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Sportswriters Go Long Online

As the business of print publishing takes a hit, sports journalists find new outlets on the Web for rambling reads

Illustraion: Goncalo Viana

As any literary-minded technophile will tell you, the Internet has become a haven for lengthy, high-quality prose, with sites from the Awl to BuzzFeed regularly churning out 4,000-word stories. But it’s not just rambling book reviews and art-world treatises. The art of longform sportswriting has also found new life on the Web.

This sportswriting renaissance includes relative newcomers like Bill Simmons’ Grantland, sports blog network SB Nation and Deadspin (Manti Te’o, anyone?) and established players like USA Today (a backer of Sports on Earth) and Sports Illustrated, which has been pulling archived stories for its tablet editions.

“A number of sports entities are seeing that the future of sports journalism lays in longform, as people become more accustomed to reading on phones and tablets,” said Glenn Stout, who has edited The Best American Sports Writing book series since its inception in 1991 and also oversees SB Nation’s new longform section.

While Stout once relied on newspapers to fill The Best American Sports Writing volumes, he is increasingly pulling articles from digital-only outlets. Notwithstanding recent high-profile sports pieces by The New York Times and The Atlantic, Stout said print outlets are finding it harder to do these big stories.

“Twenty or 25 years ago, there were 50 or 60 of these Sunday newspaper supplements nationwide, and they were a great source [for longform sportswriting],” he said. “Those don’t exist anymore.”

Similar thinking inspired sports startup The Classical. Its dozen founders, including writers like Bethlehem Shoals and Tim Marchman, pitched the idea on Kickstarter, promising “just brainy sports journalism, every day.” In less than two months, they raised more than $55,000. Now, the site’s offbeat sports stories (titles “Rabbit Remembered” and “A Portrait of Kenny as a Young Hooper” belie their authors’ literary backgrounds) are getting picked up by the likes of Deadspin and Salon.

“In the past, if I had written the kind of stuff I’ve written for The Classical, no magazine would be able to run it,” said one of the site’s co-founders, Pete Beatty, who also works as a book editor.

“It costs us the same amount [of money] to run 3,000 or 300 words,” said co-founder David Roth, who writes for The Wall Street Journal’s blog The Daily Fix. “We have some freedom in that regard that the Journal doesn’t although they do have a lot of advantages over us—like an office, for starters.”

The Classical also doesn’t have the funds to pay writers although its founders hope that will change in the coming year; the site is in talks with 29th Street Publishing to sell content in the form of iPad magazines.

For now, the exposure is enough for longform proponents like Stout. “There might not be a whole lot of money in it yet,” he said. “But you can not only find a place to show your work—you can find an audience for it.”

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