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With No Baseball, FanGraphs Is in Peril. It Won’t Be the Last Sports Media Operation to Face Hard Times.

Why the next few months are going to be a disastrous professional period for sportswriters

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last week, the baseball site FanGraphs was supposed to be rolling out positional power rankings and celebrating Opening Day. Instead, David Appelman, FanGraphs’ founder and CEO, was cutting his roster to keep the site in business. Ten full-time staffers, including Appelman, had their salaries cut. Appelman laid off more than 20 freelancers. He closed the longform site The Hardball Times, which was founded in 2004.

With its suite of metrics, FanGraphs is a go-to site for statistically inclined baseball writing, with an alumni network that stretches into front offices (Dave Cameron) and media (FiveThirtyEight’s Travis Sawchik). Until the ad crunch caused by the coronavirus, it had none of the battle scars of, say, newspapers.

“We’ve always grown,” Appelman said. “This is the first time I’ve ever had to do a layoff in 15 years running this.”

“This is an unfamiliar feeling,” said Meg Rowley, FanGraphs’ managing editor, “and a pretty shitty one.”

In March, FanGraphs’ traffic usually soars as readers put together their fantasy drafts. Without baseball games, Appelman said, traffic has fallen 60 to 70 percent from its usual levels. “Think weekends in the offseason,” he said, “or maybe even some time like Thanksgiving. But it’s every day.”

FanGraphs is also funded by thousands of readers who buy memberships starting at $20 a year. This is mostly a goodwill gesture, since the site doesn’t put articles behind a paywall. Most recurring members have stayed with FanGraphs. But after March 12, the day Major League Baseball announced it was delaying the season, the site’s new membership sign-ups virtually stopped.

“If baseball starts in July, things can potentially start to ramp back up,” Appelman said. “But from a yearly budget standpoint, I have to essentially find hundreds of thousands of dollars that are not there. That’s the problem. I mean, they’re not there.”

In a pandemic, all hell is relative. There are people suffering dire medical and financial consequences. With that proviso, the next few months are going to be a disastrous economic period for sportswriters. Whatever sense of stability sportswriters were granted through the sheer frivolity of their work went away as soon as the leagues stopped playing games. This may be the first economic crisis that singles out sportswriters for layoffs, pay cuts, or terminated freelance work.

The early signs are incredibly grim. The Athletic paused some freelance contracts. The soccer magazine First Touch, which is distributed in New York’s now-shuttered bars and restaurants, suspended print publication. Newspaper layoffs have claimed the jobs of everyone from the Penguins beat writer at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review to the sports editor at the Imperial Valley Press in El Centro, California. Freelance writers have lost thousands of dollars they were counting on because games they were supposed to cover this month were canceled.

There were already plenty of forces bearing down on legacy media. The coronavirus and the recession that might follow have become their accelerants. “It’s already over,” a poster wrote on the site this month. “We’re all done. All of us.”

According to Appelman, he had no choice but to cut freelance contracts now. “We could have kept on staff for another month or two,” he said. “But we would have hit a liquidity crunch. We would have been insolvent. We would have been bankrupt. It was not an option.” (The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh hosts a podcast at FanGraphs.)

Rowley said the site tried to preserve deals for writers who derive their entire incomes from sportswriting, rather than the site’s contributors who have full-time jobs outside of media and write for FanGraphs as a side gig.

Brendan Gawlowski falls into the latter camp. He works at a higher education dot-com in Seattle. Before getting laid off from FanGraphs, the site paid him slightly less than $1,500 a month. “Far more than the money was just getting to write for a website like that,” he said on Saturday.

Gawlowski’s case is instructive because he hopes to land a full-time gig in journalism or with a team. The coronavirus has cut off even that audition period. “When you’re entering a permanent offseason for the foreseeable future, things are only going to get tighter,” he said. If the ad crunch hits small-margin companies and then reaches ESPN or The Athletic, some massive dominoes could fall.

During national emergencies, sportswriters first suffer an identity crisis. Now, they’re suffering an economic crisis.

“It makes you realize how inessential in the grand scheme of things this kind of work is,” Rowley said. “But a lot of people do really good, smart work and they face uncertainty. It’s scary personally and it’s scary for the industry.”

Seth Rorabaugh, the Penguins beat writer at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, got the news he’d been laid off on Friday, March 20. Since then, he has performed odd tasks like paying bills and working on his taxes—a process of unplugging from his all-consuming beat, which he compared to the military idea of “embracing the suck.”

“Sometimes you wonder what it would be like to have a more normal 9-to-5,” Rorabaugh said. “To be able to go to friends’ and families’ birthday parties and weddings and things like that, instead of going to a practice or a game.

“I really don’t want a 9-to-5,” he said. “I like the fact that it’s so chaotic and erratic and irregular. Maybe I’m just an irregular person.”

The cuts that got Rorabaugh, which Trib Total Media blamed on a plunge in ad revenue, showed just how widespread the damage from the next few months is likely to be. Sports columnist Kevin Gorman, who joined the paper in 1999, also lost his job. So did writers and broadcasters who worked for the TribLIVE High School Sports Network. When you lay off the columnist, the beat writer, and the high school writers, you’ve pretty much gotten everybody.

Newspaper sportswriters already knew the horrors of the ad crunch, shrinking budgets, and the stewardship of hedge funds like Alden Global Capital. Now, the carnage is moving faster. On March 23, the New Orleans Times-Picayune and The Advocate announced they had “furloughed”—that is, sent away without pay—multiple reporters, and reduced the rest of their staff to a four-day workweek. Sportswriters at the Greenfield, Massachusetts, Recorder and the Daily Hampshire Gazette said they had been laid off. Last Wednesday, Aaron Bodus lost his job as the sports editor-writer-photographer at the Imperial Valley Press in California. Bodus was one of four regular reporters in the paper’s newsroom.

When Rorabaugh broke into journalism in 2000, his career followed a typical newspaper trajectory. He filled in agate and box scores at the rival Pittsburgh Post-Gazette until he scored an in-house blog and started helping with Penguins reporting. He left the Post-Gazette after he was moved to a desk job; he later did a stint at The Athletic. Last fall, Rorabaugh got the call for a big job: the Penguins beat writer at the Tribune-Review.

Rorabaugh held the job for all of about seven months. “I kind of figured at some point something like that might happen, maybe not as soon as it did,” he said. He has applied for unemployment and has enough savings to get by for a while. Rorabaugh’s insurance expires at the end of the month, though like a lot of writers, he has been without insurance before.

Rorabaugh said Susan McFarland, the Tribune-Review’s executive editor, was kind when she delivered the news. “She told me if there’s an opportunity, once things stabilize for the paper, they’d like to have me back, if that opportunity does exist,” he said.

The word “temporary” is one you hear a lot with coronavirus cuts. In cases like Rorabaugh’s, the cuts will surely be temporary, because someone needs to cover the Penguins when the NHL returns. But “temporary” supposes the country won’t be mired in a recession—or, more optimistically, that a new golden age of newspapers is around the corner. When FanGraphs’ Appelman laid off staffers, he was careful not to make promises, in case the site had discovered its new normal.

In his Twitter goodbye, Rorabaugh hinted that he might be finished with writing hockey. “I’m kind of resigned to the fact that I might not be able to go back to this,” he told me. “If that happens, I’m at peace with it. I certainly hope it doesn’t happen that way.”

On March 12, Jeff Arnold was covering the Big Ten basketball tournament for The New York Times when players were pulled off the court and the tournament was canceled. A Times staffer would have filed away the event for a memoir. For a freelancer like Arnold, it was a disaster. As he drove home to Chicago, he realized the subsequent cancellation of March Madness would cost him three weeks’ worth of income.

“It’s a long time in the car,” he said. “You’re just thinking, Wow, this is all going away.

Sportswriting has a sprawling freelance class that chips in game stories and features and bulks up the roster of newspapers already stretched thin by budget cuts. When Arnold covers the Big Ten tournament for the Times, he makes a newspaper seem like it has a greater reach than it does.

If freelancers live in a near-constant state of economic anxiety, the cancellation of games has made it worse. When former newspaper staffers enter the freelance market, there are fewer assignments for everyone. Moreover, content farms have created a permanent freelancer class. In an economic downturn, that makes writers even easier to cut.

Dave Hogg, who works out of Detroit, had gigs that almost seemed recession-proof. Hogg writes Pistons and Tigers gamers for the Associated Press and Red Wings gamers for Those gigs evaporated when the leagues suspended play.

“I get paid by the game,” Hogg said. “I haven’t gotten a dime since they stopped.” In his free time, Hogg started simulating games across sports, and set up a Patreon so readers could pay him to be a deadline writer in absentia.

Paul Harris, a hockey writer in Detroit, freelances Red Wings gamers for the AP. “Things were tight, anyway,” he said of the period before the crunch. Harris, too, found out that all his gigs had vanished. “This is certainly undiscovered territory,” he said.

To call the New Orleans writer Guerry Smith a “freelancer” is like calling Jrue Holiday a glue guy. Over the past 12 months, Smith said he’d written 370 articles for the Times Picayune and The Advocate, most of them about Tulane University sports. He earns less than $100 per article; the rest of his income comes from writing for the Associated Press and running the Tulane site. The Advocate told Smith his freelancing was being paused for six weeks. In a nervy period in New Orleans, which has more than 2,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, Smith is able to get insurance through his wife, a college professor.

One night this month, Larry Lage, an AP sportswriter, got to thinking about such cases. The next morning, Lage told me, he woke up in tears. On March 13, he set up a fundraiser on Facebook with a goal of raising $2,000 to distribute to freelancers he knew who’d lost work.

Lage quickly met that goal. He reached out to reporter pals to publicize the fund and help find worthy recipients. With donations from Adrian Wojnarowski and Jemele Hill, Lage has raised more than $16,000. He has put money into the Venmo accounts of everyone from writers like Arnold and Hogg to TV makeup artists. Lage got in a beef with Venmo, because it forced him to distribute less than $3,000 per week.

“There’s a lot of people that are going to get hurt by this,” Lage said. “And it’s the fear of the unknown. There’s no one who can tell you how or when this is going to end.

“I’ve kind of thought, how could I make this sustainable long term?” he continued. “Is there a nonprofit here?” It’s a noble sentiment that doubles as a terrible comment on the viability of sportswriting.

Arnold, the Chicago-based freelancer, is trying to refit himself for a sports-less world. He sent a White Sox story to The New York Times in hopes it could be squeezed into the section. He helped the Times’ Chicago bureau with its interactive coronavirus map. He has been spelling overworked editors at the local Patch site. Arnold finds it easier not to think about the money he has lost. “We’re all looking at each other like, What do we do now?