let me know if I missed any important ones in the comments.

 

Recommendations

 

I enjoyed this piece by Luke Fox (SN) on Babcock’s recent scrutiny by the local media.

 

Ben Nicholson-Smith (SN) has some good news for people who think the Jays might be in a position to reload for a pennant run in 2019.

 

Interesting article by Postmedia’s Michael Traikos on Eric Lindros and how he would fit in today’s NHL style of play.

 

Josh Lewenberg (TSN) has a very enjoyable look back at the origins of the Drake era with the Raptors.

 

CBC Sports has a clean new look, and also a pleasant story by David Alter (CP) on changes to Morgan Rielly’s off-season workouts.

 

Finally, Postmedia published an (uncredited) story on Marcus Stroman’s twitter tour of his new home. “His pants are also organized, with a rack for light denim and a separate one for dark.”

 


 

thanks for reading and commenting,

until next time …

mike (not really in boston)

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