Ethan Sherwood Strauss is a veteran basketball journalist who has moved to Substack, where he focuses on the culture and economics of the NBA.
Alright, so, Ethan my first question is - what I do, as a newsletter writer, is a lot of political analysis, responding to current events…. I mean, it's a blog, mostly in the domain of politics or culture. That's not unusual for the Substack space. For a lot of people, reading me at Substack is no different than the way they were reading me at Wordpress and before that, at Blogger. I'm interested in your Substack, and I know people at Substack are interested in it, because sports is still very much its own thing in media. It can have better margins than other media but also has unique challenges. So I'm interested in how you fit into the newsletter model. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you were a beat reporter for awhile, right?
Correct. I covered the Golden State Warriors for a few years.
So obviously you're not doing gamers, box-score breakdown sports journalism, the way you may have done in the past. How are you trying to integrate that experience and your broader skillset into a newsletter?
I'm not sure I'm smart enough to have ever done it very strategically. I just had a sense of what I was interested in, when I was at the Athletic. And that's what I try to chase. It might sound corny or pat, but I think that if I'm interested in something I can make somebody else interested in something. But if I'm not interested, if I'm just grinding it out because it's time to do a game story, I'm drawing dead. I'm never going to be an engaging enough writer that way.
So I started to draw my attention to some of the cultural conflicts that the sports leagues were finding themselves in, and I naturally enjoy taboo topics. Once I noticed that there were subjects that you weren't allowed to discuss but which seemed fairly important to the culture and to sports in particular, I started to drift in that direction. I think part of what got me on the Substack direction was a series of articles about the collapse in NBA viewership. To my memory I was one of the only people in all of NBA media who was really engaging with this story. That might not seem significant if you're unaware of the scale of what happened, but what happened was that the NBA lost half its viewership within eight years. And possibly within the last five, given how precipitous it's been.
So when you have a major industry lose half its customers quite suddenly, you would think that the people covering that industry would want to ask questions about it and want to look into it. But instead it was rather taboo, for complicated reasons that maybe we can get into. But it's enough to say now that it was just a taboo subject. And when I wrote about it at the Athletic, I saw that it had an immense resonance relative to the other things that I wrote about. And that got me thinking that perhaps if I set up my own shop, had my own operation where I could choose my own topics, I could be pretty successful. That's what inspired the transition. You'll notice I don't really write about sports per se, at least not in terms of the outcomes of games. Instead, my goal is always to use sports to look at culture, to look at industry, and to look at politics, and to just do it from my own perspective. I never really try to signal boost anything in particular. I'm almost attempting an anti-strategy, maybe borrowing from you a little bit - this is my perspective, and hopefully there are other people who find it engaging and perhaps its differentiated just because I as an individual am my own person.
This issue you mention with the NBA ratings, and what a potentially big deal that is. That to me connects with this issue of social capture in media. I have written for at least the last seven or eight years that something has happened in sports coverage that I really don't enjoy, which is that everything constantly get pressed into these culture war frames. The really obvious one has been analytics. There was a time when, yes, there actually genuinely was resistance to analytics in the major sports leagues. But that was always cast as, sort of, the knuckle-dragging old-school former player approach, contrasted with the new-school brilliant exciting analytics approach. I don't know how anyone could claim that the war is still ongoing; analytics won. The leagues are all contorting themselves to follow the newest analytic developments.
But here's a new NBA culture war, in the context of this issue of the NBA's ratings declining: one of the things you can't question is the league's current quality of play or the quality of players in the league right now. It’s holy writ in NBA media culture that the NBA has never been better, there's never been better talent in the league than right now, the talent is amazing. And I think it's definitely true that there's an amazing level of talent in the league right now, but I also think it’s hard to name stars - you have LeBron, Durant, Steph, all on the wrong side of 30, Lebron 37 years old now - but everyone wants to be this booster for where the NBA is right now, and to mock previous eras as terrible. To me, that’s a good example of why people in a certain strata of NBA media can’t take the ratings collapse seriously, because the cool thing to do is to say that the league has never been better, and if you say different you’re some old-school imbecile.
There’s a certain element of vanguardism to the NBA media, or the cool slice. Anybody who has an issue with the present or where things are headed is a Luddite who will be mocked by history. That seems to be the operating consensus of well-educated NBA people. But some things in the league could still be in genuine decline.
Let me be clear, though - first, the NBA will sign a new TV deal; it will be bigger than the last one; the owners will not go broke. The players will not go broke. But in terms of the sport’s organic reach, I think of this moment as similar to the immediate post-Jordan era. The league saw a collapse in interest when Jordan retired, and it took them years to claw their way back, including with a lot of rule changes designed to make the sport more exciting. I think the sport is in similar circumstances now – simply in terms of interest, not quality – but the scary thing is that the Jordan analogs are still playing. Lebron, Steph, Durant… we don't know how much longer they’ve got. And I don't believe that the league can create heirs right now. That's not an indictment on how good the young players are, at all. But I don’t think the league has the organic reach to create stars right now. The NBA doesn't seem to be able to make a household name happen. Giannis [Antetokounmpo]’s level of play speaks for itself, but he’s not a household name. He’s just not. And if he can’t be a household name, with how transcendent he’s been... I think the league could be in for a long winter. I get dedicated basketball fans not caring about that, but the journalists have to. That's what weird about this.
The name I would put out there is Ja Morant, who is as exciting an athlete to watch as any I've seen in a long time. But it's hard to imagine him becoming a star that transcends his sport. When I say stuff like that, people say “oh it’s the wrong market, he's in Memphis.” I hear that all the time about the stars question, about Giannis especially. But hold on a second. Arguably the three most famous players in the NFL are Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Patrick Mahomes. They play in Tampa Bay, Green Bay, and Kansas City. Huge advertisers have zero problem putting them in national commercials because the NFL can make stars anywhere. State Farm thinks enough of their marketability that I have to constantly watch Rodgers and Mahomes play grabass with Jake from State Farm. And it's not just quarterbacks. Rob Gronkowski is a tight end! His terrible ads for some weird military insurance company are everywhere. So it seems like a bullshit argument.
Story is a bigger deal than market. Period. Lebron was a bigger deal in Cleveland than he is in Los Angeles. I would absolutely stand by that. Because the story was better - hometown hero. So part of what the NBA needs to do is figure out stories. You mentioned Ja Morant. Look at the ad campaign that Nike put together for him. One of the themes of the ad was whether he could become a superstar because of his market! They baked it right in. And that’s a real NBA problem. So on the one hand, they're trying to defy that consensus, but on the other they’re tipping their hand on what the people at Nike are really worried about. It's an issue for the NBA - big markets have always been a fixation for the league. But they have to remember that it’s story, in sports. Story is bigger than anything. But Adam Silver isn’t exactly Don Draper; he's kind of a drab bureaucrat.
Just as an aside, we both agree that the Pelicans take Ja if they have to do that draft over again, because Zion is out of shape and constantly injured. And one of the orthodoxies in NBA circles is that you can’t blame the latter on the former - people say you’re placing blame on somebody for getting injured. But the shape that he’s in is relevant to his injury scenario, even if that isn't nice.
I think it’s an overcorrection to when criticism would be too harsh, certainly regarding Lebron. And look, the criticism of Lebron got excessive, to the point of absurdity at times. But you can’t tell fans not to notice when a guy’s out of shape and it appears to be contributing to his problem staying on the court.
Switching gears, one of the big criticisms of Substack is that it doesn't replace reporting, it’s just opinion. That's not true of a lot of Substacks, but I wanted to hear your thoughts on breaking news. It's something you’ve done in the past, but do you feel any desire to break news in your newsletter now?
You know I’m not sure what it really means to break news, at this point. Sometimes I like to do retroactive breaking of news, that is, looking back on an old story and bringing in new information that wasn't considered at the time. But am I trying to be the first person to tweet something? No, I don't want any part of that, at all. I don't think I'm good at it, for one, and also it requires trading of favors that’s inherently corrupting, at least in the NBA industry – dependency on player agents and eventually becoming beholden to their point of view.
Do you have any predictions about where sports media is going, especially given the demise of mid-market papers, small-city papers, thanks to ESPN.com and other big national players?
I mean it’s already happening. Teams are parting ways with beat writers in smaller cities. There was, comparatively speaking, a halcyon age years ago, and I like talking to the writers who lived through it. It kind of seems like paradise! Not just in terms of the funding or how relevant you felt, but also the pace of life. The pre-Twitter pace of the profession. I'm not allergic to declinism, or at least I'm willing to hear it out – I don't think things are necessarily getting better. I think in many ways the fans were better served by the old system. The writers were too. But technology obliterated [the need for that life], and I don’t see the slide abating. I live in the Bay area, the Warriors are a huge brand, and there's always gonna be beat work covering the Warriors. But in the NBA, interest in the league is very top-heavy [intense interest in a few teams, with much less in others]. So it's hard to see how beat-writing for low-interest teams survives.
I know this sounds like science fiction, but there are AIs that can do a lot of this work, that are producing news stories. Right now! I was talking to someone involved in that world once and she was saying that a gamer [a sports story recapping what happened in a particular game] is, from an AI-standpoint, the easiest possible story to automate, since so much of it is procedural. Who knows, in another ten years - we just assume that nobody is writing that kind of story anymore.
Oh, but I don’t know why you’d even have to do that, because a college kid is always willing to do it for free. It’s a sad facet of this industry that there’s always someone willing to step up and replace you for nothing. My first year I worked for the NBA in the PR department, making $17,000 a year, in New York City. And I knew that as soon as I quit, someone would come take my place. So I’m not sure they even need to get AI to do it. Just find some college kid who’s willing to cut the legs out from under a professional.
Where do you want your Substack to be in a year? Not in terms of subscribers or money, but any features you haven't built out yet, community development, etc.
You know I’m a big believer in - I don't have any schemes, I just do. My whole approach here is to just do stuff, see how people react, and react to that. I would like to turn the posts into a book of essays eventually, if I can get something robust enough to fit together thematically. But down the road, I theoretically would like to fund other ventures.... But ultimately I have very modest and prosaic aims. Make enough money to pay my editor more and on a more permanent basis. But there's always a danger of getting your eyes too far afield and not focusing on the process. So in the meantime I’m gonna just try to make the right decisions at the right moment.
So what’s the state of the 2021-2022 NBA season for you?
I have to level with you, I just don’t follow the games day-by-day the way I used to, obsessively. A big part of that was simply that my young son became sentient, and that took a lot of time. But also to do that kind of coverage you need to just follow the league so, so closely. You told me once that your brother watches every single Bulls game every season. And that's the kind of person who, if I tried to sell myself as someone who is really closely following the box scores and storylines, he would smell the fraudulence. I can’t match that level of energy and commitment right now, so I don’t try to represent myself as someone who’s really closely following the whole league. So I have a weird perspective now where I’m not watching games very often but I’m still talking to agents and people in front offices throughout the week, and I do think that unusual perspective helps me bring something different to the table.
You know that resonates with me - there's so many things, as you age, that you look back and say "how was it so easy back then?" Many of them physical. The older I get, though, the more I realize how much work it is to really follow a league. And now especially, with the greater information of analytics and the internet, the bar keeps getting raised. You have to know what WAR is in baseball, you have to know what a two-deep shell is and who the Mike is on any given play in the NFL. And I personally find that I only have the bandwidth for the NFL now. Whereas in the 2000s, in my twenties, I was watching 100 baseball games a year and knew where everyone was in the standings without really thinking of myself as a big MLB fan. It all feels like work now. But it’s supposed to be entertaining!
But I think there's a distinction between teaching and just trying to prove that you know more than everyone. Social media - I can’t even say it drives the majority of the conversation, it just drives the industry conversation, period - it’s inherently competitive. It's designed to be competitive! It’s all quantified. So I think you go from the perspective of an old school - let's say a Bob Ryan covering the Celtics, and he's trying to teach people certain things, so they enjoy the game now. Where now there’s more of an element of – and it’s viciously competitive – to just showing off markers that you have the most obscure knowledge, sports hipsterdom. And I think it’s a turnoff to many fans.
Play-in tournament - love it, hate it, think it will last?
My initial internal reaction was that I didn’t like it - I admit, because it was new. But it has delivered some great games. A just tremendous game between the Warriors and the Lakers. It gave me just enough juice to remember what basketball felt like before the pandemic, which had this weird unreality feeling to the league for awhile. I overall like it.
It does make it feel like more teams have a reason to really play for something. I prefer it to the NFL approach of just adding playoff teams, which I do think has really watered down success.
I would say that the NFL is guilty of fracking itself - not organically making the product better but taking its scarcity and making it less scarce for easy material gain, in a cheap way almost.
Finally, the shot chart. It’s not debatable - I mean it’s quantifiable - that every team shoots the same now. Individual stars still shoot long twos, but the vast majority of shots are at the basket or from three. There are people who think this is a big problem. Personally, it bothers me much less than the analytics-driven play in baseball because in the NBA the individual talent just shines so much more, and the quality of the viewer experience is much better. I would like a little more variety in how teams play, I admit. But I’m not up in arms about it. Do you think the NBA will implement new rules to try and increase variety of play, and do you think they should?
I think they will. Kevin Arnovitz at ESPN wrote an article about how people are seriously considering that the three pointers have gone too far. And there is a sense that there's too many bullshit optimizer ways to get points, which have undermine the aesthetic quality of the product. And you can already see it. This season the league has started calling some of the flops in ways that people seek out free throws. I’m trying to remember that law - once a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a useful measure?
Campbell's law! [or Goodheart's Law]
Right. They do these studies and they say, hey everybody loves offense! They love when teams score points. They didn’t like it back when the games were like 75-72 in the early 2000s. Well, let’s make it easier for them to score points. But it turns out that how the points happen matters. If the way it happens is that guys are incentivized to fake getting fouled and going to the free throw line, grinding the game to a halt over and over again, that’s not aesthetically pleasing - fans want flow. And I do think whether it’s baseball or basketball, there's some Platonic ideal to how a sport is played. Call me a romantic.
I don’t think people want 75-70 games or 170-160 games. I think a lot of basketball fans want a game to get up to around 110 points. Is that rational? I don’t know, but I think it’s a gut feeling a lot of people have. Does it have to be with two points or three pointers? That I’m not sure of. But I think both of us are what I would call populist snobs - we think that maybe the man on the street, Joe Sportsfan, maybe he has a point. But if the entire media around your industry is locked into saying that the league has never been better, how do you make sure that point of view is heard?