Neal Scarbrough’s acumen in the realm of sports editing and coordinating should never be questioned. While at ESPN, he used his top notch managerial skills to help develop the platform you see today in almost every aspect of the network. With all the league deals going on across the sports scene, Neal was brought in to AOL in attempts to rebuild the channel–employing a unique business model. He did what he could and left AOL with the hugely popular FanHouse intact. Things were up in the air as AOL cut 20% of their staff, but Neal has landed firmly at Sportnet. Sportnet, while in its initial stages of development, eventually will be a power player in the field of mass media by combining athlete representation with cultivating and developing sports websites that will include many fringe sports across the competitive landscape.
Michael Tillery: How did a working relationship between you and Sportnet become a reality?
Neal Scarbrough: I came in contact with these guys over the last 6-9 months. During a meeting at AOL, I found out a little more about their company. From that point I talked to a couple of their sales guys who were trying to find a place for their content–to increase usage. They spoke of having assets to pour into building sites. The Wasserman Media Group wanted to have a deep presence in the fringe sports. They didn’t want to necessarily go head to head with all the big guys (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, etc.), but they wanted to make a major wave with action sports, Olympic sports and other similar alternatives. Their comment to me was they needed a lead editor to kind of throw all this stuff together. That was a comment in passing. As I became available, we were able to talk a little bit in early fall. In October, when I became a “free agent”, we finished the deal. Sportnet had everything I’m looking for.
MT: What are your plans personally for Sportnet?
NS: If you go to Sportnet.com it’s kind of an inactive corporate site. The company has all types of resources dedicated to their athlete and sports sites. Everything is in place–the talent, the technology, the design and vision of strategy to build. That was part of the attraction. My plan really is to organize our content to reach the 18-34 or younger audience. To take some of the sovereignty, create some real appointment viewing, content and community around these niche enthusiasts in sports. They are all about the next thing coming. We also manage over 400 athletes (SFX ). We sort of have a perfect storm of access, athletes and league agreements and things. My job is to come in and organize the content platform. We want to create unique conversations around sports–numerous sites in the next three months. Everything from actual sports support to maybe even some blog sites of under served topics geared to minority audiences. We really are just throwing down what direction we can take, what kind of engine of design in sports writing, relationships and make hay in areas wide open–Olympic sports, action sports, soccer, tennis and maybe mixed martial arts.
I’ve done corporate at two different places. Now I want to do a startup and shape some creativity and vision. To be able to go somewhere where in a couple of cases there aren’t any walls. We have certain limits to what we can do in the next year or so, but there aren’t any walls to what we can do concerning creativity, new ideas and different ways to package the access. It’s literally why they are bringing me in–to help package media and give each site a voice and programming. There are already people that do a great job. I just want to make sure every day it adds up to something.
MT: Have there been any comparisons between you and Larry Brown?
NS: I’ve already been called the Larry Brown of sports journalism. You have to look at my AOL circumstances. My family and I were moving out of Connecticut anyway. When the winds changed there, I raised the flag to try to get somewhere else and thankfully it happened pretty quickly. I was trying to stay out east, but no job offered this type of potential and possibilities.
MT: Could you offer me a parallel to your vision of Sportnet?
NS: It’s more like a publishing house. We have like sixteen sites now. Twelve are going to be up and active everyday. A year from now, that number is going to be thirty or thirty-five. It’s really going to be a network of mixed sites–a FanHouse on steroids that offers a wide range or reading and innovative product. We’re doing a gymnastics site on the side, we have a track and field site for the national governing body. Same thing with swimming, motor cross, skateboarding, snowboarding, and women’s sports. We have fourteen athlete sites presently, but that will grow to more than twenty. We are like a sports web service, but we own all the sites we’re building. We’ll hope to have a pretty powerful reach for sales and to young folk. I’m excited and intrigued by what I don’t know as much of what I do know.
MT: Sounds very interesting. How did you get into managing and editing?
NS: I was a journalism major and I thought I was going to be a writer.
I loved my editing classes. One of my teachers came up to me and threw a brochure on my desk. The brochure described an editing internship for seniors. He said I was good at editing. I applied for the Dow Jones internship and I got it. Worked for the Hartford Courant. Went back out to Colorado and thought I wanted to write. Applied for a couple desk jobs and I got them. I liked the idea of being behind the scenes pushing buttons and putting together pages and editing copy. I wanted to become a sports editor at some point and that happened pretty quickly in the game–more quickly than I planned. I turned to ESPN. They said hey, we wanted someone with news room experience to go to the Internet. That’s how I literally stumbled upon the opportunity to be an Internet editor. At the end of the day, hopefully I was a good enough editor to keep getting jobs and making an impact.
If this is my last job…Hallelujah! If it isn’t, I hope this thing will be better before I leave.
MT: To again give my readers a technical sense of some of your responsibilities as an editor, what kind of piece provoke thought?
NS: I would say the piece that takes me somewhere I haven’t been–writing and story telling. One that shows me they know what they are talking about. Anyone can write a column from the couch, but I’m really talking about a column that’s well put together with some research. Something that makes me react and send it to somebody, engage in a discussion over and make me go deeper and find out more about the topic. That happens about 10% of the time. 90% of the time you have to add something to the piece to get it to where you want it to be. That’s not downing every writer, you just don’t see that perfect piece as much as you would like to. You go to work with a solution to make that happen and you don’t see it. Anymore its about budget, putting people in the right places, establishing relationships in business, sponsors and sales.
MT: What happened at AOL? Were you laid off because of cuts or was it something deeper? AOL FanHouse seemed successful enough.
NS: There was nothing deeper Mike. We were on the same page in terms of performance philosophy. As the company changed, programming became lesser of a priority, so a lot of people on my level were targeted. Stategic folk as opposed to people putting out the pages. It really was a response to how AOL was performing as a company. They had to make some cuts and it wasn’t about cleaning house because people weren’t drinking the kool aid or something. FanHouse was rolling and continues to do so.
MT: What brought about the decision to have Keith Clinkscales write a hit piece on Jason Whitlock?
NS: Jason made a lot of news with his columns. He was great for AOL. We let him tackle anything from politics to sports obviously. He wrote a couple of provocative pieces on Imus. There was a lot of reaction to them. Keith called me up and said he wanted to do a counter piece to this Hip Hop is killing America thing. He was he is Hip Hop. Jason wrote for Keith at Vibe.
He sent the piece and I sent it back to him to take out the personal points and make it more about what the story is. To be honest Michael, his original column was posted before the edited came back to me and we had to swap them out the next day. The original was up for about 12 hours. It wasn’t a point of us (AOL) running from opposing views, it really was an opportunity to offer a dissenting opinion. It really wasn’t a hit piece or something to make somebody else happy. Jason was really out there on one side of the story, so lets give another side. It’s something every newspaper or magazine does with op-ed pieces and then letting others respond.
MT: Did the piece have anything with Whitlock going to Fox?
NS: I would say Jason wasn’t happy about it. Fox offered him what we couldn’t offer. They had more of a sports site. He was being recruited as soon as he wrote his first column for AOL. It had plenty to do with him finding another place to write, but I think it was more about other places offering him more than we could with multimedia.
Jason and I had discussions and we pretty much were good about it. We weren’t going to fight back and forth publicly over the issue because we knew one another and were more important to each other to do that. It was more than just that column, but he definitely let me know he wasn’t happy about it.
MT: What did you add to ESPN and AOL during the time you spent with each company?
NS: At ESPN, we really developed an editorial voice and the news gathering reach. When we were there we added Pat Forde, Marc Stein, Jerry Crasnick, Dan Rafael–voices of authority–which gave ESPN a broader sense of journalism. We developed a bigger multi-media relationship–as far as content on the site. ESPN is doing a more broad job nowadays of incorporating TV and vice versa incorporating the .com. I also helped them find a lot of the minority voices they’ve hired before they’ve been on a surge as of late. I brought Kevin Frazier to their attention. I suggested Stephen A. Smith to replace Tony Kornheiser in a meeting years ago. Everyone looked at me like I was crazy. I always was recruiting minority talent.
At AOL, it was more leveraging the experience I acquired at ESPN to give that site some voice. When I left ESPN, a lot of folks were like AOL doesn’t matter. I’m not sure I was there long enough to make it matter as a first thought in everybody’s mind, but the voice we added before in Whitlock, and now Kevin Blackistone, Sean Jensen (only Asian American columnist) and Gwen Knapp. Obviously what we did with FanHouse. AOL has a voice, AOL matters. Especially in the web 2.0 blog family like you and The Starting Five. I can walk away from there with a sense of accomplishment. FanHouse is a big time. I had a couple people remind me of this this week. There will be a lot of counter voices to FanHouse. ESPN has added a lot of bloggers, so maybe I had an influence on ESPN while at AOL.
MT: I recently interviewed Jemele. What followed is one of the most provocative conversations I’ve ever witnessed about someone else’s work. Our readers throughout were very critical of Jemele but became more objective as the conversation jumped from criticism, to anger, to an all out verbal race war and finally to an impressive search for rational solution. Jemele was gracious enough to face the fire and was an integral part of the discourse. Our readers hopefully read her differently as a result. I was attempting to get our readers to find the diamond shine in her writing for the sake of unity. I see big things for her and have expressed this sentiment numerous times to her personally.
What would you say to our readers who call Black writers to task because they view them as sellouts?
NS: It’s hard to define sellout sometimes. Sometimes people are out there writing pieces with some real voice and the editors don’t see you with the same voice.
My point is not everyone is selling out. Some people have to write for the publications to employ them. A lot of time style is determined by those publications. The unfortunate thing Michael, is that in media, it’s so hard to stand alone. It’s hard to stick out. On the Internet it’s easy because you aren’t writing for anyone but yourself. When you write for someone, it’s hard to take a lot of chances. Everyone is so cautious about the audience they had yesterday. They want that same audience tomorrow. It keeps the persons who push the buttons, making decisions and counting dollars from taking risks. What risk are there really to take chances? A lot of people don’t look at it that way.
That’s why we need independent press. That’s why we need the Internet to apply a reflective take whether Black, Asian or Hispanic–whatever the case may be. If folks think those writing at mainstream sites are selling out, then that’s all the more reason to find their own voices.
MT: I wanted to open up a discussion about writers on our site. We aim to affect here. Zirin, Jemele and Michael Smith have been gracious enough to come on the site and offer their perspective in our comment section. I want to personally thank them all.
NS: That’s how you help control the game. You can have your own game. Your site is programmed as you see it and you don’t have to answer to anyone.
MT: Do corporate relationships affect journalism and reporting? (Hypothetical example: AOL and the NFL)
NS: It’s naive to think that church and state don’t often mix and influence each other. State influencing church is just what happens. I think for the most part folks that take information gathering or reporting seriously, do so without much of a filter–at least in the initial stages. A lot of times it’s impossible for editors or media companies with big money behind them to not consider the reaction some pieces will get. At the end of the day, if you are really about competing and beating the folks who are in the same business you are, you ensure you go to battle with all bullets in the gun. A lot of times you do that and the next day you get harsh email or phone calls from someone (especially on the Internet) to take a story down because it has upset some folks. You have to kind of look at that one story at a time. Sometimes you say, the story is right and we are not going to do that. I remember a few times at ESPN.com, I definitely had that conversation but kept stories up because of accuracy.
Other times you have columnists taking aim at specific sports properties and columns have to be edited because of relationships. Michael you also can’t be stupid about it to the point that I (hypothetically) print a column criticizing my boss. At some point you have to understand those pressures are real. For the most part if you are interested in winning you find out how to not pull any punches. When you make a mistake, you pretty much know about it. A lot of people go to work not worrying about this problem and a lot of people go to work worrying about this problem all the time. That is seen in the reaction of people who sign the pay checks when they do good journalism.
MT: The Barry Bonds indictment obviously is an explosive story that could have a serious affect on how we all view sports along racial lines. The Starting Five’s readers are upset how this story is being reported. It seems like the judge has already decided this case in the court of mainstream public opinion. It’s an indictment. What are your thoughts on the Bond’s indictment as it relates to reporting?
NS: I would say in the past couple days it’s a little hard to paint Barry as a victim. We could get into the merits–or lack thereof–of the justice system, but the fact he’s been indicted gives the media some real meat to sink their teeth into. It’s hard to make the indictment a non story and not paint him as someone that’s potentially guilty of something that’s going on here.
My big issue with the reporting of Barry Bonds is to lead up until there actually is something to sink their teeth into. That’s a whole another story. One can make a case there’s evidence this is a story along the vein of OJ–certainly not the level of gravity–where one group of people feel one way and another the other way. Certain sites cover us one way and Black sites see things differently. There’s no question about that.
I don’t want to say witch hunt, but Barry Bonds has certainly been presumed guilty for at least two years now. It’s hard to start from zero on this story. He’s been presumed guilty by anyone unofficial–from baseball fans to the media. Even African American fans presume something went on, but they don’t see proof and are tired of hearing about it. What I’m concerned about is this reported positive drug test that’s being used as evidence of perjury. If that positive test doesn’t surface then this case is open, shut and gone. You can believe people that talk about Barry with Barry and I’m not sure that’s enough to convict somebody.
Without a positive test, we’ll see how this coverage goes.
MT: That’s true. We’ve discussed this at length on our site. This story has elicited a large number of comments which is unusual for a weekend. We see Barry being vilified since Pittsburgh. The level of hatred directed his way has developed into this gigantic snowball that has swayed public opinion of someone people don’t even know personally.
This is where most Blacks have a problem.
The steroids issue means nothing because of prevalent usage among professional athletes. Barry Bonds will not be the scapegoat for the entire steroid era thirty and forty years down the road. That ain’t right and it’s not going to happen. Blacks have a voice and we are going to use it. Baseball throws out this integrity thing like it’s truly a part of its existence. It’s not. Records would be different if minorities were allowed to participate before 1947–that is a fact. The top ten of any offensive category is chock full of minorities. Runs, home runs, walks, stolen bases, runs batted in etc., are led by Blacks even though we’ve only participated half the time. We’ve played the sport well even though the scrutiny of our technical talent and overall performance has been blinding.
No one else has had to deal with that, but we still get it done. Hank Aaron was not celebrated en masse until Barry crept close to the numbers. There are those who claimed Babe Ruth owned the record–some probably still do.
What traditional integrity are people really trying to defend?
Report the same for Blacks as you report for Whites.
It’s not about the big fish you little guppies.
It also has nothing to do with records. This has to do with one man taking the heat for baseball cotton money. The resurgence in fan participation in the game, new parks being built with homers in mind, and hatred of Barry Bonds has made a huge profit for baseball and its opportunistic ownership. Is that something to be proud of?
Again, Barry was hated a long time ago, so this isn’t something new. That’s where the racism claim comes in. We aren’t saying it’s all about race, but the fact race plays apart cannot be diminished. Racism has led to death the world over, so why is it being made out–in this case–as something minimal?
I’ve personally met Barry and he’s cool with me (I’ve overstated this). Why should I write how he’s such a jerk? If you personally haven’t met him, shut the hell up because you have nothing to offer that’s relevant in this regard. It’s just all hearsay.
Obviously if he perjured himself, then the government is going to come after him.
Whoever wrote the first story about his surliness is accountable and everyone else who chose to write similar pieces thereafter. Be culpable for your own actions without piggy backing on the words of others.
NS: Barry has had a huge hand in shaping his own image. There’s no way to deny that. African Americans are able to separate themselves from whether they like the guy or not.
We will always root for ourselves against the system. That’s why mainstream America sees African Americans as forgiving OJ Simpson for killing his White wife.
That has nothing to do with it. OJ Simpson doesn’t have a friend in the Black community. OJ was symbolic as beating the system because we never beat the system. Barry is similar to that. I’m a Mets fan from way back, so I’ve never liked Barry on the baseball field. I’ve seen plenty of evidence of him being an asshole. When I see and hear this steroid coverage, I say they are going to get him no matter what. They are gonna get him with the side crime. If they can’t get him for this, then they’ll get him for that.
We couldn’t get you to test positive, so we’ll get you for lying.
People are celebrating because they think they have something on Barry Bonds. African Americans were hoping he got away with this. He’s the home run king. If not, then Hank’s the home run king and we are OK with that. We still want to root for a brotha to get away with something–OR to not be guilty of what they are saying.
When I say this I’m not saying that we are just cool with him getting away with anything.
Call us when you have proof. Other than that, you are just dogging another African American guy that’s on top. I think with any of us whose jobs are at the top of an organization, success that put you at the top of the league, a controversial point people tend to rally around, we all know what Barry is going through because we deal with it when we go to work every day.
MT: You had Charles Barkley speak out. Stephen A. Smith and Rob Parker were great Friday (11/16/07) on ESPN First Take. I was very proud of what they had to say and anyone else I’m inadvertently diminishing.
The piling on has to stop.
In December we are going to have three cases involving prominent Black athletes (Adam Jones, Michael Vick and Barry Bonds) covered to ad nauseum.
December is going to be a crazy month for the brothas.
NS: I have my eyes in a lot of fires. I’m still trying to find and create the best kind of news community site that really handles our point of view. You are right there doing with your sports thing. I just think it crosses so many issues. Sites like yours or Black perspective focus types of sites need to really be able to tackle stories. Every one of the issues we’ve talked about…I don’t think anyone is trying to say that Pac Man Jones doesn’t deserve it, or Michael Vick doesn’t deserve it because there’s some real issues there. There’s a reason why they are getting picked on.
One thing I do know is those stories are entirely cued upon, looked at, talked about, handled and appreciated differently in the African American community at large. We are going to have a different view and it’s good to have a site like yours where you can go and read that kind of view. We need more of that because we see sports differently. It’s a big part of everyone’s culture. These are our heroes and we don’t want people in our house telling us our heroes are frauds.
We’ll decide that.
MT: Last point on Bonds. What is up with reporting on the same day that Alex Rodriquez agrees to the outline of a contract with the Yankees? I’ve never heard of someone agreeing to an outline of a contract being so heavily reported. Why was this so much news on the same day as Barry being indicted?
NS: I don’t know what to make of that one. That’s just an odd story to begin with. Scott Boras is like the White Barry Bonds. He has solid accomplishments in his field, yet everyone views him as this pariah. That story was more about ARod signing without his agent. He kicked his agent to the curb and still signed. (11/19 reports are Warren Buffett advised ARod to negotiate without Boras). The impetus for that story is probably Scott Boras as much as it is ARod the saint.
It’s not uncommon to break news of the signing–especially figuring ARod is big news. Teams do it all the time. People actually want to know about this story.
MT: The terminology and the way it was reported is indifferent IMO.
MT: Switching gears. Neal, I have to say you are very charismatic. It’s something I noticed while moderating the NABJ New Journalism panel. During the Black Athlete panel you were a part of, I heard many other similar comments. You’re funny as hell sometimes. Is there ever a pull to take your talents to other unchartered genres? It just seems you are wasting some of your personality being an editor.
NS: I struggle with that. I do want to capitalize on “talent”. I’m really intrigued by radio. If nothing else, I’m a talker. I might have to keep working hard to make it happen myself because so far, I haven’t had the opportunity for someone else to make it happen. I talked about it at ESPN and I was always told that I was this big coordinator, producer, manager. You don’t need to put yourself on air. You are someone we’d rather cultivate as an executive. I don’t know if I’ve always agreed with that. There were definite things to concentrate on at ESPN that were more important than getting myself on the mic or in front of the camera. Now I feel it’s something I should do. Maybe I will.
MT: That probably would have been a good look for ESPN to have put you in front of the camera every now and again.
NS: I was on a couple shows. Stephen A. invited me back when I left. I did a couple of interviews on Ralph Wiley when he passed on the special show they did. I was more of a source than talent. I’m in L.A. now, you never know. I have a couple of friends that are agents out here and they said if I ever got out here they would make it happen. Maybe be one of the guys on a sports round table on TV or something.
MT: What do you want people to know personally about your recent professional move?
NS: I don’t want people to worry about me. I’m doing good. I’m doing exactly what I want to do. The AOL situation is one that didn’t work out for a lot of people. It was also liberating for me because the best thing I did was pay attention to the Internet space and take it seriously. I wanted to get better at it than I was at ESPN. There’s so many opportunities out there. There’s so much to do. I just want to go into my garage and coalesce all the black eyeballs on the Internet. Go to California and help Sportnet create it’s new properties. Maybe do straight journalism. My situation right now is crazy better. I’ve landed with a great company and I suddenly feel very capable to help people figure out this internet thing. The hard work is moving my family out here. That’s about it.
MT: Thanks Neal. Good luck to you.