I’m excited to launch a multimedia production that I believe will be the next digital prototype for sports commentators and columnists. Welcome to The Mariotti Show, a cross-platform Web presentation (mariottishow.com) featuring live streaming of my daily radio program — Monday through Friday, noon to 3 p.m. ET — wrapped around my long-form columns, quick-cycle takes, breaking stories, videos, audience interaction and other 24/7 content from someone who has done it all and seen it all in sports media.
At a time when corporate interests have swallowed much of sports journalism and left too much cooperative residue between leagues and mammoth media companies, it’s vital to have independent voices who aren’t stifled by institutional filters. In partnership with Genesis Communications, my plan has come to life. I’ve signed a multi-year deal to provide news and commentary about anyone and anything in sports, media, culture, the world. Since leaving ESPN and watching AOL purge a promising sports site, I’ve had a terrific time enjoying life and catching my breath in Los Angeles, a much-needed getaway after a blurry 20-year period that included a daily ESPN TV show, big-city column writing, talk radio and extensive world travel. In my days away, sports has taken complex and unprecedented turns, and the need for robust, serious commentary and investigative reporting is stronger than ever.
We’ll have fun here, too. Living in L.A. forces you to see sports as a breezier diversion, realizing it’s still going to be 72 and sunny at the beach if the Lakers are swept. But unlike Fox Sports 1, I’m not going to repeat “fun” 1,783 times in a single informercial. Sports is a multi-billion-dollar-business — should we be saying multi-trillion now? — and it should be covered as such by commentators who are editorially and financially detached from the mechanism. The sports fan, remember, also is a consumer who invests his passions, his mind, his time … and his wallet.
I’ve never forgotten that.
A FIERCELY INDEPENDENT SITE
For anyone questioning this vision and my commitment to digital evolution, rewind to 2008, when the Chicago Sun-Times (a newspaper in the Midwest) broke a promise to improve its archaic Web site during our coverage of the Beijing Olympics. I politely resigned after the Games, left $1 million of guaranteed money behind, signed Internet media deals and was featured in an HBO profile (“Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel”) in which I declared digital media holdouts to be on life support. I was criticized in the industry, with Sun-Times colleague Roger Ebert calling me “a rat.” In fact, I was fighting for the same Internet advances that the late, great Ebert embraced. And here we are five years later, the media industry elaborately digitized and sentencing any outlet late to the progressive dance — such as the ailing Sun-Times, which recently laid off its entire photojournalism department — to inevitable death.
Now, sports commentators face a new quandary: whether to work for corporate monoliths that have jumped head-first into lucrative beds with the very industry they’re supposed to be intensely covering. Inevitably, it seems, every well-intentioned journalist in those newsrooms will have to compromise principles and look the other way on certain stories for the company good (meaning: don’t criticize powers-that-be and big-money people in sports). I know and respect many solid pros who work for those editorial operations, and they’re resigned to a chilling reality that functional journalism, at some point, cedes to those financial relationships. I should note I’ve had meetings with ESPN and Fox about joining their operations, and candidly, I think they’re too corporate, while they have their own opinions of me. Point being, I can’t be The Man if I’m working for The Man and The Man has a close business arrangement with the subjects of my commentaries. I was stunned to hear ESPN’s Michael Wilbon angrily criticize Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, as “gutless” after the league didn’t punish Philadelphia receiver Riley Cooper for his racist remark.
That is a rarity, people.
Having been painted by previous bosses into conflict-of-interest-driven editorial corners, I’ve opted at this point to be the independent who controls content within a franchise. The goal is to expand with more writers and voices while growing the radio program for Genesis nationally and across Florida. I’m not doing this to get wealthy; I’m fortunate at this stage that I can explore an exciting project. I’m doing it because things need to be said about sports — and the sports and media industries — that are not being said. You’re seeing “franchise” sites pop up, such as Bill Simmons and “Grantland” at ESPN and Peter King’s “MMQB” at Sports Illustrated. Those are cool sites oozing of quality, but this will be more cutting-edge. I’m not in this business to publicize sports or masturbate to my own prose. I’m in it to cover sports. Big, big difference.
Please understand — and I can’t say it enough — that sports is a thriving industry followed by the multitudes. It should be covered as such. The best writers are the most versatile — strike a romantic nerve, break a scandal, rip an owner, question a strategic move, profile a great athlete, rejoice after a marvelous performance or human triumph. You must do it all. Sportswriting should be less about analytics and more about passion, debate, raw energy, feel, criticism. I’ll try my best to strike every tone.
Plus, I’m kind of bored in paradise. I’ve seen my sunsets in Santa Monica, eaten at every restaurant from Silver Lake to Malibu, spent nights on Abbot Kinney and Ocean Avenue, done the scenes and parties and museums, cruised my bike from Pacific Palisades to Palos Verdes, been to the Dodgers/Angels/Lakers/Clippers/Kings/USC/UCLA/Beckham. I’ve done the Hollywood Bowl. They got me to the Greek. I’ve chatted with Owen Wilson, talked sports with Pittsburgh homeboy Michael Keaton, viewed paintings by the Incubus singer at a gallery and watched the paparazzi harass poor Lohan in Venice. I’ve been to a holiday party in Orange County where President Obama’s face was a dartboard target. I stop everything when I see the Grilled Cheese Truck. I’ve been to Laguna Beach, Newport Beach, Napa, Yountville, Santa Barbara, San Diego, La Jolla, Palm Springs, San Francisco, Carmel, Sausalito, Big Sur, Pebble Beach and the original In-N-Out Burger in Baldwin Park. I’ve done my California. Sharknado wasn’t real.
Time to work. With a portable studio — how I love 2013 — we’ll be doing the radio show from L.A., Florida, the Super Bowl, a Mexican bullfighting ring, anywhere and everywhere. I can’t wait to renew my fascination with the bigger planet.
THE SYSTEM: MY LEGAL CASE
While the Internet paves new avenues of media creativity, it also enables the irresponsibility of hacks. I know this too well, having come off a legal case filled with countless lies and accompanied by lazy, reckless, inaccurate, incomplete news coverage. As the father of two wonderful, successful daughters, I abhor domestic abuse and never have or would strike a woman. The hard lesson I’ve learned is not to let another person’s problems become mine and to be careful about my associations, particularly as a figure in the public eye.
A Kafkaesque drama was fueled by a person’s failed pursuit of money — as I’ve explained before in several interviews and chronicled in meticulous detail in my e-book, “The System.” I’m confident we would have won at trial. But realizing the L.A. justice system is bureaucratic at best and insidious at worst, I had no interest in spending a half-million dollars on legal fees, exposing my daughters and family to what clearly was one-sided media coverage and wondering if a Google-reading jury might profile me. I took the high road, didn’t scream publicly about dirty tactics in the case, accepted the no-contest route and wrote the book in September 2011 not to make money but so all of this could be on public record. When a judge in a preliminary hearing refused to allow testimony from our witnesses and experts, wouldn’t address suspicious dealings involving the LAPD and didn’t care that I had witnesses and detailed records to counter other absurd claims … well, you live and learn.
After all the sensational stories, the case was minimized, then closed by another judge. He suggested “expungement,” said a few nice words and sent me on my way. That quickly, the system was done with me. Not surprisingly, the person filed a civil suit, and her legal team tried to have it publicized on TMZ, which wasn’t interested. Her suit immediately was dropped after we posed hard questions about her personal life and motives and made it known we were prepared to re-submit the boatload of discoveries, witnesses and experts — the elements we originally weren’t allowed to present. It’s all in the book — updated recently on Amazon.com — and I urge anyone curious about the justice system to read it. Since then, I’ve carried on in Santa Monica and Venice as my usual law-abiding self.
Bet you didn’t know any of that. In USA Today last month, critic Rem Rieder addressed how media can twist “delicious” legal stories, referring directly to George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin coverage but also to reporting in general. Wrote Rieder: “Life is packed with nuances and subtleties and shades of gray. But the news media are often uncomfortable in such murky terrain. They prefer straightforward narratives, with good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains. Those tales are much easier for readers and viewers to relate to.” Even if a media outlet had wanted to update and close the book on my case, a dysfunctional legal system in L.A. doesn’t necessarily allow for fresh, accurate information. When I last called, my case hadn’t been updated or corrected in the computer base, and a clerk insisted I owed $6,100 to the city for some reason, which wasn’t true. How about the day last year when I received a recorded message from a court, demanding my presence that morning or I’d be arrested? Turns out it was a clerical error, but if the L.A. Times had seen that before it was corrected on the court docket, I might have been subjected to a new round of bogus news stories. I’m still waiting for CNN to correct an item on its pre-Jeff Zucker news crawl that I had pleaded guilty, when the only guilty plea in my life was to a Bazooka bubble gum addiction.
My word to the wise: Stay the hell out of The System.
I guess it’s healthy for a journalist to be a news subject, though it’s happened beyond my control too often, such as when twice-since-fired baseball manager Ozzie Guillen called me “a fag” and lit a national controversy on homophobic comments in sports. Mark Leibovich, chief national correspondent for the New York Times Magazine, has made news recently as author of “This Town,” a best-selling book about general Washington b.s. “I will say that it can be a valuable experience for any reporter to be on the other side of the phone or notebook once in a while,” he wrote of his experience. “You learn firsthand how others go about their work, for better or worse. Plus, you can’t help but become more empathetic in your own reporting going forward.” Agreed.
Going forward, I suppose I could leave behind the daily sports grind, write more books and dabble in other subject material. But why? Haven’t I made substantial multimedia impact in sports and a fine living for decades? Sometimes, you realize one unfortunate event is so disproportionate to a good, full life that you simply sit back, make sure your family is OK, repel for a while from a cannibalistic profession and absorb the bigger world with a smile. You can say I’m uniquely qualified now to comment on athletes in legal messes. I’ve been among those who’ve offered quick-trigger opinions about athletes in trouble, and after seeing how the system works, I’ll know in the future to investigate all angles.
Perspective, it’s called.
RESUMING WHERE I LEFT OFF
I’ve had a productive, rewarding career. Not long ago, I was going on Season Nine as a daily regular on ESPN’s “Around The Horn,” covering everything and traveling everywhere as AOL’s lead sports columnist, and coming off a successful summer of radio shows with Jalen Rose on ESPN’s L.A. affiliate. Lately, I’ve written for ESPN.com — a Kobe Bryant profile — and a Chicago site founded and edited by best-selling author Jonathan Eig. My vacation has recharged me and positioned me to pick up where I left off. Yes, I’ve had meetings with a few media companies about what I might do next. A Fox executive asked if I would be changing my column approach.
“Nope,” I said. “Same guy, same column.”
Fox ended up downsizing its digital effort into a silly-season site, featuring such nonsense as a National Enquirer report that Lindsey Vonn is worried Tiger Woods will sleep with his ex-wife. It’s a bizarre approach as Fox Sports 1 launches in an attempt to compete with the ESPN empire. Wouldn’t you want a strong news site to support your fledgling network? Consider it another example of why independent sites can thrive today. Other than ESPN.com, which is pumped with enough resources and care to remain the gold standard, and the New York Times, which has monetized an elaborate site and features a deep roster of skilled writers, the digital sports landscape is teetering. Consider the estimable Yahoo Sports, filled with meaningful content but always dependent on the whims of whoever is running the company today. Or USA Today, which has committed to a revamped sports division but also is facing a clock in which profits must be turned. A lot of companies and entrepreneurs are investing in sports media, but too many sites are hiring inexperienced writers cheaply or aggregating news from other sites — what happened to competing instead of giving each other credit for shared story links? It’s still difficult to monetize news and commentary digitally, but by 2015, it’s estimated that 85 percent of media revenue will be digital-based. The sites positioned for advertising’s eventual full-blown shift to digital will succeed in the end.
Times are changing furiously in media. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post, and the Boston Red Sox now own the Boston Globe. In this musical-chairs content game being played on the Web, anything goes. I’m confident about this site because I’ve been there when so many haven’t — 14 Olympic Games, 24 Super Bowls and a wealth of World Series, NBA Finals, Final Fours, college football championship games, golf and tennis majors, title fights, etc. I’ve written my 6,500-plus columns, been on national TV a couple of thousand times, done my radio programs for years. When people want to engage in the Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James argument, I can say I’ve extensively covered both up close for many years. It’s called cred, which so many of the trashy sites don’t have and aren’t worthy of mention here.
People have asked if I’m ticked off at ESPN. I’m not ticked off at anyone, except the Black Keys for leaving “Everlasting Light” off the playlist the last time I saw them. I’m appreciative for my eight years there, and even now, people stop and say, “Love you on Around The Horn!” — they think I’m still on the show. Besides, I was part of a 5,000-person conference call the day the network established a zero-tolerance policy, and I’ve held myself accountable because I wasn’t cautious enough about a regrettable association. All I ask is that ESPN and any other company with a stern behavioral policy apply it to all employees, including high-profile executives who write the policy.
Evolution is what’s fun about this business. The Mariotti Show is a site firmly planted in 2013 yet detached from the government-like climates of corporate media. I can tell the truth about any subject I want, anytime I want, and no one can summarily spike content because your boss is friendly with a commissioner or owner, your company is in business with a league or team, your newspaper has a comped suite at the ballpark or your network has a rights deal through 2082 with a major college conference.
Hope you enjoy our venture. I’m enjoying it already.