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The Changing Landscape: The Future of Sports Journalism in the Age of AI and Fan-Led Content

The fabled New York Times sports desk is no more, causing many to proclaim doom and gloom for sports journalism. But in many ways, this is a greater opportunity than a moment of sadness.

Earlier this year, I visited New York City with my sister. It was our first time together back in the city that we grew up in since 2002. As we were going around Manhattan and doing all the activities we set out to do, we passed by a building and I had to stop. It was the New York Times Building. The New York Times is, for anyone in their 30s and older, an institution. A dream job for any aspiring writer.


As an aspiring sports writer, I have always had a level of reverence and respect for anyone that graced the pages of the Times sports section. More so than any other newspaper, the New York Times always seemed to be able to attract the most talented writers, and if you fashioned yourself as a talented writer you wanted to work there. But as we all know, the world of journalism is rapidly evolving, and the business of sports writing is especially fluid. This week the Times decided to disband its sports desk, choosing to instead rely on the work from its subsidiary The Athletic instead.


The decision by the Times to make this move is a sad day for sports journalism, but also is an indication of the period that we are living in when it comes to writing about sports. The dynamic has shifted, with more and more consumers focused on reactionary content and the proliferation of video. As the way that we consume sports journalism continues to change, I am left to wonder if there is still room for thoughtful analysis in a space that is filled with clickbait, aggregation, and outrage.


The Rise of Fan-Led Content

A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece about Pat McAfee. The former NFL punter has built up a following of loyal viewers on his YouTube channel where he and his staff talked about sports (primarily football). The Pat McAfee Show became an internet sensation and captivated the minds of sports fans throughout the United States. This eventually led to McAfee taking his show to ESPN recently, becoming one of the highest paid personalities at the network. His success can be viewed as a moment that has changed the way that we want to consume sports coverage and content.


Watching the Pat McAfee Show is akin to hanging out with your friends at a sports bar and having lively discussions about the latest in sports news. There is no bigger picture conversation, just a few guys hanging out offering up their thoughts on games that they enjoy. It is a format that has spawned countless other fan-driven sports commentators. As someone that lives in the Detroit area I have seen this with the way that fans follow their favorite teams here. Where people used to rely on the Detroit News and Free Press, they now have moved on to outlets like Woodward Sports instead. These outlets offer a degree of authenticity that many fans may feel is missing from the traditional media offerings from newspaper and magazine companies.


Somewhere along the way, we as a society began to lose trust in media institutions. If you talk to a lot of sports fans, they will often decry larger networks like ESPN for having an agenda against their team. This could be a lack of coverage because they are in a small market or an overly critical analysis because they are in a larger media market. Ultimately, it can be reasoned that fans shifted from wanting hard hitting coverage to wanting to hear fan voices that are more relatable. This is where shows like McAfee’s have been successful, because they tapped into the consciousness of an average fan as opposed to offering an air of profound journalism.


If you go on YouTube during the NBA or NFL seasons you will see a flood of content creators that are fans of a team and covering that team after every game. These solutions offer fans a voice to connect with fans that are just like them, as opposed to watching SportsCenter or reading a recap the next morning. It is more personal, more connected, and that is what the masses have been gravitating towards. It is that authenticity that has seemingly won the day in an ever changing media landscape.


The Looming Rise of Artificial Intelligence


There has been a lot of fear in the journalism space about the increasing utilization of artificial language models replacing writers. This is already happening at G/O Media, the company that owns popular websites like Jezebel and Gizmodo. The company has started incorporating AI written models in addition to the editorial work from its staff writers. The company has insisted that it will use AI for less in-depth content like lists of movies. In the realm of sports, it is easy to see how this could be used for box score analysis, or basic list articles of the greatest players in a category.


This poses an issue for all sports writers and there are two ways that publishers will attack this shift. The first is the route of G/O Media, and that is to lean into AI articles to help minimize costs. The second, is to do what the New York Times has done with its acquisition of The Athletic and lean into high quality journalism in an effort to say that prominent journalistic voices still matter. But beyond the generation of articles, the rise of AI in journalism also points to a more important reality: the constant need for content.


In today’s world, we are inundated with the need for instant reaction. We want to know what people think after a game has ended, to know what happened immediately. This is perhaps some residue of social media and the always-connected smartphone. And the idea that an artificial intelligence language model could spit out a quick recap is appealing to many media companies, which in turn makes average fans despise them even more.


The perception of many, like myself, that have entered the space of writing and commenting about sports is that the larger outlets have mostly lost the plot. That there is fatigue in constantly rehashing the Michael Jordan vs LeBron James legacy debate or only focusing on a few NFL teams. In the age of the internet, anyone can now set up a website, write a blog, film a video, or record a podcast. And as time goes on, we are seeing more and more of these voices gain some proliferation, putting the status quo of a traditional sports desk in a newsroom at a bit of a crossroads.


A Future of Freelancers and Paywalls


When I was growing up in the 1990s, reading the sports section of a newspaper was an experience that excited me. To see what some of the notable columnists of the day had to say about the world of sports. But the world is different now, people simply do not read newspapers anymore. Moreover, people do not trust legacy news outlets as they did in the past. The New York Times, for all of its storied reputation, has many people that refuse to read anything affiliated with it because of its perceived left-leaning politics. People feel that journalistic integrity has been compromised in recent years, even in something like sports that is supposed to be fun. People accuse beat writers of being too close to the team to be critical, that they are in some way delivering stories in half truths to maintain their access.


This world is a world of relationships, and these writers are always doing their best to maintain their relationships with management and players so that when the time comes they can get their scoop. And by and large, people have started to move on from the publications, instead opting to follow the reporter directly. It is very likely that someone may swear that they will never watch ESPN or read an article on their website, but that same person has Twitter notifications turned on for Adrian Wojnarowski and Adam Schefter because they have access, despite the fact that they work for ESPN. What this has led to is a lot of writers going the independent route through newly formed media companies or through self-publishing platforms like Substack, which is the route that famous NBA insider Marc Stein has gone.


Self-publishing is a tool that has been utilized by the fan content creator and is now something that more established journalists are utilizing. The beauty of this shift is that going this route allows you to deliver the stories that you want to the masses without the red tape of a traditional media setup. This model has proven popular with fans because it gives them the sense that they are getting the true scoop and opinion from a journalist without the fluff of the publisher. The success of this route also has paved the way for the normalization of the paywall when it comes to engaging sports content.


Services like The Athletic and ESPN+ have introduced the paywall as a means to generate recurring revenue for their most thoughtful and researched content. Then there are the outlets that utilize writing services like Substack and Medium that operate using a paywall model, in addition to offering exclusive content through services like Patreon. The impact of all of these methods of monetization is that they naturally create a sense of community and access that simply was not there with a traditional newsroom. The combination of a free for all with access to publish content in addition to the looming specter of AI writing more base level articles has caused many people to proclaim that sports journalism is dying.


And that is the point where I disagree. It is always sad to see such a revered institution like the Times lose its sports desk, but these challenges that have been presented are an opportunity for the ambitious writers out there. While AI gobbles up meaningless listicles and low hanging fruit, there is an appetite to create engaging content that is thought-provoking in this space. The loss of the Times sports desk is a tough blow but it is also indicative that there is opportunity to become a true purveyor of its legacy as an institution that asks the hard questions and poses thoughtful analysis in the world of sports. In a universe that is cluttered with quick reaction tweets and TikTok videos, it is important to remember that the world will always have an appetite for a well-written and well thought out piece of analysis. That is why we keep writing.


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