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Deadspin: An Oral History

How an irreverent sports site made the big leagues

Naming Deadspin
During the arduous naming process, multiple names were bandied about, including Miscaster, Deadball, Offscore, Offjock, Spinstop, Tronball and finally Deadspin.

Transcript of AIM chat, June 6, 2005:

mynameisleitch: Hmm. Deadspin. That’s not horrible. Is that the general consensus?

lockhart steele: it was the favorite of the group yesterday

mynameisleitch: It’s no Tronball, that’s for sure.

mynameisleitch: Deadball is almost better.

mynameisleitch: But deadspin is not bad.

lockhart steele: i like it

lockhart steele: perhaps more importantly, Mr. Denton likes it

mynameisleitch: Yes. It’s livable.

lockhart steele: ponder it. let it roll off the tongue.

Steele: Nick has a brilliant way with [naming sites]. They were never cutesy; they always had a negative vibe or a dark edge. It was a fairly contentious back-and-forth until Denton, huddled alone one day, came up with Deadspin. It’s a wonderful irony that one of the most popular sports blogs in the world was named by a gay Brit who hates sports.

Building Steam
It didn’t take long for Leitch and Co. to break into the blogosphere, but the site’s crossover into popular culture was a turning point. Leitch and Deadspin writer Rick Chandler gained notoriety publishing embarrassing ESPN anecdotes and photos of athletes that would go viral, like the shot of then-Chicago Bears quarterback Kyle Orton drunk at a party.

Rick Chandler, Deadspin writer, 2005-’09: Before long, we kind of realized we were able to do things mainstream media wasn’t able to do. There were a couple posts that became really popular. When I did this story about [ESPN anchor] Chris Berman stealing a guy’s girlfriend in a bar—it became known as “You’re with me, leather”—I wrote the post thinking it’d be a typical item, and it just blew up and grew into popular culture. There was a reference to it on the TV show Las Vegas, and I just thought, oh my God. I realized then we had something pretty big on our hands.

Steele: “You’re with me, leather” is kind of the “Oh, shit” moment. That’s when you realized Deadspin could hit into pop culture and go viral, and that’s when it came into its own.

Richard Deitsch, senior editor/media writer, Sports Illustrated: I did a fellowship at the University of Michigan in 2008, and I would talk to student after student and Deadspin would come up more than anything else. They’d link Deadspin to Sports Illustrated or their local paper, and they didn’t distinguish it as anything other than part of their normal reading diet. It was just another place they’d go to for news. I thought, man, we’re in a new ballgame.

Leitch: Neil Best from Newsday wrote what I think was the first thing about the site and called it the insider’s sports blog. And I read that and thought, dude, it’s literally me in my room over here. What I was doing was the opposite of insider.

First big hit was when we had the pictures of Kyle Orton clearly drunk at a party. A reader sent them over, and back then there was none of that faux outrage or concern trolling that is so common now on the Internet. It was like, hey, here’s a funny picture! The only people then that cared weren’t the athletes but the people who handle the athletes and had money at stake with their reputations. Nobody thought I was a smut peddler or I was out to get anybody. There was an innocent silliness to it.

I feel like one of the reasons Deadspin got tagged with this label of being dangerous is because right around this time people at newspapers were starting to lose their jobs. I feel like that was around the time where newspapers were starting to struggle and they needed a villain, and here’s a guy who is putting up pictures of drunk athletes.

Tommy Craggs, editor in chief, Deadspin (2011-present): I remember A.J. [Daulerio, editor in chief, Deadspin, 2008-’11; editor in chief, Gawker, 2011-’13] told me about the Josh Hamilton photos and asked me what I thought of it and I had reservations. [In August 2009, Deadspin published photos of the Texas Rangers’ Josh Hamilton, shirtless and drunk at a bar. Hamilton has struggled with drug and alcohol addiction and the photos were regarded as proof of a relapse.] I was caught up in “Why should we hold Josh to a higher standard than ourselves here?” This was the cautious, j-school superego in me. Now I have no qualms about the story at all. Before [Brett] Favre [who, in October 2010, was caught texting photos of his privates, a story Deadspin broke], it was the story that put [us] on the map. It kind of announced us as dirtbags but in a different way. You know, a site dedicated to telling the unauthorized version.

Those Pesky Commenters
All sports sites have lively comment communities. But Deadspin's are special.

Steele: A real turning point for Deadspin came when we launched comments. At launch we didn’t have them. Nobody was more against the idea of comments than Will. Eventually, I had to tell him, “This is non-negotiable.”  We had no idea that it would be one of the most robust parts of the site. The quality of those who met in the comments section was wild. It was one of the great hilarities of Deadspin.

Leitch: I didn't want comments at all. This was my little play land. I was having too much fun and comments added a new element. I didn't know or even care if people were reading Deadspin at the time. I was just enjoying sitting in my little room. I had stopped looking at traffic. I said, “Just tell me at the end of each month if I don't get my traffic goals. Just give me one warning and if I screw up again you can fire me.” I’m still like that now and I just don't want to know the numbers. Chasing the traffic demon is the end of it all. I think it's made everything [online] stupid.

Magary: He'd seen how bad comments were on other sites. Most commenters on Yahoo and ESPN are morons writing things that are breathtakingly stupid. He probably thought, “Okay, I'll write something smart, then commenters will call the President Hitler and this will suck.”

There was one point early on where Will would pull out comments of mine and stick them in a post and when he did that I'd be like, “Oh my God! Leitch posted the comment! I don't feel so alone anymore! I’m so happy!” Five of us commenters eventually started a site called Kissing Suzy Kolber and Will championed our cause early. Every time he'd email me I’d get excited and think, “Wow a big media person likes our stuff.” 

Leitch: I got over the comments issue quick because Deadspin commenters ended up being so awesome. It ended up that I worked the top part of the site and they worked the bottom. I never really read comments then, though I didn’t have any problems with them. After a while, I realized “Oh, its actually really funny!” By the time it had become a community though I was too busy writing posts. The Deadspin community formed entirely outside of my doing. I didn't foster it. Not that I didn’t want it, but I just had no time to do it.

A unique relationship with ESPN

Denton: What decided me on Deadspin was the existence of a clear enemy. It was arranged not so much around one singular passion as one singular jihad against the cozy cartel of ESPN and the managers.

Leitch: At the time, nobody wanted to rip on ESPN because they thought at some point they were going to have to work for them. Now, as somebody uninterested in a career as a sports reporter, I was free not to worry about that. I think in the early days it was thought of as this cute, funny, “I can’t believe they’re getting away with this” kind of thing.

Drew Magary, Deadspin commenter turned columnist, 2005-present: A lot of frustration came from the idea that ESPN changed for the worse, especially being bought by Disney. For a lot of us, it was the inevitable consequence of massive growth where nobody could help it from metastasizing into a company that exists to feed itself.

Deitsch: The writing was always very good, and even though there were things I didn’t particularly like, there was clear intellect behind it. I remember thinking that ESPN is in trouble if they don’t consider these guys a factor. They’re smart. It has been interesting to watch the relationship evolve. If Leitch had an uneasy alliance with ESPN, then Daulerio went Death Star on them.

Daulerio: When I took over for Will, I established a rapport with people who worked at ESPN and the PR guys, and I said, “If you want to be in my imaginary gold club, you could get this right of first refusal or comment on any stories about you in exchange for other information.” For the most part, I was trying to play by standard journalistic practices. It was a pretty solid and fair relationship in my mind. There was so much out there we saw that went unreported by us.

Deitsch: I think it’s interesting that Deadspin developed a huge sourcing network at ESPN with near daily interaction between Deadspin and ESPN-ers. I think some at ESPN like that there is a site out there that is constantly involved and always checking them.

Denton: (On ESPN’s sources) Deadspin’s biggest allies have been all those frustrated sports reporters whose journalistic ids were struggling for expression.
 

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