A Farewell to Purely For Sport

There’s this dime-sized indent of chipped paint 6 inches above the wall outlet in my family’s pale yellow dining room. I’m annoyed. Not at the chipped paint, but at myself. I know my friends and I created it, but I’ve long forgotten how and when. That makes me feel old.

I’m annoyed because I forgot about the chip until now.  I only noticed it because I’m looking around the room, anywhere but at the computer where the right words have been failing to materialize for some time. The small hole is a detail beyond my memory. I once wrote a speech about appreciating the details. It’s frustrating. It feels circular, like I’m giving myself advice that I won’t take.

I am writing this at my family’s dinner table, where I’ve written so many of these posts.

This is the first time I won’t think about what I’m writing next week. Today, 160 Mondays after I started this blog on Christmas Eve of 2012, I’m ending its weekly publication.

It’s overdue, really. The quality of posts during the fall semester dipped dramatically with the returns of The Daily Orange and school. Homework assignments became re-purposed posts and my pride in the blog decayed. You don’t want to read that; I don’t want to write it.

I missed a Monday. Sitting in a computer lab at Syracuse on an October Tuesday, I felt embarrassed and disappointed. It’s the only one I’ve ever missed. I threw up a hurried post. When my parents asked why it had come a day late, I fibbed and told them a scheduled post had failed. I didn’t want that enamel of consistency to erode. In anyone’s eyes. Especially my own.

Maybe I should choose to remember Purely For Sport like this: My first breakthrough was when an ESPN the Magazine columnist tweeted out a story I’d written. Then six months later a story about attending a Clemson-Syracuse football game got 12,000 reads. I worked on projects that interested me; about the fragility of baseball exemplified in Harlem, New Hampshire’s favorite son, a friend who might play too much fantasy baseball and a 7 foot 8.5 inch basketball player.  Drake shouted me out once (1:40).

As my writing grew, I increasingly looked for events to write about. Horse races, the Hot Dog Eating Contest, a famous street-ball court, the stadium of a New England Patriots division rival, anywhere.

Everything was a potential story. I just had to go and see. Was the writing at these events any good? Not often. But I like to think it was the effort and thought that counted. That maybe someday I’d go to similar events and write about it as more than a hobby.

The choice to remember it as the string of successes would make me feel better, but it glosses over the negatives. Some posts weren’t fully developed, not to mention I didn’t seek out edits. They had bloated word counts and unfocused angles. A national writer once called something I wrote “f*cking dumb.” To make things mortifyingly worse, I’d sent it to him hoping for praise. I deserved the comment. I seem to remember hard-learned lessons the best. The quality decline in recent months is perhaps the thing I’d most like to forget.

If the best thing about a tradition is simply the fact that the tradition exists, then doesn’t it make sense to stop doing it?

Yet the decline doesn’t diminish the lessons Purely For Sport taught me before I ever had any other place to write. Yes, it also conditioned a few poor habits, but it cemented a storytelling foundation. Purely For Sport fostered creativity and interest, sustaining them until The Daily Orange and Esquire.com taught me more about rules, angles, covering events, story selection, carefully curating content. It took the energy I had — which formerly manifested on this blog — and molded me into someone who hopes to be a professional. It started me on a path to finding my own voice; it taught me to Google deep-dive research, reach out to people and be curious.

No matter the mistakes I made as collateral to publishing this blog, they were outweighed by the progress. After all, I started PFS to practice. Upon re-reading the block paragraphs and grammatical errors in the first post, it’s evident I needed a lot of it. It’s improved my writing immeasurably.

I knew it’d never break news, be bought by some media conglomerate or win awards. It was for me. But I still annoyingly shared it on Facebook every week.

I didn’t gauge a story on clicks, but when a story was widely read (for me, “widely” means 50 people), WordPress sent a notification to my phone that traffic was abnormally high. I got this feeling, a thrill, when I saw that.

Over the last three-plus years, PFS has received 25,265 visitors. If you’re reading this, it’s too late you’re a part of that number. Every choice has an opportunity cost. You’re using minutes from your life to read some words I strung together.

I know the purpose of writing is to capture moments and feelings, but it’s difficult to articulate how appreciative I am for that.

Thanks also to my father, my first editor, and my mother. My sister as well, who let me write about her when we unexpectedly had a bonding moment over fantasy football.

In that way, Purely For Sport became more than just a blog, a bridge from a childhood interest to a lifelong passion whatever ends up happening to me. It helped me reflect on life and (I hope) appreciate it a little more.

Maybe it’s not about how I choose to remember Purely For Sport. It’s about where I go with what I learned.

I can’t go anywhere though until I stop thinking about that paint chip. Soon I go from the chip to the house to my hometown.

Not to get too #deep, but this blog feels representative of my life here. I am from Strafford, New Hampshire; I am from Purely For Sport. It’s where I spent formative years. But each time I come home or write a blog post, it feels less and less like home. I enjoy visiting when I have time, the nostalgia/relaxation it brings, but I know my life is now elsewhere.

The last two weeks I wanted to post this farewell, but wrote last-minute fillers instead. I kept editing, revising, searching for the *perfect* combination of words I would never find.

I hit publish. That’s all, folks. The only thing to do is move on, do something else productive. But before I move forward, there’s one thing left: Get up from the table.

Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter and the sound Kanye makes in his songs, which he thinks is spelled “HAAN.” He’s not a fan of grammatical error’s. You can read him here every Monday, follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR, or email him at sam.fortier7@gmail.com. 



Year in Review: 2015’s Top Posts

Here’s a quick rundown of the top posts on Purely For Sport in 2015.

5. Bobby Bonilla, Bernie Madoff and the Happiest Day of the Year for Mets Fans (99 reads) – Every year the New York Mets pay a 52-year-old former baseball player $1.19 million, a.k.a more than half their entire roster.

4. Life After Simmons: What will become of Grantland? (117 reads): There used to be a sports newspaper called “The National.” Used to be. Now that Bill Simmons is gone from his boutique site, is Grantland doomed to a demise similar?

3. Mean Girls, Golf Clubs and Toga Times: The 18 Chances of Richie Incognito (135 reads): After a horrendous offseason for PR purposes, the NFL lifted a ban on one of its most serial offenders and baddest dudes. Read about Richie Incognito’s long, long history here.

2. Summer News (528 reads): I headed to New York City to work at Esquire. The job was largely symbolic for me because it’s the same magazine which profiled my grandfather when I was younger and inspired my love for journalism.

1. What It’s Like To Be The World’s Tallest Basketball Player (2,780 reads): Bobby Wegner, of Strafford, New Hampshire, is 7 feet 8.5 inches tall. He plays basketball.

New England’s secret advantage heading into the playoffs

One of the biggest advantages the New England Patriots have going into the AFC playoffs has nothing to do with their team.

Even though the Patriots lost to the New York Jets Sunday, the team still has a guaranteed first-round bye and a chance to lock up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs next Sunday when the Patriots play the Miami Dolphins. And by losing Sunday, the Patriots made it extraordinarily difficult for the Indianapolis Colts to earn a playoff spot.  The Pittsburgh Steelers also have an uncertain future, needing a win in Cleveland and a Jets loss in Buffalo. It’s certainly possible, but not likely.

If the Steelers and Colts both don’t surmount the odds, that means the Houston Texans, Denver Broncos and Jets will squeak into the playoffs. The Kansas City Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals have already guaranteed spots.

If the Steelers and Colts don’t make the playoffs, with quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck, respectively,  then the Patriots will have a clear shot at the AFC crown and Super Bowl.

It’s well-known that the NFL is a quarterback-driven league and, as we saw in the 2014 playoffs with the Arizona Cardinals,  starting someone other than your No. 1 option under center is a terrific way to end the season early. Ryan Lindley was thrust into spot last season for the Cardinals and imploded, partly because he didn’t have enough experience.

This season, if the playoff picture holds true, the Patriots will have the most experience in the AFC at quarterback — ever. Tom Brady will move into a tie for the most NFL playoff games played (30) all-time.

But the gap between Brady and his colleagues is stunning. Let’s break them into “categories.” (I know there’s one guy per category, but I like the idea so go with it.)

The “OK, you’ve technically been here before and I guess this is what you’ve got so let’s roll the dice” category

Only Alex Smith of the Kansas City Chiefs has played in the playoffs, a one-and-done in 2013 with the Chiefs and two games in 2011 with the San Francisco 49ers when he game-managed a Frank Gore rushing attack. (I’m not even throwing undeserved shade. Smith was 20th in passing attempts that year and below No. 15 in yards, touchdowns and completions.)

Smith, the 2005 No. 1 overall pick, never blossomed into a quarterback fitting of his draft position, but he excels at directing his offense and takes care of the football. His 18-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio is the best in the NFL. The only problem is: The offense around Smith isn’t good enough to hide his weaknesses. Charcandrick West is running the ball well out of the backfield, but he’s the not the game-changer the Chiefs had in Jamaal Charles, the initial starter who was lost for the season to an ACL tear. Smith’s offensive line has also let him down often. He’s tied for the league lead in sacks taken (44). The Chiefs are on a nine-game win streak, but aside from the Broncos and Steelers, they haven’t beaten high-caliber teams. Once Smith gets into the playoffs, he’ll be forced to do things he’s proven over the last decade that he cannot do.

The “Cinderella” category

You know three things about Ryan Fitzpatrick: He went to Harvard, got a near-perfect score (48 of 50) on the Wonderlic test, the NFL’s QB aptitude test and (this is the coolest) is nicknamed “The Amish Rifle.”

He seemed poised for success, but the off-the-field smarts didn’t translate. In his first nine NFL seasons with five teams, he sported a 33-55-1 record, threw 123 touchdowns to 101 interceptions and lead the league in picks in 2011 with 23. He never had a winning record anywhere, but finished 6-6 as the Texans quarterback last season. The Jets flipped a sixth-round pick for Fitzpatrick this offseason. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. He started 5-5 with 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, but suddenly something changed.

He won his next five games, rifling 13 touchdowns and just one interception. The secret: He shaved his big beard. Now, a trimmed Fitzpatrick has the Jets in position to win one game and make the postseason. The Jets beat the Patriots, its only quality opponent since the razor came out, and could ride Fitzpatrick’s hot hand into the playoffs. How far will they go before Fitzpatrick’s beard grows back out? Who knows.

The “Out the frying pan and into the fryer” category

Peyton Manning played so horribly that the Denver coaching staff had no choice but to make the switch to Brock Osweiler.

Andy Dalton’s right thumb injury (rumored to be season-ending) limited him, forcing Cincinnati to make the switch to A.J. McCarron.

Osweiler, Manning’s backup since the Broncos picked him in the second round in 2012, had thrown 30 passes before this season.

McCarron, Dalton’s backup since the Bengals picked him in the fifth round in 2014, had never thrown a pass before this season.

Yet they are the starters for their two teams heading into the postseason.

Both quarterbacks have turned in mixed results. Osweiler has thrown eight touchdowns to four interceptions, but never more than one in a game. He’s beaten New England, Chicago and San Diego while losing to Pittsburgh, Oakland and Kansas City. McCarron is completing 70 percent of his passes, but was intercepted twice in a 33-20 loss to division-rival Pittsburgh. He came back the next week and beat San Francisco 24-14 with one touchdown and no interceptions.

Both aren’t ideal candidates to direct a team into the playoffs, but both are seeing their first real action in the biggest times, so the front offices of both clubs will see what they have from their young guns sooner than expected. Don’t expect either to be a serious threat, though.

The “Uh-oh, we have to give this guy a start in a playoff game?” category

Remember that Lindley anecdote I was talking about? In that loss to Carolina, he completed 16 of 28 passes for 82 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. From watching that game, I can tell you that the stat line is generous because Lindley looked lost on the field and the Cardinals never had a shot.

The new Ryan Lindley might be the Texans’ Brandon Weeden. At 29 coming out of college, he always had a ceiling as an NFL prospect, but that didn’t stop the Cleveland Browns from drafting him in the first round anyway. Then he went 5-18 with 28 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in his first four seasons with the Browns and Dallas Cowboys. Then the Cowboys moved on, picking Matt Cassel instead. It should tell you something that Weeden was passed over for Cassel.

Dallas promptly dumped Weeden to the Texans. The Texans needed a replacement for injured starter Brian Hoyer. Weeden won his first start against the Tennessee Titans, more to due with the defense than anything he did, but still he has a winning record with a team (1-0) for the first time in his career. When he makes it to the playoffs, don’t expect him to have a winning record there.

Boxes of Ziti and a Chinese Hardware Store: How I Did Gambling on Sports

There’s an episode of The Sopranos called “The Happy Wanderer” where mob boss Tony Soprano’s daughter’s friend’s father (follow that?) wants in on Tony’s high-stakes executive poker game. A game that Frank Sinatra’s nephew flies in from Vegas to play. The guy, David Scatino, is a respected local businessman, but he has a gambling problem. Tony knows that, so he warns his nephew Christopher not to let Scatino play too far past his limits because Scatino is already in debt. After Tony falls asleep on the couch, Scatino keeps buying back in each time for $10,000 — everyone calls it “10 boxes of ziti” — and Christopher doesn’t stop him. Spoiler alert: Scatino loses a bunch and Tony finds out he already owes multiple boxes of ziti to other area mobsters. Tony & Co. … lean on the guy. I won’t elaborate further than saying it isn’t pleasant for Scatino.

I think my mom envisioned me as Scatino when I told her I started gambling.

I came home in early September from school for my cousin’s wedding and whenever it was mentioned, she stiffened a little and told me once our initial deposit eventually (inevitably) ran out that I should stop. She worried I’d develop into a degenerate gambler. I had gone to my first race track two months prior and lost a little bit of money there, about 30 bucks. I didn’t know horses. I didn’t even know how to read the big book they gave out. I barely understood the terms “box” and “trifecta” then; I don’t really now. (As I type this, I realize how stupid I must seem here.)

… Maybe her fears were justified.

But I really wanted to try something out. I’d spent the summer in New York City without a sustainable income and emerging from that desert to see the mirage of my bank account was disheartening. I’d talked to an uncle who liked to play the stock market and had been reasonably successful. He played conservative. Not getting rich, but his money was making baby money. That appealed to me.

I tried to convince my mother (and myself) that what I was doing wasn’t like the race track.

First, I decided I wouldn’t play the stock market or horses or cards. I didn’t know enough about any of those things to be comfortable risking money. I decided on sports (more on this later). Second, I went into with a partner. My roommate Alex felt similarly about wanting to make a little side money, knew about sports and played a rational foil to my sometimes-overly-optimistic ideas. Third, we researched betting sites and read 20-plus reviews to find the most reliable and user-friendly site. (Our decision to forgo Daily Fantasy Sports like Fan Duel and Draft Kings ended up paying off later when it was found employees of those sites cheated users.) Fourth, we put a hard cap on spending. The site we chose, Bovada.com, offered a 50 percent registering bonus for the beginning of the NFL season. Alex and I mutually invested, splitting a $50 buy-in. Bovada chipped in a $25 credit. We decided that if — no, when — we lost that $75, then we’d stop. Fifth, another reason why I wouldn’t end up like Scatino: No mob involvement.

The way I rationalized it: This was a relatively low sum of money, it’d be fun, I’d learn about gambling and, if we won, I’d have a little bit of money. (Also in the back of my mind: There’s an article here whether we win or lose.)

Our first weekend, we bet conservatively in five-dollar increments across five football spreads. We stuck to point spreads and over/unders for college football and NFL games, preferring those to risking it with the volatility of a regular season baseball game. We won three of five that first weekend, making four dollars and change. Joey and Kyle, our other two roommates, laughed at us for stressing about bets which inevitably yielded such small returns.

A bit of foreshadowing: Six days after I registered for allegedly-trustworthy Bovada, my credit card statements showed a purchase of $100 in supplies from a hardware store in a small, northern Chinese province.

Things went really well. We started winning more, betting in higher increments on fewer games. The confidence rose; we researched more, trying to find the lucrative lines. I downloaded a podcast called “Behind the Bets.” One weekend, we went 5-for-5. I even got the $100 refunded (shout-out TD Bank).

In four weeks, we doubled our initial deposit.

I felt like this (except that first scene; Alex and I are just roommates):

But you know where this is going. The fall-from-grace narrative is nearly as cliche as dorky-dude-gets-girl.

It started slowly. We miscommunicated, bet the wrong side of the USC-Stanford spread. We lost a little bit, and it was particularly frustrating because I had learned a small advantage from the podcast. But no worries, right? We were still in it, and still confident.

To compensate, we tried a parlay for the first time, meaning we’d need to get two bets correct to cash in. The higher risk offered a higher reward. While we were placing the bet, Bovada seemed to freeze for a second, so we double-clicked “Place bets” again. The site registered both clicks and suddenly 40 percent of our assets were on the line for one bet.

We won the first game of the parlay, but didn’t come close on the second. The first domino.

And then I realized something. The reason I didn’t bet on horses, cards or stock is that I knew I knew nothing.  I thought this made me better than other gamblers, my awareness of what I did and did not know. While I thought I was playing to my strengths I really just set myself up with faux-confidence. “I don’t just know the roster of my hometown team,” I rationalized. “I pay close attention to the four major sports. I read and watch a lot more than regular fans. I can be successful.”

My biggest mistake was thinking I knew anything at all.

It took about six weeks, with small and sporadic wins, but we ran our account down to nothing. It’s been eight weeks. I hadn’t opened up the Bovada account since then until today to write this story.

When I came home for Thanksgiving, my dad asked how the “wagering” was going (he was always nice about it in that way), and I told him.

Cue my mom, sideways look.

“So,” she said. Lengthy pause. “Have you put any more money in?”

I laughed it off. No, I was not fulfilling her prophecy of becoming David Scatino. If anything, I had realized that by thinking I was any cleverer than anyone else, I had proven just the opposite.

When I logged on to Bovada today, I saw something. With our last bet, we had apparently triggered some sort of bonus. We’d surpassed a spending threshold. Bovada comp’d us $10.

That’s a box of ziti to me.

Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter and the sound Kanye makes in his songs, which he thinks is spelled “HAAH.” He’s not a fan of grammatical error’s. You can read him here every Monday, follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR, or email him at sam.fortier@yahoo.com. 

The Democratization of Internet Sports Journalism

Perhaps the saddest moment in sports journalism came just weeks ago, on Oct. 30, when ESPN killed Grantland, its boutique sports-and-pop-culture site created to satiate megastar Bill Simmons (Sandomir, 2015). But, it was the not the most unforeseen plug-pull because, simply, Grantland wasn’t profitable because it employed around 50 people and brought in only $6 million in yearly revenue (Travis, 2015). Plus, personality conflicts between Simmons and ESPN management (Miller, 2015).

Still, Grantland’s shuttering is indicative of the upheaval of sports journalism — and journalism in general — at this moment. Money, right now, isn’t in the industry, Stone said, mostly because nearly all journalistic outlets are on an antiquated revenue model which relies heavily on advertising dollars, which rely heavily on page views (Van Meter, 2015). With social media (mostly Twitter), the democratization of the writing on the Internet (anyone can create MyHotTakes.com; I did in high school) and the new 24/7/365 news cycle, those page views spread out over the multitudes of landing sites offering news and opinion. The decrease in page views makes a site less valuable, which means the company earns less on ad sales, which makes the company less profitable, leading to downsizing then reduced production because of a smaller staff then a reduction in credibility because it can’t cover as much.
These major journalism issues (revenue generation, online vs. print, readers, staffs) may be doomsday scenarios but the fact remains: It’s nearly impossible to get whimsical readers to one site consistently (Mitchell, 2015). So how do magazines like Sports Illustrated, which formerly relied on circulation numbers, get people to realize it’s not just a magazine? “We don’t want people to be so caught up in delivery systems,” Stone said (Stone, 2015). “I understand why they would, but … it’s my job now to get people not thinking of Sports Illustrated as a weekly, but as a daily, hourly, up-to-the-minute experience through our Web site.” Stone focuses on bringing his readers, essentially, what they want. It doesn’t sound like a complicated task, but it is.

While adapting to the web, there’s a consumer base of three million subscribers (down from 3.2 million in 2009, he said, which isn’t bad, considering a recession was sandwiched in there) for which to account and provide stellar content. He does this by featuring his reader’s favorite writers online more, bringing the media ever-hungry “goat,” as S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications dean emeritus David Rubin puts it. That goat is always there, perpetually wanting new news and angles and stories. So Stone makes additional content available online for magazine subscribers, creates video and launches focused verticals to target specific readers. (SI just launched “Campus Rush,” a section of its Web site devoted to college sports.) He said a lot of what he does isn’t defined and involves constant thought — if it were easy he wouldn’t have a job. But he said they are issues I should consider. The job of sports journalists is to solve these problems, the largest of his right now being how to balance magazine production with online proficiency.
“You don’t just abandon (print),” Stone said. “But you find that right balance of, ‘OK, even as we’ve accepted the future of Sports Illustrated isn’t going to be built on the back of print … how do we develop a modern Sports Illustrated without compromising on what’s made us who we are?’”
Stone said that last part softly, at almost a whisper. He wasn’t asking me to answer.

Quick analysis of the Red Sox deal with the Mariners

Beyond David Price, a deal I didn’t like anyway, the Boston Red Sox traded away its most reliable source of innings Monday when it dealt lefty Wade Miley and righthanded reliever Jonathan Aro to Seattle. The Mariners sent back righthanded reliever Carson Smith and lefty starter/reliever Roenis Elias.

The trade is sensible for both teams. The Red Sox seemingly want to build a bullpen like the Kansas City Royals. It’s a fair model to build from, seeing as the Royals are the reigning world champions. So presumably the Sox will link the 26-year-old Smith with established setup man Junichi Tazawa and former closer Koji Uehara in a 6th-, 7th- and 8th-inning bridge to closer Craig Kimbrel, which the Sox added earlier in the offseason. Through 79 appearances in the past two seasons, Smith has a 2.07 ERA, 11.2 strikeouts and 2.8 walks per nine innings. Translation: He’s nasty. And the whole Sox bullpen is likely to be too.

If Boston can get five quality innings from its mostly-below-league-average starters (exception: Price), then Boston should have the pieces to string together shutout performances on a nightly basis.

Smith throws sidearm and delivers a two-seam fastball in the mid-90s and a devastating slider which he often used as an out pitch in 2015.

Elias, the second piece received, is 25 and a middling lefty. In two big league seasons, both with Seattle, he’s 15-20 with a 3.97 ERA. His 7.7 strikeouts and 3.5 walks per nine and more pedestrian. Still, Elias is relatively young and holds upside as a lefty with the potential to develop, as shown by his improving lefthanded hitter’s average against, just .227 last season. For the Sox, if Elias develops into a back-end spot starter on par with Brandon Workman, who filled the role last season, that should be enough.

Seattle’s angle in all this seems strange. Why trade a dominant reliever and possibly developing lefty for … Wade Miley? He of the 11-11 record and 4.46 ERA in 2015. However, something the 29-year-old gave Boston something it desperately needed: Innings. With a constantly-in-flux starting rotation of Clay Buchholz, Eduardo Rodriguez, Rick Porcello, Joe Kelly, Henry Owens, Brian Johnson, Steven Wright and Elias, Miley pitched 193 innings — his fourth straight season topping 190. He’s durable, all you can ask for from a No. 4 starter.

The last piece of the trade, Aro, 25, was a great story in Boston’s farm system. He started with a $10,000 international signing bonus and made an ascent to MLB. However, he allowed eight runs in 10.1 innings last season, his first in the bigs.

This trade, overall, was a huge win for Boston. The Red Sox have seemingly amassed talent which a club needs to make a deep postseason run while giving up minimal assets. Garin Cecchini, Deven Marrero and other high-profile prospects are still in the system while Manuel Margot is the only true top talent who left — and his young age of 20 made him a risky asset anyway.

Yes, the Sox lost Miley’s consistency, but an army of arms can fill its place and bridge of Tazawa to Uehara to Smith (in any order) is intimidating enough before considering Kimbrel is at the end of it.

And that’s worth more than Miley’s mediocre 190 innings could offer.


An interview with Chris Hercik, Sports Illustrated’s Creative Director

As a class project, I was assigned to learn about the magazine industry and all its facets (editorial, advertising, creative) by profiling one national magazine. A subscriber since 2004, I picked SI. Here’s the second part of my three-part series from interviews with the people who create one the world’s best sports magazines — and why those same people want you stop thinking about it as just a magazine.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Here’s Chris Hercik:

On his job description as Sports Illustrated Creative Director…

I oversee the creative identity of the magazine. Any new products we put out, weekly products, the Swimsuit issue, commemorative issues that we do, the .com website or mobile or tablet products that we design or distribute and all the visual aesthetics of it. I want to make sure (all those things) have that Sports Illustrated look and feel that people have come to love about the pictures and the writing. It’s really: How do you bring that all together in a visual story?

On his day-to-day routine…

As much as I’m the creative director of Sports Illustrated, I’m also the VP of Time Inc., native. I have about half of my day being spent on corporate initiatives, working across brands and across titles to create advertising programs. But only a daily basis, coming in, (I’m) seeing where all the designs are at, checking the layouts, the cover. Right now we’re in the preview season. We start with the college football preview then the NFL preview then we’ll do the college basketball preview and then the NBA preview. You have to keep those trains running while getting the weekly tasks done. It comes down to time management, trying to figure out when to do a re-design of the magazine and how to fit that into the schedule … So a lot of it’s time management and juggling and making sure we keep the trains running but while still looking forward for new creative designs and bigger-picture ideas. As well as, the big picture thing you know that I work on is swimsuit, and that comes out in February so we’re going to start laying that out in the next month and that’s going to take a large portion of time as well.

On commemorative editions…

There’s a World Series commemorative that has to happen. There are two started right now—one for obviously the Royals and one for the Mets. We sort of stopped working on the Mets one for now (after the Mets went down 2-0) and then went a little harder on the Royals to get that done so if they win, it’s done and out the door the next day.

On redesigning the magazine…

I would like to (re-design) within the next month. (SI) needs to be freshened up and I think it needs to respond a little more to what’s going on in culture. The aesthetics need to keep pace. Five years ago you wouldn’t redesign a magazine but every three years. But now, with the way mobile is and the way the internet is, people expect something new and fresh and change more frequently. In reality I’d like to redesign a magazine almost yearly to keep it fresh and current, but that means starting over from scratch. The whole grid of the magazine with fonts and typefaces and look and feel. It’s always going to have the Sports Illustrated DNA, but we want it to look unique. We don’t want it to look like ESPN. But how do we redesign to keep it fresh and new and exciting while keeping the basics of Sports Illustrated?

On what he’d like to change in the redesign…

I’d take a look at the pacing of the magazine. What are the sections of the magazine? Do we need all of them? Are they all still relevant? Everybody loves “Leading Off.” Maybe “Leading Off” gets another photo and “Scorecard” gets one fewer page. The feature well maybe gets bigger, I don’t know. But I do think we need to re-examine the magazine and see what’s working and what’s not. Maybe we add more columns; maybe we add a different back page. I think everything’s fair game when you go into a redesign. Usually it’s just the visual aesthetics, but for this one I’ve been working with our managing editor Chris Stone on it to say, ‘What else can we do and what else needs to be redesigned?’

On the balance between creative design and basic information transfer…

First, all the Sports Illustrated properties need to visually hold together. Even if one’s digital and one’s print, when you come to a product, you should know that it looks like SI. Any SI property, when you look at it, should hold together as a single brand. … So when I approach it, I think: What is the best direction for SI to go? What are we trying to convey? Whether we’re more digital or whether we’re responding to favorite tweets. Things like, we used to have “Letters” (in a front-of-book section) and now we have “Tweets.”

On balancing advertisement and editorial needs in native advertising…

In both situations, what the advertiser is trying to reach and what editorial is trying to do is: They’re both trying to give the reader the best experience. We’re trying to give the reader something they didn’t know and insights they didn’t have before. We don’t have to hit them over the head with ads. You don’t have to do that. It can be a line under the advertiser in content. You don’t have to write an advertiser’s name into a piece of content for people to understand what you’re doing. Our readers are smarter than that. As long as we’re able to give them added value or added benefit, our audience will engage. (Advertisers) know if it comes from Sports Illustrated … then they see a four to six times lift in engagement. In other words: The combination of the two together makes the difference because Sports Illustrated is working together with a partner to create a special piece of content for you, the reader. We know you’re going to like it, we know you’re going to read it, and we know you’ll engage with it. The readers are like, ‘Oh yeah, this is great. They made this for me.’ It’s not the old advertorial scenario anymore; it’s very much tailored to a certain need.

On the Sports Illustrated style…

We’re not the big flashy Esquire or GQ— and I don’t mean that in any disrespect — where I think sometimes design takes over for a lack of content. We are the exact opposite. I know that at SI the two things that readers want are photography and journalism. I’m happy (for design) to be the third wheel on that. My job is to make sure that we tell a story. (The design) may not win an award, but we’re a weekly magazine and we need to get it out on time and get the reader the best experience. We have to make sure it’s well-organized, easy to navigate and easy to read. That’s what we’re trying to do. Could we do GQ and Esquire for SI? One hundred percent. I could have big pictures and little words — and that’s great for that audience. I love GQ and Esquire, I read them personally, but that’s a totally different mindset.  If you took GQ and Esquire and crossed it with The New Yorker then SI is somewhere in the middle. That’s the best analogy I have for it. We just need to make sure we frame and showcase our content and make it (easy on) our readers. That sometimes means sacrificing flashy design, or design for design’s sake, but that’s what SI is.

On what he looks for in ‘good’ design…

Two things in good design: Balance, balance on a page, and contrast. Things shouldn’t look and feel like they have the same weight. How you design a page emphasizes how someone reads through a page. If you put a block of text, a photo and a caption all at the same size then obviously it’s hard to choose which to (read first). Make the photo four times the size then your eye will go right to that. Using visual cues to be able to, as a reader is flowing, to pick out a photo or pull quote or caption. To have another bit of content. Or it’s also to — knowing our stories are longer — give reader’s some of what I like to call “visual sorbet.” It’s giving your eyes a break before you continue reading. It’s also entry points. We don’t do a ton of entry points. I wish we would do more because I think people enter pages at very different ways and I think that’s one thing I would change. We should have more entry points on a page and that starts with a good grid system because things look clean and organized. It’s not things jutting through copy and it’s one of those things that hard to explain but when you look at a good page and look at a bad page then you can just immediately tell what the difference is.

On the nitty gritty of what makes a magazine well-designed…

We spend a lot of time tracking, kerning, ledding, and all the buzzwords that, if you asked readers, they wouldn’t know. But they do know they have a very smooth experience. White space. That’s not something we do at SI very well because every time we have white space everybody wants to fill it and that’s fine. We fight that battle because it does give more content to the reader, but I’d like to open up our pages a little bit. … I hate spaces between ellipses by the way. I like them next to one another. I think it just looks odd. It’s one of those things, right? When you have them side by side you see: The ellipses together just looks better and to me that says the same thing. Whoever made the style about put the extra space, I’m like, ‘Why?’ and it’s like those things where you go with your gut. Our copy desk talks a lot about that and sometimes it’s just a thing where, it looks better. This isn’t rocket science.

On what he looks for in ‘entry points’…

Charts, infographics. I have a short attention span so it’s hard for me to get through a big piece. But with more entry points, I can read through a story without reading through a story and then when I have time I can sit down and read through that longer story. But I also want to have those entry points add stuff to that story that’s not necessarily there in the text. Added facts, added quotes, added photographs, added value without having to write it into the story yet you’re giving the reader more information. And when you look at a page you should be able to sort of enter a story at multiple different points and have some added information about a story at any given point.

On how to bring the elements of page design online…

Here is the bane of my existence. On SI.com, with any web site, it just doesn’t translate. Here’s my biggest beef with the web site: Every web site you go to, rather than having an indent with the paragraph, they have a line space. I’m like, ‘That’s great, but everything you read has no line space and an indent. Why do we have this when the normal way of reading (is with an indent)?’ And when you look online it starts to seem odd. That doesn’t translate one to one. You’re spending a lot of time working on very fixed templates. We spend a lot of time designing to a space, but a lot of mobile browsers and web browsers are different sizes. Different resolutions are different sizes. If you open or close your window then the widow you just cut is still there. You have to let a lot go for online. But the one thing you can do is, again, be simple and just use high-impact photography because it looks amazing. Don’t screw with the words. All too often, if you’re going to run a story, they have boxes that jut halfway in and I’m like, ‘I would clean up some of those things,’ but it’s tougher. For a medium to be agile, it’s the hardest thing to get stuff fixed or do stuff with. SI’s site has a million pages in it, so it’s not like you can change one thing and that’s it. Where we do have a little bit of freedom is at SI.com/longform and you look at all of our longform templates that are really highly designed and customized, parallax, scrolling videos, that’s where we have the freedom to interject the aesthetics from a magazine into online. You just can’t do it every day. You just can’t do it on every page.

On his favorite covers in the over 700 he’s done or overseen at SI…

The one that will always rank up there will be the Boston marathon cover. The one we ran on the day of the bombing and the one that we ran a year later where 3,000 people came out to the start-finish line to gather for the Boston strong cover. That’s one of my all-time favorites. The 60th anniversary cover, where I had the idea to recreate our very first cover using Instagram photo pictures of all of our readers, those are always super cool. And then there are swimsuit issues. They are what they are, but some things, like Kate Upton on the bow of this ship in Antarctica? That stuff never happens. That’s a moment. You can go on through stories that I’m trying to think of. There’s a whole wall of them. … Another one is the first cover I ever did here at Sports Illustrated which was a high school athlete about 13 or 14 years ago that had really bad design and was ugly, but it was a kid sitting on his football helmet in the middle of a football field. It was all in sort of Sepia, but that was the first cover I ever designed for Sports Illustrated, which was really cool.

[At this point I noticed Wright Thompson’s mammoth “Saints and Sinners” cover story for ESPN the Mag on Hercik’s desk] …

On how closely pays attention to the design of competing magazines…

I mean, I look at the design. I like to see what they’re doing. I look to see how they’re dealing with similar subject matter. When we do our NBA preview, I look at them for what they’re doing for an NBA preview. Are they giving different stats? Are they featuring different people? It’s not the size, the color, the fonts. It’s, ‘How’re they dealing with similar weekly topics?’ They have their sort of, ‘Zoom’ is their photo section. Like what’re they doing? Ours are always great action photos, but what did they get that we didn’t get? Are we missing something? Then of course covers. I just like to see how they treated a subject. I wish I just had that paper and that size format, too.

On the style of paper Sports Illustrated uses (XXX) compared to ESPN the Mag (XXX)…

As a weekly it kills us to be on the paper stock that we’re on. We did an exercise we printed it out at that size and everything just looked so much better. But everybody looks at it for different reasons, but I just want to know that we’re on the same plane. Like if we’re going in a similar direction and one of us isn’t going crazy, then I feel like, ‘OK, we’re on the same page.’ But if we start changing up something and they’re not then I’m like, ‘OK, we’re doing something really good or we’re making a really bad choice.’ You look at it and you try to get as much information as possible in the end and looking at what they’re doing and who they’re featuring.

On what helped him most get to Sports Illustrated…

Well, it’s funny. I was a graphic design and advertising major in college (at Moravian). None of those classes were magazine classes. The professor at the time, Jamie Franky, was into magazines. I couldn’t remember how he actually got into them, but on Friday afternoons he would hold a computer class for anyone who wanted to come and learn how to use InDesign — well, back then it was Quark — but Quark, layouts and how magazines worked. I was like, ‘Well, I’m sort of interested,’ so I went. And only two other people went and the three of us and him. Today, two of us are creative directors at national magazines.

On what makes him love magazine design specifically…

I liked the arts, but I loved structure more. Like, I have to have structure. What magazines and newspapers at the time did was give structure to what I like to do, (which is) to tell a story through a very linear process. Art is great. You can look at it through many different ways and interpret it, but magazine design is very straight-forward. Something just clicked. I really liked the process. I love photography. I like looking at photos. How does that accentuate design? I like going through the process of creating it. How do we go from in my head, from the moment we have an idea and I can see it in my head, through the actual photoshoot and the layout? But then we have to go to the photoshoot and actually create it. Sometimes that doesn’t match up with what’s in my head. It’s hard to sometimes explain what I see. But it’s one of those things that, with anything I do even today, I still have to keep my hands dirty in magazines because I like designing a cover or a page here or a page there. I just really am passionate about design. Especially — I don’t want to say print even — but storytelling. Let’s put it that way.

On his biggest challenge…

With anything, I know how I would do it if I were doing it, you know? Sometimes I can do something in 15 minutes but I don’t have the time, so someone else has to do it. Like, sometimes it’s hard to explain what I’m thinking without just doing it myself. If I’m sitting here telling you about it, I could’ve just had it done if we just worked on it together. A lot of it is, ‘Do I do it? Do I not do it?’ Do I do it myself or do I delegate? And then when I delegate, it’s not what (I was) thinking. I tell Brad (Smith), our photo editor, how I want something to look but then it comes back and it’s not exactly what I was thinking. But I can’t be on every shoot. I can’t be everywhere. It’s on me to give as much direction and clarity as possible. It’s also hiring the right people who think like you. I have a great group of people here who share the same visual aesthetic and can pick up a lot of the stuff when I’m up running around the company.

On the ideas he brought from previous jobs…

The first job I ever got was at the Eastern Pennsylvania Business Journal. Three of us from our class had to go in — because we all applied for the same job — and we had to do a test where we create an ad. I got the job. Six months later they told me why I got the job. (My boss) is like, ‘In the same time everyone else did one ad, you did three ads.’ … For me it was just such a natural iteration. Like, ‘This one’s done,’ so I would save that version and create multiple versions. (The first job) was sort of learning and honing the skills of good design. Really asking why a lot — to the point where I sort of pissed off my creative director a lot. I really wanted to know everything he knew. When I interviewed (at Sports Illustrated), it was about being able to do a layout quickly, competently within 24 to 48 hours. Monthly (publications) have days to work on layouts. We have hours. He needed to be able to have an aesthetic and a sensibility that could get you 80 percent of the way there and then he would give his input and then that would finish it off.

On how he got hired at Sports Illustrated…

The interview process for here was a portfolio, which I got lucky enough to send in a portfolio right at a time when they were hiring which I didn’t know. I sent in my portfolio on a Wednesday, got a call on Friday and hired on Saturday.

On what his creative team is like at SI…

Eight people. … We used to have 16 in the art department, so we’re down to half. We design the magazine and then the tablet issue on Tuesday, so really the magazine starts Tuesday afternoon with some pages. Everybody’s off on Wednesday. Then Thursday and Friday everybody’s in here again and then Monday we close the issue. Maybe it’s about 40 to 45 pages of edit so you got about eight people, not counting me because I only do the cover. So seven people basically doing a story or a section each in the magazine. It’s not like you just design it and it’s done. You have design it, go through the process, art-check it. You have to put it through and design the digital edition which comes out the next day. And not just that, you have to start designing the NBA preview which comes out the next day, it’s starting a commemorative and a lot of it is time management and managing workflow.

On what he would write down first if writing a book about creative design…

Think about the reader first. All too often you get caught up in how I would view the page or what looks cool or interesting, but you have to think: There are 3.1 million people who’re going to read this. I think starting with the reader in mind as the ultimate guide would be the advice I could give. Also, photography, to me, is underutilized because we just don’t have the space. The tablet edition is beautiful because we have an unlimited amount of pages because we can run as many (photos) as we want and whatever size we want. There’s no paper so everything’s white.

On the challenges of printing…

The biggest one is space. Today we’re 60 pages and we used to be 160 pages. So, how do you do more in fewer pages? If you just cut stuff out of the issue then you still want the reader to feel like they’re getting their value but you want to make sure you’re covering enough sports. In the end, it’s supposed to be an enjoyable experience. Someone’s investing some time in your publication and you want to make sure it still lives up to their expectations. So my piece of advice is: If you’re getting this magazine, what would you want to see and how would you want to read? … It’s tough because those things (like the sections “Hot or Not,” “Pop Culture grid” or “Sign of the Apocalypse”) are franchises and staples that people have come to enjoy but you just don’t have space for them. Pop culture grid was awesome, but it’s: How do you get time with three athletes every week? Sometimes it was more than that. That’s where sometimes it’s a big expense… but I’m with you on the pop culture grid.

On when Rick Reilly left…

… That’s the evolution of the brand. I love Reilly. I thought he was synonymous with the brand of SI at the time and he just had a different vision and unfortunately …  I miss those big personalities. Not that we don’t have any big personalities now, but someone with that big humor bone. You know what I mean? The Onion, CollegeHumor, you know… (Reilly) was sort of the pioneer or the genesis of that sort of stuff. I still wish he was doing his thing, just for less money.

On the differences between weeklies and monthlies…

They’re really different. Yet, in a way, I believe that weeklies are the new monthlies. We still don’t compete with the news cycle so you still treat a weekly like a monthly. You have to approach it from what I think SI does well is that you have to treat it like premium. You don’t write off Game 2 of the World Series because everyone’s watched it, read all the social on it and then saw the highlights and then saw the second highlights about it. What we need to do is an insightful piece about how we have a different take on the World Series. Whether that’s Game 7 or Game 1, or whether it’s over. We need a take you want to read about the World Series. We have to approach the magazine with a new aesthetic. We need to approach this and timely — I mean, we still need to be relevant; we shouldn’t put something on the cover in the offseason, though I probably would (in some cases) disagree with my own statement — because if it’s a good story then it’s a good story. We just put Muhammad Ali on the cover for the legacy award and that was an amazing event and we got to meet him, but it had no relevance to anything happening right now other than we were giving him the award. But it was a great story. I felt like we were a monthly. I loved it. Thought it was great.

On the differences between working for each…

I would go crazy at a monthly right now. Knowing that something I do won’t be out for another 20 more days and then knowing when it comes out it’s 40 days after you discussed it—and I worked for a monthly, I loved it—but like right now I’d be like, ‘Oh my God. I can’t do it.’ Right now I leave on Monday and I come in Tuesday and it’s on my desk. I get to see immediately. It fits in with today’s world of immediate gratification but as far as design goes, Time Inc. has a portfolio of brands that are iconic. To look back as only the sixth creative director in Sports Illustrated history and to have designed…14 times 50 covers, whatever that turns out to be…it’s an honor. It’s a sh*t-load of covers, I know that. If I only had to do 12 a year that’d be so easy, but we do 50 and that’s not even covering regionals, special issues and so we put out close to 70 covers per year and I think that’s really cool to know that four million people see your work. Sometimes when you get this close you need to take a step back and say, ‘I design Sports Illustrated.’ It’s one of the coolest things you can say you do.