How a generation of bloggers are shaping the way we think of Philly sports
It was a big weekend for Kyle Scott.
In late May, Pat Burrell — former Phillie, two-time World Series champion, renowned playboy — returned to Philadelphia for a retirement ceremony. As expected, the official proceedings at Citizens Bank Park were but a sidelight to the real event — the former outfielder gallivanting through his old nightspots around Center City.
This was a big deal for Scott, who runs the popular Philadelphia sports website Crossing Broad. There would be stories, he knew. And, even better, there would be photos. If there's anything that drives traffic to Scott's site, it's a good tale about the alcohol-fueled escapades of an ex-Phillies star.
Scott didn't disappoint. Or rather, Burrell didn't disappoint. On Saturday, May 19, Scott awoke at 7 a.m., checked his email and saw a message sent hours earlier from a tipster disclosing Burrell's whereabouts the night before. Scott, 28, from suburban Philly, jumped out of bed and dashed to his computer, where he tried to corroborate the account by searching Twitter. Even someone who doesn't fancy himself as Bob Woodward was skeptical about an email sent from a bar in the early-morning hours. But when he saw that someone else had also identified Burrell at the same Center City nightspot, he posted an entry on Crossing Broad. In the following days, there were more tips with more stories and more photos. Scott's site became a de facto Burrell GPS, a "Where's Waldo?" expedition following Pat the Bat's Center City bar crawl.
Is he at the Irish Pub? What kind of tip did he leave? I heard Burrell and Utley were at Pen & Pencil?
Scott became like a weatherman during a blizzard, providing updates of Burrell's weekend and seeing a spike in traffic during what is normally his quietest time of the week. "I made a conscious mental note going into that weekend that we're going try to follow the Pat Burrell story," Scott says. "And people like Pat, that's the thing. It's not taking shots. People think he's cool."
If you want to dissect Burrell's swing or discuss his on-base percentage or relive the latest unraveling of his old team, Crossing Broad is the wrong site for you.
But if you want to know what Claude Giroux looks like playing beer pong with casts on both wrists or deconstruct Hunter Pence's apparent affinity for blondes — if you want an irreverent take on what wealthy young male athletes are up to in a city that seems to offer plenty for wealthy young male athletes, in other words — then Crossing Broad is, as Scott says, "a destination for stuff like that."
More TMZ than Sporting News, Crossing Broad is the place where pop culture and a web sensibility have fused with Philly's manic obsession with sports. And it is just part of a wave of local blogs that are changing the way sports — and athletes — are discussed in a town where sports is always part of the conversation.
The term "blog" can sometimes carry an unfair connotation, evoking the hackneyed image of some unshaven slob sitting in his mother's basement typing to an audience numbering in the double digits.
The more popular sports blogs in Philadelphia do not fit that bill. And though talking about them as a single organism is a bit futile — both because of the number of sites and the variety of their missions — the best of the bunch share a few characteristics: They're often run by twenty-something guys who have backgrounds that are more oriented in business than journalism — and they create revenue.
The most established site is The 700 Level, which was started by Enrico Campitelli in 2004 as a voice of the fan, tough it also served as a welcome diversion from Campitelli's day job as an information-technology consultant.
The site was an outlet for writers who wrote like Philadelphia sports fans, who talked like Philadelphia sports fans and who cared about stories with the unbridled passion of Philadelphia sports fans. There was no more appropriate name than the section at Veterans Stadium that seemed to be reserved for the most passionate — and vocal — of that group.
The 700 Level quickly became a sort of virtual WIP, and its audience grew quickly. "It was kind of organic, a place where Philadelphia sports fans can come together and have intelligent and often funny conversations about the teams that we really care about," Campitelli says.
He left his day job in 2007, went to graduate school and took time to assess whether the site was a legitimate business opportunity. He didn't necessarily need the master's degree to realize the potential of the site, but he viewed an MBA as "a really expensive insurance plan."
His timing was impeccable. The Phillies were captivating the city's imagination, and Campitelli capitalized on that ardor. "Fans want to know what fans are thinking," Campitelli says. "We had no real plan at the beginning. But along the way, we kind of realized this was something special."
In 2010, The 700 Level was purchased by Comcast SportsNet, an arm of the country's biggest cable operator. It was a move that crystalized the site's resonance as a destination for readers, even if it raised questions about Campitelli's independence. "I still can write whatever I want to write" Campitelli says. "Within reason, I can write what I was writing five years ago. The difference now is I have the time and resources. It's my job now."
The affiliation does not just provide a degree of financial stability, but also credibility. Campitelli is now an outsider with the access — and the resources — of an insider. He'll interview Andre Iguodala or Shane Victorino, although he'll usually ask questions and write posts you wouldn't find elsewhere. "I never say anything on my site that I would never say to the players' faces," Campitelli says, "and I think a lot of other blogs kind of hide behind their blogs."
He went to 2010 National League Championship Series in San Francisco and wrote about the experience as a fan, and did the same in Boston for Game 5 of the NBA Eastern Conference semifinals last month.
Whether access is helpful depends on the mission of the site. Bleeding Green Nation is a popular Eagles blog that has partnered with SB Nation, the national network of sports blogs. Run by Jason Brewer, 28, who started the blog six years ago, BGN has been offered the same level of access as beat writers for mainstream-media outlets.
Brewer, though, rarely maximizes on the opportunity. It is not his niche. "I really actively try to, at times, keep the team at arm's length," he says. "I'm definitely not a journalist and I don't want to be one. And I don't think that's what people come to the site for. I want to be a fan."
Brewer corrects anyone who tries to label him a "reporter." He does not have the resources nor the experience to provide the information that beat writers provide, yet he can deliver emotion that an objective reporter cannot. "That's why we what do resonates with fans," says Brewer, who describes his site a "bar on the Internet." During games, Brewer draws about 3,000 comments from fans.
Then there is Zoo With Roy, a site ostensibly about the Phillies. When it was invited to cover Cole Hamels' recent charity event, ZWR sent a 10-year-old girl named "Awesome Emma" to interview the pitcher. Hamels seemed to have fun with the exchange, discussing his bedtime (2 a.m.) and his favorite ice-cream flavor (chocolate mint).
"ZWR is filling a humor-based niche about Philadelphia sports, but I think the people that tend to enjoy it the most are those who appreciate a clever spin on things," the creator of Zoo With Roy — who refuses to divulge his name to separate it from his professional life — wrote in an email. "In the span of a week, it can go from Degas to fart jokes to animated stick figures to a 1,000-word piece. A month or so ago I had a guy propose to his girlfriend on the site. So it's all over the place."
Like Campitelli, Scott also runs his site full time, relying on revenue from advertisers while also marketing tickets, events and fantasy sports. He organized a bus trip to Washington for last month's series against the Nationals and has sponsorship deals from local bars.
And these are just a few of the more popular sites. There are other sites, such as Beerleaguer?…?Phillies Nation?…?We Should be GMs?…?Where's Weems??…?76ers 101?…?The School Philly. Each serves a different purpose.
For the most prominent sites, the size of the audience is significant, if not massive. Crossing Broad gets upward of 175,000-200,000 unique visitors each month, while Zoo With Roy gets 35,000-40,000 uniques. Campitelli would not release his numbers, but they were obviously enough to entice Comcast.
The breadth of blogs and size of the audiences is largely due to the intensity of Philadelphia fans. "No other city has this amount of people actively invested in their teams, writing about them, tweeting about them and as frequently updated as they may be," Scott says. "And I think it speaks about the people. I don't know if I can do this in any other city, except maybe New York or Boston or Chicago."
The dialogue of Philadelphia sports fans started to change in the early 1990s, when WIP became a strong force on the sports scene. The city always had long had strong newspaper sports sections and television coverage, but WIP added a new dynamic. The call-in structure empowered fans, giving them a platform to provide opinion, commentary and, at times, comedy.
In essence, it was a blog transmitted through a radio. Or rather, today's blogs are WIP calls published online. "We sort of got our knack for expressing ourselves to everyone else about the team," Brewer says. "To this day, I think we might have more in common with sports radio than we have with sports writers." In fact, Brewer concedes that he could not operate his site without the news provided by mainstream media.
But the popularity of these blogs is also an acknowledgment of how much sports and the nature of sports fandom has changed, and how the media haven't always been quick to change with it. Today, every game is broadcast in high-definition, almost every news conference is streamed live. The teams themselves employ people who write stories about the most recent developments. Information about your favorite Philadelphia team, in other words, is ubiquitous, and many readers often don't know — or care — where much of that information is coming from.
And these sites are closer to being in the mainstream than they are to being outsiders. Instead of the niche audience that leave responsible, intelligent comments on the site, The 700 Level is starting to see more unruly commentators as the readership expands. Even if there was not a conscious change, the affiliation with Comcast and the entry into locker rooms requires Campitelli to act with a degree of decorum. Scott has been a guest on WIP's Morning Show — prime real estate in the Philadelphia media landscape. When, in August 2010, Scott posted photos of Ryan Howard at Dorney Park while on the disabled list, Howard's visit to Allentown for roller coasters (and not rehab starts) became a story throughout the region.
They are all serving an audience that grew up dissecting box scores on the Internet rather than in newspaper agate, and they know they will have to continue to evolve. "The only thing you can really do is try to stay on top of it, and evolve in a way that fans want to consume your content," Campitelli says. "I think what we do that we're always going to do is come from the fan's point of view." So if the marketplace requires more video, Campitelli is prepared to alter his strategy. If opinions are what sell, Campitelli is committed to providing them.
Scott cannot think about two years from now, much less five years from now. He doesn't know if he'll stay on his own or find a willing suitor. What he does know is there is more the site can do. He imagines Crossing Broad with a network of streaming podcasts and a streaming show on the Internet. "I don't think we'll ever be the preeminent source of information, because our goal isn't information," Scott says. But he looks at the news landscape and sees the way information gathering is changing, and how aggregators such as the Huffington Post became a destination. He predicts that a site like his will be viewed as part of the mainstream in five years, something that has already happened with national blogs such as Deadspin and The Big Lead.
Yet Scott, Campitelli, and Brewer all know that the competition will only become greater, the technology will become newer and the audience with change. Just as their blogs have affected mainstream media, they must determine how stay current when they're the ones viewed mainstream. Just as they've benefited from change, they know they'll have to adapt to what's ahead. "We've kind of all started playing in the same arena," Brewer says. "Two, three years ago, it was kind of ridiculous to think anyone could live off this."
Contact Zach Berman at ZacharyBerman@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @zberm.