It all goes back to Ron Mexico.
In 2005, The Smoking Gun broke the story of a legal complaint about a prominent athlete who “knowingly failed to advise” a partner that he was infected with a sexually transmitted disease. The athlete, then-phenom Michael Vick, was reported to have used the alias Ron Mexico during herpes testing, a story that quickly spread across the nascent blog culture of the Internet.
Will Leitch, an early, struggling blogger, got the idea for Deadspin after taking note of what he believed to be a failure in mainstream sports media: It wasn’t covering or even mentioning stories like the tale of Ron Mexico—stories that sports fans were eating up. Partnering with Nick Denton’s Gawker Media, Leitch launched a site that would talk to the average sports fan like a real average sports fan, eschewing, as the site’s motto goes, “access, favor and discretion.”
Over the last seven years, Deadspin has grown from a one-man operation run out of a bedroom into a formidable counterweight to the sports media industrial complex of Sports Illustrated, ESPN and other players. Along the way, Leitch and successive editors have exposed star athletes and top media personalities, offended countless readers and managed to make over the culture of sports journalism, all from the outside.
On Jan. 16, the site was the first news outlet to report that Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o’s girlfriend, whose “death” was the basis of one of the more inspiring stories of the past year, was a complete hoax. The story would explode and cement Deadspin’s place at the head table of the sports media world—and the mainstream media’s worst nightmare.
‘Sports Needs a Wonkette’
Lockhart Steele, managing editor, Gawker Media (2005-’07): Will [Leitch, Deadspin’s founder and its editor from 2005 to 2008] was pondering a sports site and asked to submit a pitch to Nick and me. Nick said he loved him, so Leitch wrote a memo, which was excellent, and it convinced us that we should do a Gawker sports blog.
Photo: Chester Higgins Jr/The New York Times/Redux
Excerpt from Leitch’s original pitch to Denton: “The Internet and sports are made for each other. But what has really been missing has been a strong, askew voice from outside the circle jerk of buffet-addled sportswriters interviewing naked athletes. Independent sports blogs are everywhere, but they don’t have any passion. They’re mostly just stat nerds. Sports needs a Wonkette, essentially.”
Leitch: Lock was sold enough that they thought they should do a sports site, but they didn’t want me—they wanted a name. I know a friend of mine was asked and turned it down because he thought ESPN was a safer bet and better money. Lockhart sent me an email that said, “Bad news. Nobody wants to do this. But the good news is, it’s your site now.” I was told I’d have six months to try and make it work, and I thought, that’s fine. I had been answering phones at a doctor’s office only a year and a half before.
Nick Denton, founder and publisher, Gawker Media: I don’t remember ever wanting Will to do another kind of site, but I think I had some hesitation over the breadth of coverage required. I wasn’t really clear that there were sports fans per se—rather, that there were fans of particular sports and particular teams. So I wasn’t sure it was a homogenous enough topic to support a broad site.