Block & Tackle: My Role in Redefining Sports Journalism
At a fancy Manhattan restaurant, over a very mid-90’s seared tuna salad, I make an impassioned pitch to be the creative director of a sports magazine. I tell the editor-in-chief, Gary Hoenig, that his startup needs a new visual presence and that I am the man for the job.
Gary has an overwhelming aura — a true New Yorker and a bear of a man. I’ve been drawn to his warmth, intelligence, and egalitarian approach since we started discussing my potential role at a new publication called ESPN The Magazine. The idea of working with an editor who wants to bring a little wit and self-deprecation to the world of sports is appealing. And it somehow feels like I’ve known him my whole life. Gary asks for another baguette (this was pre-Atkins), and I am suddenly desperate for him to take me to a Knicks game and buy me a hot dog.
But wait. Sports? I’ve spent five years designing Metropolis, an architecture and design publication whose latest cover featured a modern $95 toilet brush. Designing about design for designers was a dream job, but after five years, I’ve been getting restless. Sports? Maybe I could be passionate about sports.
Sports! I did play field hockey in high school. Each fall, I would break out my red and blue plaid kilt and attempt to present myself as a jock, but I had absolutely no body weight to speak of and was terrified of getting hit with the stick. I spent most of my time cheering from the sidelines. This doesn’t seem to bother Gary, who’s still going on and on. “It’s about spirit. It’s about the fan! Fuck the journalist. What does the sports fan want?,” Gary says, describing the collaborative, reader-based editorial process he hopes to create. He could change the face of sports journalism, and I could be a part of it. I could muster up a little team spirit to be on his.
The lunch has been on instant replay since I got word that ESPN The Magazine shuttered this past April. As well as the whole highlight reel from those two years in the 90s, those early innings of my career…
Soon after I arrived at our enclave in the Hearst building, it became clear that I was not the only one of Gary’s recruits who knew nothing about the topic. He put together an eclectic staff from different editorial backgrounds. And it was a decidedly co-ed bunch, although there did seem to be a division of labor. Most of the writers, editors and researchers were men; women were the designers, photo editors, copy editors and managing editor. They weren’t jocks either, and, along with the guys, came from a broad range of magazines and newspapers. It felt like a smart strategy – it would have been too easy for Gary to fill the bench with guys, and there is never any shortage of straight male art directors in need of proving their testosterone levels. (Isn’t that why we have trade association awards?). I hired two female designers and a gay male production director.
The mix added a tension. The back and forth banter, the relationship advice, the lunchtime debates on Whitewater, OJ and the Soup Nazi — our group dynamic was certainly livelier because there were members of both teams around (three if you count the production director). A His Girl Friday energy hung in the air.
But the tension didn’t just make our group socially interesting, it also altered content and process. Women turned out to be invaluable. Yes, things could have gone more smoothly. Yes, brainstorms sometimes ran longer because basic rules and lingo had to be explained over and over. But those simple breakdowns that were required – using plain, everyday language – became the basis for our user-friendly approach. If you can’t describe something clearly in a meeting, how can you squeeze a big idea into a caption or a 150-word sidebar. Soon, I knew that “tools of ignorance” referred to catchers’ equipment, not my notebook and pen.
Very quickly, it felt like home. The men in my own family are also loud, demanding fans, and they – along with the women – have always had strong opinions on just about everything. I grew up with a debate constantly brewing somewhere in my house and our holiday dinners, in particular, were basically a competition for the ball. This turned out to be good training. Story meetings at ESPN were just like Thanksgiving! These hairy guys were a lot like my dad, uncles, brothers and cousins. In just a few weeks on the job, I was able to develop unyielding points of view about a subject I know next-to-nothing about.
“Soon, I knew that ‘tools of ignorance’ referred to catchers’ equipment, not my notebook and pen.”
Gary seemed to speak in Trade Gothic Bold Two — conversational, approachable, all lowercase. We used the font for headlines, subheads, pull quotes and captions; this was quite a departure from the cold, aggressive all caps used in tabloids or Sports Illustrated. The font mimicked our friendly approach to content. We were the guy sitting next to you at the game. I was speaking to a whole new audience than the urban planner or the architect. I was learning a brand new language. As a group at ESPN, we were creating one too.
We got a lot of hits, but we sometimes missed. When shooting then-rookie shortstop Alex Rodriguez, we sent a Vogue photographer and zoomed in on his face across a double-page spread. Editors (the guys) came into the art department and stared uncomfortably at the layout on the wall. “Not sure…no…don’t like that so much” but couldn’t say why. Even Gary came in and covered his eyes, “Too close!” But it was a stunning portrait and I argued for it and won. After it was printed, I showed the tight crop to my boyfriend who said, “He looks…um…kissable.” I look again. Ah. Pouty lips. Beckoning. Ahhh. Too close!
Times like these made me doubt myself, but Gary was a patient manager. He also had become somewhat of a guru for most of us, and the vibe in the office became addictive. After months of working through our differences, after figuring out a way to order group lunch (adding tofu and steamed broccoli to the mix of subs and mozzarella sticks) we formed a work family. Though complete with sibling rivalries and dysfunctional cousins, there was an intense and loving bond. What other job could you have where, in the middle of a deadline, the whole staff sneaks off to aJerry Maguire matinee? Mouths full of popcorn, my creative cohorts and I glanced at each other, wondering if we would ever feel this way again. (Our mood shifted when Tom Cruise said, “You complete me.” We slumped in our seats, embarrassed to watch a make-out session in front of our work siblings. Too close!)
The creative think tank our father figure assembled was powerful. When you put together a random group of talent, give them a safe space to experiment, and push them creatively beyond where they’ve ever been before, amazing things start to happen. Ideas flow, rules get broken, and the face of sports journalism does start to change.
But it’s hard to maintain this kind of intensity, it becomes exhausting. Years later, most of us went on to jobs in advertising or other startups, or have moved up different mastheads. Some stuck around for years at ESPN The Magazine, which turned out to be one of the most successful magazine launches in history. But everyone on that original staff still says that the happiest and most inspired period in each of our careers was the time we spent figuring it all out together.
Today, I have no ability to talk current players or scores, but those editors and designers are still some of my best friends. And I have come to understand that the most important part of work is finding a team I feel comfortable with, where the day-to-day process of collaborating with and caring about a group of opinionated, self-selected relatives becomes the reason for going to the office each day.
When browsing through old issues, I find this quote from one of Gary’s Letters From the Editor:
“When I was a kid and got to pick first in a choose-up game, I always managed to put together a team that was…well, more interesting than good. I thought it was more fun to win with an underdog.”
It was. Sports!
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