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LAist Interview: Will Leitch
Deadspin's Will Leitch will be signing copies of his new book, God Save the Fan tonight at Book Soup
Will Leitch, Deadspin editor, New York Times contributor, and author is in Los Angeles today presenting and signing copies of his new book God Save the Fan: How Preening Sportscasters, Athletes Who Speak in the Third Person, and the Occasional Convicted Quarterback Have Taken the Fun Out of Sports (And How We Can Get It Back) atBook Soup. LAist caught up with Leitch on his drive into Los Angeles from Phoenix, where he had spent a week covering the Super Bowl for both Deadspin and The Times.
What did you think of the Super Bowl and your time in Phoenix?
This was my first Super Bowl I've ever been to. It's supposed to the pinnacle of American sports and all it really is people trying to sell you shit. As I said in my column for The Times, thank God it was a good game. The whole week just felt like a really long commercial for the NFL Network, a channel I cannot watch. After actually getting to see the NFL Network this week though, I'm not really sure if I was missing anything. I wonder if the NFL was hoping the execs from the cable providers were in town because every where you looked there was an NFL Network logo. Then there's Media Day. I went for 45 minutes and had to leave. Everyone says Media Day is a circus, everyone is wrong because at least a circus is fucking entertaining. Media Day is just empty. With all the members of the media on-site there were only two stories that came out of the whole day, the girl in the wedding dress proposing to Tom Brady and Bill Bellicheck looked relax. That's it. Super Bowl week has very little to do with the Super Bowl, very little to do with sports. It's really just a huge sports business convention with some celebrities looking to party mixed in.
What did you think of the actual game?
The game was awesome. I would rank this as my #2 in my list of personal favorite Super Bowls. I don't think you can get much better than the Rams/Titans Super Bowl, the drama of someone stretching out their arm for the goal line is about as good as you can get. If I had a Top 3 of the last 10 Super Bowls, I'd go with Rams/Titans then this one and then Patriots/Rams as my third.
What did you think of that performance by Eli Manning?
That was incredible. He played so well, I was kind of disappointed when he took his helmet off and did post-game interviews. I was expecting he'd get on the mic and sound like Barry White after a game like that, but then you hear him talk in that yokel voice of his and realize that it was in fact the same Eli Manning we've known the whole time who just won the Super Bowl.
Do you realize that you've written blog posts with less words than the title of your book?I know, it's a long title. Originally it was going to be called "The Ballad of Ron Mexico," the very beginning of the book is dedicated to Michael Vick and the Ron Mexico story, but the people at Harper Collins thought that most people wouldn't know who Ron Mexico was so they decided to change it. They know more about selling books than I do, so that's where we get this really long title. Not only does it contain three phrases with three long words but it also has a parenthesis. A parenthesis? Like I said though, they know more about selling books than I do. I love when I am doing radio interviews, the title is so long, by the time they've said the name of the book my interview is already half over.
You have done quite a bit of press for the book, is there one interview that stands out to you? Was there an outlet that requested an interview that really surprised you? One that I read that surprised me was TeensReadToo.com, were you at all worried that the interview would somehow end with a conversation with Chris Hansen?
(Laughs) Actually that interview wasn't for the book, that was a little while ago. Speaking of Chris Hansen, the punter for the Patriots is named Chris Hanson yet somehow that hasn't gotten the attention it deserves.
One of my favorite interviews so far has been one I did with the Buffalo News. My girlfriend is from Buffalo and her dad is an exec up there. I decided to josh with the guy a little and let him know that I have been up there before and I let him know that my girlfriend is from there. Then I mentioned her dad's name, I let him know that my girlfriend is Robert Stevenson's daughter. All of the sudden I notice the questions coming my way were a little differently. I thought the angle was going to change to "Robert Stevenson's daughter dates a blogger." It didn't end up that way, it turned out great.
Who besides God can save the fan?
The fans themselves. Fans need to realize the power they have over the leagues and the networks. Sports for some reason is the only industry where if the customer isn't happy, they don't seem to adjust. Any other industry with unhappy customers would do what they needed to do to keep the customer happy. Sports for some reason feel like they can get away with anything because the fans aren't going to go anywhere. It's true, we aren't. If we stopped watching sports, we'd actually have to talk to our family and nobody wants to do that. It is getting better, five years ago that first Patriots/Giants game was not getting off of the NFL Network. Another example is the Mighty MJD, he was my weekend editor on Deadspin and he got hired by Yahoo! Sports. ESPN.com is becoming more answerable over time. You can be heard as a fan, if you speak up about something they will have to listen.
Speaking of ESPN, when do you think they jumped the shark?
I think it was "Around the Horn". Actually, "Around the Horn" was a result of "Pardon the Interruption" so I guess it was PTI that did it. I liked PTI when it started, it was a clever show with two newsdesk adversaries doing what they had been doing for years but now they were doing it on camera and not getting paid a whole lot to do so. The show was a huge hit. I think ESPN saw that and thought we can get ratings on something that is really cheap, we don't have to pay millions of dollars for the rights fees and we can get lots of people watching our network. That then spawned "Around the Horn" and shows like "Teammates". I still can't believe that they made "Teammates."
ESPN isn't evil, they are a business. When they saw they could make hit shows without spending money, they did it. They are a corporation, they need to make money and once they had the hardcore sports fan locked in the next thing they had to do was get the casual fans to tune in so they do things like "Who's Now?". The worst part about "Who's Now?" is that it was a success. As bad as we all thought it was, it was the top search term on ESPN.com. There is no viable alternative at ESPN's level right now so whether you love it or hate it, if you are a sports fan you are watching ESPN.
Where does the ESPN internal memo titled "Policy against Deadspin" rank in your career highlights?
That memo speaks to the bigger picture of the large media's lack of thick skin. For being huge corporations they sure are sensitive to criticism. If you didn't want to have critics you shouldn't be working in the media. Go be an accountant. My two favorite things to come out of ESPN since I've doing Deadspin was the office memo which spoke of that corporate America office culture that I can't stand and the Berman video. That video is tough to beat. Man, that was a gift from the heavens.
If Chris Berman was well liked, would You're with Me Leather have been such a popular post?
If Berman was a well liked guy, these stories and that video would have never come out. If everyone loved him, there wouldn't be these stories. If he had a better sense of humor, it wouldn't have been such a popular post. That was his number one mistake, he could have diffused the whole thing with a little bit of a sense of humor. He could have been doing highlights on Baseball Tonight and called David Weathers, David "You're with Me" Weathers. That didn't happen. Now, people chant it at him every time he is at an event. I think "You're with Me Leather" is going to end up on his grave, and mine too probably. I think the "You're with Me Leather" Wikipedia page is longer than the Deadspin Wikipedia pageactually.
ESPN radio personality, Colin Cowherd who can be heard here in Los Angeles, recently said on his show that "bloggers are too concerned with being the smartest guys in the room, that's why nobody reads them." When he says nobody, is he talking about the 400,000 readers a day you get or the on-air personality who stole from a blog?
I never minded hearing radio guys get their news from Deadspin or other blogs. That's fine by me, because the source of the news will come back to us in the end. Colin stole a comedic bit, word for word right off of their blog and acted like it was his own. Now, at Deadspin we have a No Cowherd policy. He is popular not because he is a great speaker or has great knowledge of sports, he's popular because he does a good job of saying things that are controversial and shocking.
What has been the secret of Deadspin's success?
It's not because I am brilliant. I don’t know anymore than anyone else I just type faster. That’s how I try to look at it. I think the book reflects that a little bit as well. The book's got a little bit more of my opinion but the general mindset is the same. I never understood the appeal of a columnist who says this guy was better than that guy and here's why I am right and you wrong. I think another key to our success has been a really good commenting section. Some sports site commentors get pretty brutal. I was happy when we were getting comments that they were actually coming from smart people.
What do you think about the Los Angeles sports scene?
I love coming back here. I used to live here. My first year out of college I lived on the Santa Monica/Venice line. Actually I lived right upstairs from Arnold Schwarzenegger's bar. One of the things I liked the most about living out here was you can see any NFL game you like. I think its in Los Angeles' best interest and the NFL's best interest to not bring an NFL team here.
I adore Dodger Stadium. I am surprised it doesn't get mentioned with the Wrigley Fields and Fenway Parks when you people talk about great historic stadiums. I remember when I lived out here I bought a six pack of Clippers tickets, so I got to go to six of their best games and I will never forget the ad for the six pack. It was a huge picture of Michael Jordan and a much smaller picture of Brent Barry who was the big name for the Clippers back then and it said "Brent Barry doesn't have to pay a lot to watch Michael Jordan and neither do you." I don't really have a favorite basketball team, but I am a big Phil Jackson fan so its nice to see the Lakers playing well right now.
Do you agree with me when I say nobody cares about this Reggie Bush thing?
That was great journalism from Yahoo! Sports but at the end of the day, you're right nobody cares. Reggie Bush cheated three years ago. I get frustrated enough when people start bringing up the steroids thing with baseball, chasing down people who cheated 10 years ago. Maybe some people who actually believe that college sports is pure might be shocked by it but most of us know that it's not. If they do take the championship away from USC, it doesn't really matter because there isn't a real national championship in college football anyways. That was good reporters doing good work over at Yahoo! though.
Do you think Kobe can ever become as likable as Gilbert Arenas, someone you talk quite a bit about on Deadspin and in the book?
What makes Arenas different from Kobe and LeBron is that he wasn't told his entire life that he was the greatest. He wasn't groomed to be the greatest basketball who ever lived. He lived a normal life and developed an actual personality. I really do enjoy watching Kobe more than anyone else in the league but he just doesn't have the kind of personality Arenas has. Kobe has lived a life that most of us would never imagine having, it's surprising to see that he is somewhat normal. It would have been perfectly reasonable that he would be insane, but he's not. He's a little less normal than LeBron but neither are really normal. I remember he was posting on his blog, but it looked like Kobe was using WebTV or something. The colors were all off, the fonts were weird. Kobe's in need of a new web designer.
I remember reading a while back an email conversation between the late Ralph Wiley and Bill Simmons, where Wiley told Simmons that a part of his success has been that his readers wanted to hang out with him. With you however, readers don't can hang out with you. They do have access to you. You return emails. Bill has never returned an email I've sent, I understand he must get a ton but that's where the two of you are different in my mind. Do you think the access you give to your readers has been a key to your success?
Well one of the biggest differences between Bill and I is that I write more. When I started Deadspin, I used Bill as a model both for the things I thought he did well and the things I didn't want to do. I used Bill as an example of what to be careful of. When I was with the Black Table I wrote something about how he wasn't writing as much since he had taken the job with Jimmy Kimmel. Bill wrote back to me saying my post was unfair. I didn't send it to him, he clearly came across the post somehow and took the time to reach out to me. It goes back to what I said before about big media not having thick skin, that was a great example of Bill showing thin skin. I read everything Bill writes, he is one of the only writers who I can say that about. His NBA columns are incredible. We all owe a lot to Bill, I remember reading him way back and thinking 'how is he getting away with that?'. Everyone owes him a huge debt. I don't know if he realized that the blogs, many of which were critical both fairly and unfairly of him, were going to get so big so fast. I don't think he handled that backlash too well. I think the blogs haven't given Bill the respect he deserves but I also don't think Bill gives the blogs the credit that they deserve.
Have you talked to Bill?
We corresponded quite a bit when I was starting Deadspin. He was very helpful, he gave a lot of feedback. I sat down with him one of the last times I was out here and we talked for about two hours and I found him to be just a really friendly great guy. We haven't talked since the day the Deadspin commentors flooded the comments on his Super Bowl column last year. I didn't think it was going to be as big as it was, I sent him an email about it and his response was "That's an insult, man" and we haven't spoke since.
So does that mean, he won't be attending your signing?