There's a concept in sports statistics (pioneered in baseball) called "value over replacement player." The idea is that you can quantify the level of production provided by the average player off the street, the plug-in backup who provides little more than a body with no added skills. He's the replacement player, the baseline from which you evaluate all others.
Value over replacement is a great concept to remember during recent debates over the practice squad (Newsflash: none of those guys really matter much). But it also came to mind recently during conversations about the current state of NFL beat reporting. If you follow some of the stalwart Philly reporters, you may have seen griping about their jobs turning into an overemphasis on film breakdowns over "real reporting" or "compelling stories."
But you can see that's what the people want. This summer, IgglesBlog's Derek Sarley was hired by the Daily News to cover Xs & Os. Blogging The Beast's Jimmy Kempski has a regular gig at Philly.com now, where he can do film breakdowns, stats, and his patented stick-figure paint drawings. Sheil Kapadia continues to kill it over at Birds 24/7. Smart Football's Chris Brown is the hottest national football writer, period.
There seems to be a collective exasperation from the old guard of reporters (most of them aren't actually old) as to how to adapt to the Summer of the Blogger. Some are "blaming" Chip Kelly for the esoteric focus. But the truth is that this wasn't an overnight change, only the culmination of forces that have been brewing for years.
It's easy to go back to say "the Internet changed everything," but I'm not talking about learning how to Tweet out links to stories. There has always been an intense hunger for coverage on our favorite sports teams, but it was filtered through a limited number of news outlets: newspapers and television. Now anyone with a Tumblr blog or a SBNation login can throw out their ill-informed opinions on a play call. Every roster change can be Bleacher Report-ized from three different sides before lunch. And, perhaps most important, the official Eagles Twitter account can be re-tweeted by every fan from here to Sweden and back.
When we're talking about value over replacement, until recently simply having access to the locker room, to the press box was enough to add value because only a limited number of people could be there. Now, largely thanks to PhiladelphiaEagles.com, that's not true. Everyone can watch the press conferences, the practices, the locker room interviews. We can get all the latest developments directly from the Eagles mouthpiece.
The point is that the replacement reporter and commentator has improved. Fans no longer need their beat guys to fall all over themselves trying to re-cut the latest press release into "me too" Tweets. Nor do they need more barely-informed, warmed-over columns that they could find in any backwater SEO-factory. They need value above and beyond that, which is why the response to called-up bloggers like Derek and Jimmy have been so positive.
To me, there are basically four ways to provide added value:
- News Breaker: Tell us something we don't already know, or at least didn't know yet. And no, being the first to turn a Howie Roseman mass text into a Tweet doesn't count. For as many beat reporters as there are covering the Eagles, there's surprisingly little news broken by outlets other than the team itself. Tim McManus does a good job gathering sources, as do Reuben Frank, Jeff McLane and some others.
- Enthusiastic Aggregator: Fans want everything on their favorite team, from minute-by-minute breakdowns of training camp, to interview transcripts, to photos of the smoothies players get when they come off the field. And they're busy, so they want to know what else is being intelligently said about their team elsewhere. Some of the older beat guys don't understand this obsession, so they've been reluctant to embrace coverage of such minutia. But Jimmy and Sheil clearly get it, as do the guys running Eagles Pravda.
- Behind The Scenes: Where are the long form profiles of players across the roster? Where are the deep dives into the organization, the coaches, the decision-makers? Maybe I've missed them among other coverage, or they've been shut behind pay walls, but there's plenty of room for "compelling stories" about the Eagles -- and the major news outlets have the best shot at finding them. I'd love to know more about the people behind the curtain, but it seems reporters spend more time parroting the same talking points instead of rooting them out.
- Analyst: Whether it's from stats, film review, scouting, Xs & Os, there's a healthy desire to learn more about the the game of football and specifically their team. You can see it in the way fans adore Tommy Lawlor's independent scouting and even give props to anyone who can put together a competent set of game screenshots. They don't just want more coverage, they want coverage that asks why something happened, and then tries to answer. I'm not sure why that would ever be a bad thing.
Basic news has been commodified, but value-added reporting isn't a zero sum game. A film breakdown doesn't detract from a player profile or a breaking news story. There's room for all of it, and in fact greater hunger for anything above-replacement than ever before. Instead of criticizing the change, embrace it, learn from it, be inspired by it.