This is an interview for our “Let the People Speak” series. We will be conducting short interviews with an array of people—writers, fans, arena employees, our friends, a random guy on the street, your mom—typically about offbeat topics. Today we present the thoughts of Twitter personality J.D. Hastings, talking about ESPN’s NBA Rank and, more generally, “filler” content.
The other week you tweeted “Wish ESPN would re-title #NBARank to #NBAFillerContent”. How do you define filler content, and why is NBA Rank filler?
In a standard NBA season there are two particularly dead periods for reporting, when the sport isn’t naturally providing story-lines for the media to simply report and analyze. The first is September, after the draft and free agency has settled down but before training camp.
The second, curiously, is in late March. By that point, you generally know the basic story-lines of the season (which teams are contenders, who is competing for MVP, etc.) but it is too early to really get into the specifics of seeding, playoff match-ups and awards. It is a difficult time to find a novel story in the NBA.
Despite this, there is still a lot of demand by readers, and a need for writers (many of whom I’d consider my friends) to put out product. Towards this end, you need something to fill the space: Filler.
What makes good filler? Good filler content doesn’t rely on the outside world to provide its material. It can be generated on the slowest news day. At the same time, it isn’t so obviously irrelevant as to drive off its audience. The best, and most cynically manipulative way to continue to drive content, is to “generate debate,” which is a nice way of saying “piss people off.”
This is why NBA Rank is perfect filler. You don’t need to rely on recent games to create it. In fact, the people who vote on it don’t have to justify their grades at all. There are enough players involved to allow for a lengthy roll out, over the course of days or weeks. Finally: the subject matter—subjective ranking—is the type of subject that for whatever reason turns humans into baying dogs. Despite the fact that the entire process is an amalgamation of opinions by people with no authority whatsoever, literally hundreds of thousands of people will tune in and argue.
The fact that NBA Rank gets trotted out in those exact dead periods of the year for the NBA, and does nothing to substantively inform the reader about its ostensible subject, is why it is the most obvious type of filler to me.
Is all content lacking a temporal element filler? Or, to think of it another way, is there content that reacts to current events that is filler?
There are other ways to fill out a column without relying on contemporary news to report on. Most of these rely some level of creativity. You could write humor or otherwise connect basketball to more quirky cultural references. There’s a lot of this even when it’s not filler season. Writers like Netw3rk, who brings humor, Steve MacPherson, a large portion of the content on Hardwood Paroxysm, and Gothic Ginobili. Each of them does a lot of creative work that happens to use the NBA as a starting point. This isn’t ideal for a media outlet like ESPN (Grantland ‘s Triangle posts notwithstanding) to bank on though, because while each example has charm, it won’t bring in readership the way intentional controversy will. That’s the unfortunate truth of society, and is also why ESPN as a whole has moved towards the Skip Bayless mode of debate content (I apologize for that low blow to the many excellent writers that actually contribute to NBA Rank).
In the end, my complaint is less about filler per se, which ends up being necessary in a professional media environment where actual news doesn’t trickle in at a regular rate. My issue is the manipulative and calculating nature of the entire project.
There are a variety of player rating systems—like Win Shares, Wins Produced, PER and others—that have obvious limitations in their ability to fully and accurately encapsulate the value a player brings to the court. Is there room for a wisdom of the crowds ranking system, and if so, how would that differ from NBA Rank?
I would say that there is no use for any of these ranking systems. The process of ranking doesn’t provide any actual knowledge about the game we love. If somebody is good, HOW they are good and WHY they are good are informative subjects. Are they marginally better than another player that is good? How do you objectively test that? Well, it turns out that while any number of stats may provide concrete information, the words “best” and “better” end up being vaguely defined in the mind of the judge at the moment of judgment.
If a fan says, “the best player is the one who makes the most flashy plays” how do you go about proving them wrong? If that’s why they watch the game, then that is the best part to them. People generally pretend that best means “helps you win the most” but even that is incredibly vague because as a team game a players’ contributions are dependent on the context of the team. I don’t dispute that you can make general statements about how good players are. Lebron is the best in game. I don’t think that’s controversial. Steph Curry is better than Darius Morris. Not controversial. However, when you start ranking, you are presenting the information as “under all circumstances player 5 is better than player 6.” That’s nonsensical to me. There is no right answer, no way to verify the results, therefore it tells us nothing.
No matter how you arrive at that rank, the process is flawed to me. Crowdsourcing just tells you about the crowd that’s being sourced. Because it provides no information how is it adding to the experience of the game we love? Even if we were GMs, whose opinions on players do matter, we wouldn’t evaluate anybody in this way—we’d look at the makeup of the entire team, the quality of potential line-ups and combinations of players, as well as value relative to salary.
In your ideal world, what type of content would basketball writers produce during these acknowledged dead periods of the NBA schedule?
I hate to say this, but in an ideal world people would only write when there was information to be conveyed, or for creative expression. That would destroy a multi-billion dollar media industry that actually employs a lot of people I like though, so I guess I shouldn’t press too hard on it. This industry exists in its current state because the market supports it. That is, people want to find stuff on these topics to read, so the industry gives them something. Therefore in my new ideal world I’d ask readers to understand that opinions are just opinions. If Skip Bayless feels differently than you, that doesn’t threaten the validity of your opinions, or the veracity of your experience. Therefore you don’t need to yell about his opinion (that is, have opinions about his opinions). That just empowers him more. Be comfortable in your own opinion, forgive other people theirs, and their opinions will suddenly stop being newsworthy. Focus on finding stories that provide insight and information and that’s what the industry will give you.