There are moments when you wonder if you're doing your job the right way. We all have them. In this job, you might get an email from an editor, or even an astute reader, who asks if you took a specific fact or angle or possibility into consideration when you sat down to write, because if you had - and you have to admit this to yourself - your piece would have been stronger for it. You might come across an impressive piece of writing/reporting, perhaps from an event or on a subject that you cover, and you say to yourself, Why didn't I write that? I should have written that. And you shake your head and brood as you sip your morning coffee.
Even within all that self-doubt, though, those moments generally have the same effect. They inspire you to resolve to do better the next time. You'll work the phones more. You'll linger in the locker room for a few extra minutes to get that exclusive quote. You'll take longer to think through your position before filing that next column. But the parameters and basics of the job will remain the same. You'll still cover, mostly, the teams from your city or region. You'll talk to people. You'll record what they say. You'll do your research. You'll tell a story or offer an opinion. You'll enjoy tomorrow's cup of coffee. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da. It's not often that such moments compel you to re-evaluate the entire nature of your profession.
A recent moment did. I read Dueling With Kings, a book by sportswriter Daniel Barbarisi about his yearlong immersion in the world of daily fantasy sports. Barbarisi focuses on the rivalry between DraftKings and FanDuel on his way to becoming a "shark" himself in daily fantasy hockey, and I came away from the book asking myself a question: What is the right way to do my job?
In full disclosure, Barbarisi is a friend and former coworker of mine. If someone I didn't know had written the same book, I don't know that I would have read it. I had been familiar with daily fantasy sports but only tangentially, and my enjoyment of Dueling With Kings was born not only of Barbarisi's Plimptonesque participatory journalism but of my picturing him sweating out the final seconds of a Blues-Senators game with thousands of dollars on the line.
But the most revealing moment of the narrative, for me, came early on, when Barbarisi first dabbled in daily fantasy through the sport he was covering: baseball. In deciding whether to put Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Francisco Liriano on his roster one night, Barbarisi texted Pirates catcher Chris Stewart, whom Barbarisi had covered when Stewart was with the Yankees, for a scouting report on Liriano. Stewart gave him some positive insight. Barbarisi started Liriano on his fantasy team. Liriano got hammered.
"I thought my insider baseball knowledge would give me a leg up," Barbarisi writes. "But in reality, it's next to useless."
This is no small thing where sports coverage is concerned, because daily fantasy sports is no small thing. At what was likely the peak of the daily fantasy industry, Barbarisi notes, DraftKings was valued at $1 billion in 2015. That's a lot of people who follow sports but who don't consume sports news or information in any traditional sense. In the world of daily fantasy sports, no one really cares if the Eagles are under the salary cap, if Dario Saric and T.J. McConnell are good friends or the best of friends, if the Phillies are going to pick up Pete Mackanin's club option for 2018. In that world, no one really cares about the teams or athletes themselves - not in any skin-and-blood sense.
The sharks use algorithms, aggregations, and projections to formulate their lineups, collect their winnings, and maintain their interest. As Barbarisi came to understand and experience, they're desperate to know, for example, what the Flyers' line combinations will be for a particular game against a particular opponent. It's all a puzzle to be solved, a super-machine to be revved up.
Jerry Seinfeld once joked that in modern pro sports, players change teams so frequently that we basically root for laundry. But that's not completely true anymore. Many of us barely look at the laundry. Many of us root for our spreadsheets, and it's hard to dispute that more mainstream sports coverage should reflect that reality. Is it enough just to tweet the inactive players before an Eagles-Giants game? What if, for all this storytelling and news-breaking and opinion-offering, we're actually the niche, or eventually will be?
"It's not a subculture; it's a culture," Barbarisi said in a recent telephone interview. "As a country, we're moving toward a greater acceptance of sports gambling. With that comes a devaluing of the team and a valuing of the individual, which is tied to the larger concept of the individual versus the group. Look at social media. We are all entitled to have the loudest and best opinion, and in sports, people want the ability to know how it all impacts me. So it makes sense to tailor coverage to the individual. Even as a local paper, team, team, team matters. But I think it's moving away from that and more to 'How does this sport gratify me?' "
The leagues themselves love this movement, because in regions of the country that don't have devoted local fan bases, people care about games to which they otherwise wouldn't pay attention. Barbarisi acknowledged that cities such as Philadelphia and Boston, where parochialism and team loyalty are strong, will be levees against this tide, but not forever. "Enjoy the run," he said. Thanks, Dan. Now, please pass the cream, and leave me alone for a while.