The Guardian Sportsblog is the reason that you’re reading this. Nearly five years ago, I fired up the laptop to read the news over the morning coffee as had become my custom and read this piece about Antony Gormley’s Another Place. Fired by righteous anger and a personal connection, I signed up to comment, found a name (MouthoftheMersey fitted the subject and was a little self-deprecatory, a re-working of the nickname my college tutors gave me, “Gary the Gob”) and posted at 8.23am October 21 2006. A day later, I posted my first comment on a sports article, and I was soon addicted, mainlining the Sportsblog in the office and at home, occasionally – and I’m slightly ashamed to admit this – waiting for the post-midnight hour, when the day’s newspaper articles would appear and I could get a few comments off before bed.
Lee Calvert – now found at Blood and Mud – contacted me via a comment on a piece and asked me to write for his cricket blog, The Googly, even paying me to do so! Also writing there were Nestaquin, Clare A Davies and Carrie Dunn – all of whom had written above or below the line on the SportsBlog. Buoyed by Lee’s energy and direction, Nesta’s typically forthright prose, Clare’s extraordinary ability to find something new to say about cricket’s flavours of the month and Carrie’s professional rigour, The Googly was an education and a pleasure. When Shiny Media pulled the plug, from The Googly’s ashes rose 99.94.
But the SportsBlog did a lot more than that. Like the Over-By-Over coverage (of which I wrote a few weeks ago), the SportsBlog was social as well as journalistic. We may not have known each others’ real names, but those of us who wrote below the line knew a lot about each other – some even got the impression that I liked a Number 8 – and soon there was a healthy banter, a swapping of stories, a worldwide group of people linked by broadband and a love of sport. After Sean Ingle, the SportsBlog’s founding father, ran a Big Blogger competition to allow those of us below the line to try our hand above (it was won by Jonny Jones, JonnyBoy71, still an eloquent and pithy contributor on rugby and a man I’m delighted to count amongst my friends), many of the unsuccessful entrants posted their pieces to Pseudscorner.blogspot.com, the brainchild of James Andrews. Click there to find an extraordinary archive of long-form sportswriting, much of it of the highest quality.
“Pseuds” slowly died (though Clare is still writing there and as readable as ever), the victim of social media (many of us are friends on Facebook) and th inevitability of contributors gaining the skills and knowledge to set up their own blogs or write for others’. Nevertheless, the SportsBlog was still going strong, still producing material above and below the line that demanded to be read. Until the golden goose was slain.
The first knife was wielded by The Guardian’s top brass, who followed the logic of newspaper convergence – the merging of print and online activities. The lads (and some lasses) who understood how online journalism worked (Rob Smyth, Lawrence Booth, Scott Murray, Sean Ingle, Andy Bull, Jonathan Wilson, Carrie Dunn, Georgina Turner) were soon being crowded out by the big name, big paper journos who thought that writing online was just another deadline and the comments unworthy of notice, still less, of response. Sprawling, esoteric, beautiful writing like On Second Thoughts and The Forgotten Story of… and countless other pieces that didn’t fit into a series but needed the freedom that online journalism’s pagination-free environment provided, just faded away, replaced by another Arsenal blog, another “Whither England?” blog, another Liverpool blog. With The Guardian heamorraghing money, newsroom efficiencies bit into rosters and beancounters became clickcounters.
The SportsBlog could even have survived that though, were it not for another related development that has proved to be the second knife, dealing an almost fatal blow. Five years ago (an age in the world of online media) to post below the line, one needed a certain confidence – one had to believe that one had something worth saying, write it in grammatical English and post it knowing that The World could judge you on your thoughts. No more. Hiding behind the pseudonyms that once seemed charming but now promote raging online disinhibition, the banter turned brutal. At first the spite was directed towards the journos, from “Do you get paid for that?” to much worse, and then the commenters turned their trolling on to each other. Those journos that did join in below the line soon stopped writing there, soon stopping reading too. And then many of us who had known the days of gentle banter bailed out, leaving much of the SportsBlog to men (maybe some women) who must surely type with their fists.
Not all is lost however. If the rare cycling blogs can stay away from Lance Armstrong, they are very well informed below the line; tennis can vary in its coverage above the line, but is often good below; and, showing what we’re missing elsewhere, the County Cricket Live Blog shines like a beacon of splendid writing, good humour and, well, whimsy is the word used, but I prefer the rather more prosaic term collaborative writing. New ventures like The Blizzard seek to capture some of the old Sportsblog’s freedoms – let’s hope there’s a Blizzard for other sports soon too.
So thank you Guardian SportsBlog – like the OBO, you changed my life and I’ll be grateful to my last breath. It wasn’t all your fault that I, and lots of others, have gone and maybe one day you’ll find a way to give us back the feeling we had at 3.00pm or thereabouts towards the end of another stressful day in the office when friends, above and below the line, entertained us so royally. You’re missed.