An Interview with Luke Winn
“I’m not sure if it’s in direct competition with traditional mediums — it’s more of a place where things can take on a life of their own after being seen first on mainstream TV, or get noticed (like, say, the Georgia high school clip) and then end up being popular content on mainstream TV. Rather than fighting to keep their content off of YouTube, networks would be better off figuring out ways to monetize the stuff they create that has viral potential. And they’re probably more than happy to attract viewers by airing something salacious they pulled off of YouTube – like Shaq’s now-famous rap about Kobe. “
Luke Winn: Interviewed on August 28, 2008
Position: Senior Writer, SI.com
Born: 1980, Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin
Education: Northwestern, 2002, Journalism
Career: SI.com 2002 –
Favorite restaurant (home): DuMont, Brooklyn, N.Y. “For the mac and cheese, with bacon.”
Favorite restaurant (away): Frostie Freeze, Fort Atkinson, Wis. –“Greatest soft-serv ice-cream stand in the world, or at least Jefferson County”
Favorite hotel: The Mile-a-way Motel, Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin
Luke Winn, excerpted from SI.com, August 8, 2008:
The subject of the most-viewed YouTube sports clip of all-time, in a rather boring revelation, is the world’s most-popular sport. The video is entitled Comedy Football
. It’s a montage of soccer bloopers set to Malcolm Arnold’s The River Kwai March, and it has been watched 16.8 million times since it was posted on March 5, 2007. The most highly played sports clip that originated in the U.S. checks in at a respectable 9.1 million viewers; it’s footage of an All-Star Weekend dance-off
between Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James and Dwight Howard.
If you’re looking for signs that YouTube — which has grown into an 83.4 million-video giant in just its third year of existence — has changed the sporting world, these are not it. Both are exactly the kind of light fodder that might have appeared on stadium scoreboards during downtime in the 1980s or ’90s. Our favorite sports clips, for some reason, are the ones that make us laugh, and our next-favorite sports clips, on YouTube’s most-viewed list, are highlight reels, including the ball-skills of Brazilian footballer Ronaldinho and the dunks of the NBA’s Vince Carter. On a macro level, sports fans’ viewing mediums may have changed, but our viewing preferences have not.
The real impact of YouTube on the sporting world lies in its ability to distribute a breadth of content to a massive audience. It’s estimated that the bandwidth on YouTube in 2007 exceeded that of the whole Internet in 2000, and not only are sports fans there being wowed by highlights of international soccer stars, they’re also raving over pixelated tape of a high-school freshman on a football field in Florida. Not only are they watching NBA All-Stars clown around in Las Vegas, they’re also being exposed to the comedic stylings of a D-Leaguer in Bismarck, N.D. They’re not only being served commentary from pundits on ESPN and Clear Channel; they’re also getting opinions from a basement in Bluegrass Country. Programming is less likely to be digitally encoded by major networks than it is by dedicated bloggers. And video of a wild controversy can go viral not just when it’s from the World Series, but also a prep state-title game on local-access cable in Georgia. In each of these lesser-known instances, the individuals involved are impacted by the power of Internet video. For better or worse, YouTube changed their lives.
Q. You Tube is not your regular beat – how did it come about? Whose idea?
A. I’m lucky to have a bit of freedom, subject-wise. College basketball is my main beat, but I chip in on college football and also spent part of this summer writing a few baseball stories (on Davey Johnson, and then the Cubs’ bullpen) for the magazine. So there’s room to bounce around.
As for the YouTube topic, it was initially proposed to me in a general sense by B.J. Schecter, an editor for SI.com who curates our Friday “Bonus” series. Probably because I was an obsessive linker of YouTube clips in my blog and hoops Power Rankings, he asked me to figure out a way to address the impact of YouTube on the sporting world. At the time the story idea was introduced, neither of us really had any idea how the finished product would take shape.
Q. How did you decide which You Tube viral phenomena to highlight? How did you report it?
A. Before I started any reporting or writing, I spent a while just watching popular sports YouTube clips and thinking about the impact they had on their subjects. Plenty of the most popular ones starred players who are already huge celebrities such as Vince Carter dunk compilations, or footage of a player dance-off at the All-Star Game — and I felt as if their lives wouldn’t be all that different if YouTube never existed. These were essentially just the same highlight-and-blooper clips that fans had been seeing on Jumbotrons for years.
I thought that, for a story on YouTube to work, it had to involve individuals
whose lives were actually affected, for better or worse, by the spread of their
videos. That meant finding some people who were to some degree unknown prior to their YouTube fame.I thought the story could work as a series of vignettes, as long as the subjects were varied enough in nature. I set out hoping I could find someone who might loosely fit each of these five categories:
1. An athlete who became famous for his/her athletic talent via YouTube.
2. A non-athlete who launched a sports career through YouTube.
3. The person who actually uploads/encodes the most viral sports videos —
because it does take some effort for them to actually end up on YouTube.
4. An athlete who became famous for his/her comedy/antics via YouTube, and the effect of this.
5. An athlete who was negatively affected by a sports controversy on YouTube.
No. 1 ended up being Noel Devine, the running back at the University of West Virginia who became Internet-famous for his freshman-year high school highlight tape.
Nos. 2 and 3 were taken from the Deadspin world: Kige Ramsey, the one and only reporter for the fictional “YouTube Sports,” and Brian Powell, the blogger who runs Awful Announcing. As far as I could tell, Powell, who does his work with a TiVo and some cheap software in Virginia, was responsible for more viral YouTube sports clips than anyone else on the Web.
No. 4 was Rod Benson, an NBDL player whose writing — and then YouTubing — I had initially seen on DraftExpress.com. He really has a fantastic comedic voice to all his stuff, and I was interested to hear his agent, Bill Neff, speak so frankly about how some NBA GMs had considered Rod’s work a red flag. No. 5 was Matt Hill, the catcher in the infamous ump-beaning incident that occurred in a Georgia high school state title game in May. Hill was the one ducked out of the way — like he was
blocking a curve in the dirt — and allowed the fastball to sail into the ump’s
Tracking the first four subjects down wasn’t all that hard: I contacted Devine
through West Virginia, found Ramsey’s family’s phone number in Nexis, e-mailed Powell through his blog, and got Benson via his agent. The fifth one, Hill, was a lot trickier, because the story of these Stephens County High School kids had become a huge national thing — from YouTube to ESPN to Bill O’Reilly, even — in June, and neither Hill nor his family had done a single interview. They had been really scarred by the incident, and the amount of vitriol spewed at them, that they just weren’t interested in talking to anyone about it. I assumed I might just have to just report it by talking to peripheral subjects, but I also contacted the Hills a few times, just to let them know I was interested, and that I wanted to approach the story from Matt’s standpoint — not to exonerate him, but just to give a fair picture of what had happened to him since. Matt and his mother eventually agreed to talk, and the resulting story — of him being so changed by the incident that he opted not to play college baseball as a freshman — was probably the most compelling part of the whole YouTube piece.
Q. What were some of the clips that didn’t make your cut? Are there great clips that went unnoticed?
A. One thing I wish I would have included was the story of Josh Jarboe, the highly touted Oklahoma freshman who was released from his scholarship after a video of him rapping about guns made its way onto YouTube. Jarboe had been charged with a gun felony in high school, so this was a sensitive topic, but OU coach Bob Stoops had still allowed Jarboe to come to Oklahoma, and initially backed the kid when the video came out. Then the Sooners caved to public pressure over the video — which really, as rapping goes, was pretty tame — and sent the kid packing.
Brian Cook, a blogger at AOL’s Fanhouse, does a nice job of summing up the situation:
I agree with Cook in that Jarboe got a raw deal.
Q. If sports fans are watching You Tube, how will they have time to watch sports on TV or listen to talk radio? Could traditional electronic media lose audience share to You Tube?
A. I’m not sure if it’s in direct competition with traditional mediums — it’s more of a place where things can take on a life of their own after being seen first on mainstream TV, or get noticed (like, say, the Georgia high school clip) and then end up being popular content on mainstream TV. Rather than fighting to keep their content off of YouTube, networks would be better off figuring out ways to monetize the stuff they create that has viral potential. And they’re probably more than happy to attract viewers by airing something salacious they pulled off of YouTube – like Shaq’s now-famous rap about Kobe.
Q. After this story, how can you go back to covering your regular beat?
A. I’ll just keep linking up clips in my normal stuff — and I’ll keep praying that more athletes like Benson come through the college ranks and start making their own videos.
Q. Who and what do you read and watch to keep up with sports – mainstream and non-mainstream? How much time do you put into it?
A. I go through my Google Reader — with about a million sports blogs – Deadspin, Yahoo blogs, etc., and music blogs – Brooklynvegan, Gorillavsbear, etc., and political blogs – DailyKos, Politico – before I go directly to any mainstream sites. You can pretty much keep an eye on your mainstream competition through Google Reader too, now that everyone has RSS feed. Google Reader has completely changed the way we digest news, probably as much or more that DVR has changed the way we watch TV.
Q. Are you tempted to do a You Tube clip?
A. I’ve considered rapping, like Jarboe. But I’d like to keep my job.
(SMG thanks Luke Winn for his cooperation)