The original TrueHoop, 2005
Disclosure: I have written two pieces for ESPN’s TrueHoop blog—one for its The Moment project, and one for its TrueCities project—and would like to write more for TrueHoop in the future. These two pieces were assigned and mostly edited by Kevin Arnovitz, with Justin Verrier also editing one. I was paid for both.
Last week ESPN announced a shakeup to its ESPN.com/NBA coverage: TrueHoop founder Henry Abbott has taken over as the new NBA deputy editor. ESPN.com’s NBA coverage was previously managed by Chris Ramsay, who takes over page one, and Royce Webb, who moves into a new role overseeing analytics projects across ESPN. NBA writer/TrueHoop editor Kevin Arnovitz—along with editors Matt Wong and Justin Verrier—were all bumped up as well, though it isn’t clear what their responsibilities will be, or whether they will get new titles.
I’ve read suggestions that these changes don’t mean a whole lot, that it is simply an upgrading of titles, but that understanding is way off base. ESPN.com/NBA is a huge operation, with twenty or so writers and the assorted editors, producers and tech people that go along with that. Dozens of stories are posted a day, each of which need to be assigned, written, edited and posted. Breaking news has to be tracked, the homepage is Henry Abbott is now in charge of this, and is now the immediate boss of everybody involved in the enterprise.
It is also important to note that Henry Abbott isn’t just some guy. Creative thinking about basketball coverage is at the heart of everything he has done, from starting a basketball blog that was updated multiple times a day before that was a thing to being at the forefront of the team blog model. In an astoundingly convenient metaphor, Abbott’s TrueHoop is perhaps best known for HoopIdea, a campaign to improve basketball whose motto is, “Basketball is the best game ever. Now let’s make it better.” In tapping him to lead its basketball coverage, it is as if ESPN executives told Abbott, “ESPN is the best basketball website. Now let’s make it better.”
Abbott’s biggest strength is innovative thinking, and therefore innovative thinking is what ESPN is going to get. Here are five questions Abbott faces as he decides how to lead ESPN’s NBA coverage.
Does ESPN want to be a site where people go to read high quality writing?
The question seems ridiculous, and the presumed answer—“yes—seems obvious, but I don’t know that it is. It has happened slowly and without much notice, but there has been severe attrition among ESPN’s basketball writers. Stalwarts like John Hollinger, Chris Sheridan, Ric Bucher, Chris Palmer and (sort of) Bill Simmons no longer write for ESPN. Chris Broussard, JA Adande and Israel Gutierrez now appear on TV much more frequently than they appear on the website. Marc Stein is the best breaking news reporter in the business—Ramona Shelburne and Brian Windhorst get their share of scoops as well—but you can find all that on Twitter, and 30 minutes faster too. The two best NBA writers ESPN has are Abbott and Arnovitz, but their writing had already grown infrequent, and will be all but buried under mounds of paperwork and responsibility.
It prompts the question: is ESPN even worth visiting to read about basketball anymore?
If Abbott wants the answer to be “yes”, the first thing to do is better allocate resources. For my money, Tom Haberstroh is already one of the best NBA writers anywhere, and at 28, is a future star, but he is criminally misused by ESPN. They have Haberstroh writing 50 word grades after Heat games and on tired, boring topics behind the Insider wall. I’m not sure exactly what his role should be, but I sure as hell know it shouldn’t be what he’s currently doing.
Shelburne and Windhorst both have some writing chops, but they’re stuck in these quasi-roles where a third of the time they report on their local teams, a third of the time they break news, and a third of the time they write about other random NBA stuff. It leads to a situation where their attention and duties are split, and therefore aren’t able to excel in any of those areas.
If Abbott wants the answer to be “yes”, it probably means he has to convince his bosses to allow him to go head-to-head with ESPN’s baby, Grantland. With Jonathan Abrams’ beautifully written profiles, Zach Lowe’s tomes of information and Bill Simmons’ insanely popular annual columns, Grantland is a must-read site for NBA fans. Currently ESPN is the place to go to get scores, game recaps and quick reactions, but it isn’t a place to go for features. Sure, they pop up here and again, but ESPN.com/NBA has no prestige. It has no sex appeal. To get that, it needs to compete directly with Grantland for readers.
But no amount of reallocation of responsibilities or permission to go up against Simmons can alter the basic math: if ESPN wants to be taken seriously as a destination read, it needs to hire more writers, and not just one or two.
What is the point of ESPN Insider?
Once upon a time Insider was chock full of information you couldn’t find elsewhere, and was a mandatory purchase for NBA fans. It was the place to find NBA rumors, fantasy news, draft rankings and newfangled “advanced” statistics. That time now seems like it was in the very distant past. Twitter long ago surpassed Insider’s rumor-mongering, and fantasy and draft rankings have become such big business that you can find it for free in a million other places. Instead of having clearly defined niches, Insider now seems to be the place where ESPN stores all of its numbers shit, like the overflowing closet you shove things into when company is coming over. At least Insider still had John Hollinger’s Per Diem—perhaps the most indispensable column ever for an NBA fan—but now, 14 months after he left to run the Grizzlies?
Hollinger’s enormous contributions have been split by Haberstroh and Kevin Pelton, who each write the Per Diem a couple of times a week and also split the pre-season team profiles. In this case the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Obviously I think highly of Haberstroh, and Pelton is a perfectly fine writer in his own right, but their version of the Per Diem is just so bleh.
Pelton and Haberstroh’s Insider writing is supplemented by Amin Elhassan and Bradford Doolittle, but combined the group provides very little that is compelling. Doolittle is really a baseball guy whose pieces are often soulless analytic rankings of players—what are his editors doing assigning these things?—and Elhassan is a decent enough writer who is hilarious when storytelling and belongs in front of a camera. Very little of it works. Insider’s NBA work isn’t bad per se, it just doesn’t stand out in a crowded marketplace of basketball writing, and certainly isn’t worth paying $40 a year for.
Even more frustrating, however, is that seemingly Insider is where the money is. In the last year Pelton, Doolittle and Elhassan were all hired, while no writers have been hired outside of Insider’s wall. Ethan Sherwood Strauss was brought on to do some work with TrueHoop, but even he was initially brought on board (and paid) through Insider, even though the fit didn’t make any sense.
So Abbott’s challenge is twofold. Abbott has to figure out what differentiates regular content from Insider content, and how he can generate the type of content people are willing to pay for. Before he can do that, however, he has fight to gain control over Insider’s budget and assignment power, a move those that run Insider are no doubt averse to.
Does TrueHoop have a future?
Abbott and Arnovitz’s baby has already undergone significant changes over the past year. Seven blogs were eliminated from the network, Sherwood Strauss was hired to provide coverage and freelancers were given increased opportunities to feature on the TrueHoop front page through the ‘The Moment’ and ‘TrueCities’ series’. But with the two people who have defined TrueHoop at ESPN since its inception moving on to bigger and better things, should it still exist?
Abbott was asked this question in the press release announcing his promotion but he mostly ducked it, only saying that TrueHoop will continue providing coverage and will have many contributors. But it’s not like Abbott and Arnovitz just have less time to manage it, they have no time to manage it. Will Sherwood Strauss be handed the keys to TrueHoop? Will an NBA editor—the best candidate being Justin Verrier, who already edits a lot of TrueHoop work—run it?
And what does the change mean for the bulk of those that make up the TrueHoop Network, the roster of 32 blogs and 150+ contributors? I was already skeptical of its importance to ESPN executives and discouraged about its future, and that was while Abbott and Arnovitz still running things. After all, if the TrueHoop Network has already drifted away from the model of having a blog cover every individual team, what is really the point of having a team blog network at all?
But the TrueHoop Network also provides incredible value for ESPN’s NBA coverage because of its never ending pool of cheap talent to call upon. The TrueHoop Network is used to staff ESPN’s Dime Update, Dime Alert and Dime Smash! Twitter accounts; to provide nightly Around the Association recaps on the Daily Dime; to participate in the insanely popular 5-on-5’s and sometimes to write the lead Dime stories.
The TrueHoop Network is also the probable source of future full-time ESPN NBA employees—if Abbott decides to hire and fill out its writing roster, that is. In the past ESPN only hired established newspaper writers (with the exception of Abbot and Arnovitz), but that model doesn’t quite work in an age where newspapers have lost almost all of their relevance. Abbott and Arnovitz helped develop the talent of a host of writers who now work all over the internet, but there still remains a number of talented people within the network like Royce Young, Ethan Sherwood Strauss, Beckley Mason, Danny Nowell, Tom Sunnergren and others.
Its relevance is declining, but the TrueHoop Network still provides enough value to ESPN that it is worth the headache. So who the hell is going to manage it?
Can content silos be torn down?
Go look at ESPN’s NBA homepage. Seriously, click on that link. Scroll down to the bottom, look around a bit.
The ESPN NBA homepage is a clusterfuck of confusing links and boxes. There is useless box after useless box of content—24 at the time of this writing—and numerous long toolbars of links. What is the “NBA Social Media Gallery”? Why is there a “Miami Heat Index” when no other team has a set aside site? What is “Stein Line Live”? Why is NBA Rank still being promoted even though it has remained unchanged since October?
Though the design is a huge mess, that is really just a symptom of the larger problem: why are there so many different places to get NBA content on ESPN? If you want to read about the Celtics, Bulls, Mavericks, Lakers, Clippers, Knicks or Nets, sometimes that information is on the main site and sometimes that information is on one of the city sites, which seemingly are on their way out. Similarly, sometimes content from Stein, Abbott and Arnovitz is on the main site, and sometimes it is feature in Stein Line Live and TrueHoop. Numbers-heavy content can be found in Insider, but also on the Stats & Info blog. Add in the Heat Index, Hollinger’s Rankings and the Daily Dime, and it practically takes an advanced degree to figure out where to go to find something to read.
Content silos can be a good thing—it is the easiest way to design content to target a specific audience—but not when the information contained therein bleeds into every other area. Instead you’re left with a whole bunch of links and no way to know which one to click on.
Can the website take advantage of the fact that ESPN is the NBA’s largest broadcast partner?
ESPN/ABC will broadcast 90 NBA games this season, but you wouldn’t know it by the talent presence in Bristol. As far as I can tell Chris Broussard is the only NBA analyst based out of Bristol, and few (of any) of the ex-jocks that work for ESPN do. Compared to baseball and football—where people like Tim Kurkjian, Karl Ravech, John Clayton, Chris Mortensen and many more all live in Bristol—there is almost no crossover between the TV and website. An NFL fan can read a Mortensen column in the morning and then watch him on SportsCenter later that night. That doesn’t happen with Marc Stein.
With a much smaller footprint in Bristol—one that is growing even smaller, as former editors Ramsay and Webb were based out of Bristol but Abbott and Arnovitz are not—there is almost no coordination between the two products. When big NBA news breaks, the person reporting it on TV is different than the person reporting it on the website. When The Decision happens, the website has zero involvement and knows as little as you and I do. The website obviously plans content around ESPN’s TV schedule—they frequently plan pieces on teams that will be on national TV that night—but rarely are joint features or joint coverage planned across all mediums.
But it gets even worse. The website accrues none of the benefits of being a content partner and all of the headaches. For instance, the website strictly follows the contract it has with the NBA regarding intellectual property, and therefore David Thorpe, Haberstroh and Elhassan aren’t allowed to use actual clips in their NBA analysis. This puts them at a significant disadvantage compared to somebody like Zach Lowe, whose pieces are stuffed with screen shots, and anybody else that has access to a little bit of screen capture software.
ESPN is clearly aware of these challenges—the press release uses phrases like “on whatever device” and “cross-platform integration”—but they’re tough to overcome.
Abbott is clearly gifted at what he does, and I don’t doubt his ability or drive to tackle these issues. Standing between him and change, however, is a fearsome opponent: the enormous Bristol bureaucracy. I don’t necessarily mean bureaucracy in a pejorative sense, I just mean that ESPN is a mammoth operation. I’ve used the cruise ship metaphor before to describe ESPN, and I think it remains apt. Getting anything done within ESPN, even something seemingly small and insignificant, requires much more effort than you would expect. If Abbott is to succeed, he will have to learn how to navigate Bristol’s bureaucratic inertia, and learn fast.