Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk

Filling in for Henry Abbott at TrueHoop, Jeff Clark of CelticsBlog wrote a blogging primer this Friday titled “NBA Blogging 101.” Essentially, Jeff laid out his list of suggestions for creating a quality basketball blog, although his comments could really apply to any blog of any sport or topic. For the most part, he hits the blogative nails on their heads, including a few that the Plissken braintrust hadn’t used: make an email address readily available (hey, when did that show up on the sidebar?!), write every day (uh, not so much this last week), and create some guidelines (our only rule is that there are no rules). The man has been around long enough and writes a good enough site to make him an expert on this topic; I imagine someone fairly ignorant of sports blogs could read his post and start a decent sports blog within days, or even hours. Additionally, his point about being an innovator and looking to new media for analysis is golden advice for someone more creative and tech-savvy than ourselves (see our layout). However, in the midst of all these great suggestions, I take issue with one of Jeff’s key insights: the idea that an upstart blogger must find a niche in order to be successful.

Given our focus (or lack thereof) at this site, it should not come as a surprise that I have a problem with the idea of the necessary niche. For any readers who don’t come here regularly, let me break down what we write: nuts-and-bolts commentaries on games and transactions, philosophical explorations of fandom, investigations of style, and the occasional half-serious goof. And that goes for both the NBA and NCAA. Are we overextending ourselves? I’d say it’s pretty likely. Is this approach any worse than writing a niche blog? I’m not so sure.

Jeff’s argument rests on a few basic points: 1) Broader topics like “the NBA” and “Boston sports” are already covered by bigwigs like Henry Abbott and Bill Simmons, respectively, so there’s no way you’ll stand out given that they dominate the market; 2) A niche—a classification that includes topics as broad as a specific team—addresses an uncovered topic and will therefore draw a readership. 3) You’ll become the expert on that topic, thus ensuring that people will turn to you when a story intersects with your focus. (I assume that Jeff is working under the assumption that the writers of his hypothetical niche sites are talented, so I will treat them as such in my analysis below.)

The first point is true; TrueHoop is the top NBA blog around and no one will be topping it any time soon. In fact, we’re probably at a point in Blogburgh’s history at which there are a fixed number (or close to it) of truly large sports sites. I still think a TrueHoop-type site written by a terrific writer/aggregator (for instance, a Kelly Dwyer clone without the name recognition—let’s call him Delly Kwyer) would be worthwhile, but it would definitely be tough to get it started. If a writer of that quality would have trouble developing a readership, then any young whippersnapper faces a stiff challenge if he wants his blog to become a must-read. I don’t think anyone would argue against that, so, as I stated a few paragraphs ago, the issue becomes whether or not the niche gets you more attention than the big-tent.

In his post, Jeff mentions a sports commercial site, a point guard site, and an NBDL site as potential niche blog ideas. Although I’m a bit skeptical about how much content you could create for a commercials site, a well-written one would certainly be worth a read every week or so. (Honestly, who wouldn’t read fifteen entertaining posts on the Jeremy Piven commercials?)

He deserves to be mentioned among the greatest philosophers of all-time.

The other two examples are tougher to consider. A point guard site would certainly be interesting, but I’m not sure it would feature any content that couldn’t be found on a larger analytical basketball site. I suppose the writer would focus his energies on watching point guards and thus have more to say, but it seems unlikely that a point guard fan would not like the other parts of a basketball game. I’m all for in-depth analyses of Chris Paul and Baron Davis, but those exist on other sites. Does the point guard niche fill a need? A larger niche site like a team-specific blog works because a built-in fan base exists prior to its creation. Once you get into smaller niches, those preexisting readerships dwindle in size.

The same issue comes up in the case of the NBDL site. I don’t deny that such a blog could be very interesting, but would it generate many readers? I’m sure there are six hardcore NBDL fans in Bakersfield who would go there every day, but high-traffic days would only really occur when players get called up to their NBA teams. Given that most smaller blogs (like this one, at the moment) get large numbers of hits only on days when they get linked on the big sites, I don’t see how the niche blog leads to a wildly different traffic situation than does the broader blog. Perhaps the niche would lead to a larger initial hit count. If anything, I imagine the niche would eventually cap traffic whereas the big tent would lead to incremental growth over a long period of time.

Jeff’s advice is still useful, though; I just think it needs some tweaking. If you read a good number of blogs, then you’ve probably seen that the vast majority of the best ones—including the ones that don't live in the high-rent districts of Blogburgh—have clear identities or specialties: The Painted Area provides extremely detailed, no-nonsense analysis; Basketbawful takes a humorous look at a wide range of basketball topics; and the Blowtorch’s Goathair is the male version of Miss Gossip. These sites/bloggers have their clear strengths, but they cover a number of topics and don’t suffer for it. The important thing is that, with all the blogs on the market now, they set themselves apart.

While those bloggers create clear identities out of their content, I don’t think that’s the only way to do it. There’s no reason that bloggers can’t perform the same function as the mainstream press in terms of the services they provide their readers. After a big game or transaction, I never read just one writer or site’s take on the issue; I almost always look at a handful of them. As long as the writer develops a clear writing style and shows a knack for creating unique and legitimate opinions, a blogger can easily enter into that rotation of regularly-read columnists. In fact, I turn to these kinds of bloggers just as often as I turn to mainstream writers, if not more often. Niches can work, but they’re not necessary if a writer’s opinions and approach demand attention.

Now, watch us announce a new direction for Plissken next week when we write a post on the JJ Redick Better Basketball ads.


Trey Jones said...

How the hell did you get your email address on the sidebar? I've been trying to do that for weeks.

Trey Jones said...

I thought about doing a point guard site, seeing that I'm obsessed with pgs, played the position, and that's the first thing I look at when watching a game. Ultimately, people would only want to read "Why Derrick Rose is the Future of the NBA" for so long before dismissing the site.

I would also do a Houston sports blog, but I, like you and so many others, have a wide range of knowledge and thoughts about so many other things that a hometown blog would eventually become boring.

Ty Keenan said...

Yeah, I have no problem with doing a niche blog if it's your thing, but I just don't think it's necessary to limit content on purpose. If the quality's high, people will eventually come.

Crucifictorious said...

Hey, insightful post--glad that I wasn't the only one who wanted to (gently) poke holes in the intriguing Blogging 101.