Deadspin: An Oral History

How an irreverent sports site made the big leagues

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.

 

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.