Aaron Schatz: Keeping score for football fanatics
Wednesday, January 26th, 2011
Football Outsiders has provided stats and analysis to football junkies since July 2003. Creator Aaron Schatz has appeared on CNN and NPR, and he currently writes for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Aaron has also been written The New York Times, Slate, and The Boston Globe. Aaron’s football commentary continues on Twitter @FO_ASchatz, where his followers range from fellow sports writers and other sports bloggers (including Senior Sports Illustrated NFL Writer to Peter King and redskinsblog) Fantasy Football analysts (including CBSSports.com writer Dave Richard) and plenty of NFL fans. The New England Patriots fan currently lives in Framingham, Massachusetts with his wife and daughter.
Q: When and how was Football Outsiders conceived?
A: I started goofing around with football stats in December of 2002. I was always a fan of Bill James, the baseball statistician, from way back, and I had read Hidden Game of Football by Carroll, Thorn, and Palmer. I didn’t know why I couldn’t find anyone who did this kind of analysis for the NFL on a regular basis. I had questions, and they needed answering. I started playing around with the stats, and within a few months I had some articles. I shared them with some people I knew at larger websites, and they all agreed that the articles were interesting but were for a small niche audience. I got together with some of my frat brothers from Brown, a programmer and two fantasy football columnists, and we launched the site in July 2003. It turned out to be perfect timing because around that time, Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball was starting to become a big deal, and everyone went onto the Web looking for “the Moneyball of (blank).” And there we were.
Q: How many people write for Football Outsiders? Are they all located in a similar geographic location?
A: No, people are spread all over the country. I’ve never even met some of my writers. There are only two full-time workers, me and Bill Barnwell, and we both live in the Boston area, but none of the other writers are here. We’ve got a couple in Seattle, a couple in Chicago. Mike Tanier is in South Jersey, Ben Muth out in Arizona. The college guys live in good college hotbeds: South Bend, Columbia, MO, Gainesville, and Atlanta. There are about a dozen guys who write for FO in one way or another, plus a couple guys who help out with programming.
One of the best parts of this has been the people coming out of the woodwork to write. I reached out to a couple of guys who had good blogs– that’s how I got the two college statisticians, Brian Fremeau and Bill Connelly– but also people reached out to me. Mike Tanier is the best pure writer on the staff; he approached me after working for a newspaper syndication service that didn’t even put his name on the articles. Ben Muth came to us last year, which now gives us an ex-player on staff; he was an all-Pac-10 left tackle at Stanford. And then people have become successful enough to make this into a career. Doug Farrar now makes a living writing, split between four websites (FO is one of them). Michael David Smith was the first outside writer I hired who wasn’t one of my Brown frat brothers, and he outgrew us and now writes full time for AOL. It’s great to have the opportunity to write about sports for a living, and it’s also great to be able to help other people get that opportunity.
Q: With a staff that large, there must surely be different biases for/against teams among your writers. Do the various team loyalties ever create conflict between your writers? Do you strive to keep your allegiances out of your posts?
A: No, I do think I’m part of the “Bill Simmons Generation” of Internet writers who decided that there was nothing wrong with being honest about fan loyalties. I mean, I did start this *because* I am a fan. I don’t want to ever get so jaded that I’m not actually enjoying sports, which sometimes seems to be the case with some of the local Boston columnists. But the FO writers respect each other. None of us have ever had a fight because our teams were facing each other in a big game. We actually keep a list on our FAQ so that if people are accusing us of bias, at least they can properly accuse the right people. When Ned Macey gets accused of Patriots bias, that’s a little silly since Ned lives in Indianapolis.
Q: What sets Football Outsiders apart from other football blogs?
A: Football is a game that can be enjoyed on a lot of different levels. You can be totally devoted to just one team. You can watch it because you like to watch fat guys beat each other up. You can watch it just to see cheerleaders, or to see a couple amazing athletic feats each week. Or you can enjoy it as a chess game where each team has 11 moving pieces at all times. Until FO came around, that last group was underserved by the media. Thanks to FO and the other sites that have popped up in our wake– plus the smartest NFL analyst, Ron Jaworski, being put on high-profile Monday Night Football– that is no longer the case.
I often say that Football Outsiders features intelligent conversation about football from people who don’t write “MY TEAM RULEZZZZZ!” with five “Z’s” at the end.
I also should point out that FO isn’t really a blog, per se. I agree with Nick Denton of Gawker Media about the development of websites, where blogs and websites that considered themselves “magazine-style” websites are gradually combining to be the same thing. We have a blog, sort of, in that we have a section called Extra Points with small commentaries and links to the biggest news of the day. But the main section of FO is more along the lines of Slate or Salon, with regular articles that hit on a weekly basis during the season. What’s important is that we are independent, and that meant that we needed a way to sell advertising through a central broker, and Blogads fit our needs perfectly. It didn’t matter if we called ourselves a blog or not.
Q: Have you found that your demographic of readers has changed since 2003?
A: As far as I can tell, we’ve got basically the same types of readers as we did back in the beginning, only more of them. One thing I can note about our blog is that we seem to have a higher percentage of international readers than the actual percent of sports fans interested in NFL football overseas. That makes sense– if you live in Peru or Israel, and you want to follow the NFL, you have to go online. And if you are that interested in football, you are likely very passionate about it and would want to visit a website where the writers and other users shared that passion.
Q: Are there any specific game highlights that you have encountered during the tenure of FO that stick out most in your mind?
A: Game highlights? I mean, we’ve been lucky to be doing this during some of the most memorable seasons in NFL history. In particular, we’re lucky we’re not doing Super Bowl previews back in the 80s when Super Bowls all ended up 45-10 or whatever. As a Pats fan, the David Tyree catch in the Super Bowl was a miserable moment for me, but of course it is the greatest Super Bowl play of all time for everyone else. Well, unless you think the Santonio Holmes catch the following year was the greatest Super Bowl play of all time. Fourth-and-2, fourth-and-26, the bomb that set TD records for Tom Brady and Randy Moss, the phantom holding call on Sean Locklear, the Antwaan Randle El trick pass in that same Super Bowl, the Saints’ onside kick in last year’s Super Bowl, the “we want the ball and we’re going to score” pick by Matt Hasselbeck… We’ve had a lot of memorable moments to write about.
(I assume everyone knows fourth-and-2 was the play from last year’s Pats-Colts game. For those who don’t remember, the Eagles had to convert fourth-and-26 to beat Green Bay during the 2003 playoffs, the week after Green Bay picked off Matt Hasselbeck in overtime after he followed the coin toss by saying, “We want the ball and we’re going to score”)
Q: What is something that your readers might not know about you or your staff?
A: Some people know that I was a radio disc jockey earlier in life, but most people don’t know my other claim to fame, which is that I’m one of the people responsible for Creed. I was doing middays and serving as music director for 93.1 WKRO in Daytona Beach, Florida (incidentally, number one on a countdown of “cities where I really do not fit in with anyone”). The morning guys brought me this CD of an unsigned band from Tallahassee, which had been their market before they came to Daytona. I listened to it and thought, “This is horrible, but man our listeners love this crap.” There was this “Florida sound” going on at the time, with heavy rock bands that were kind of “grunge lite”– Creed, Seven Mary Three, Mighty Joe Plum, and Matchbox 20, although they went in a softer direction long-term. Anyway, you program a station for the listeners, not for yourself. I convinced our program director to play them even though it was just a demo, and within a week it was in heavy rotation as the number one most requested song on the station. We were the second station in America to play them, after the Tallahassee station, and that popularity in Daytona helped them get their label deal. As I explain to people, everything I’ve done since has been an attempt to make up for my small part in unleashing the horror that is Scott Stapp upon the world.
Q: FO has some big-name followers on Twitter. What does Tweeting add to your blogging experience?
A: I don’t really think it “adds to our blogging experience.” It’s a good way to share small thoughts with readers. Sometimes I’ll come across an interesting stat, but one that’s not big enough to deserve its own post on FO. During games, I’ll have little thoughts about whatever is happening, or a joke. Blowouts for some reason make me go crazy with jokes. Check out my Twitter feed from Monday night December 6 sometime. Also, I use Twitter to keep up with reporters around the league. When news happens, you find out about it immediately. Twitter just blows up with big news, like when the Vikings cut Randy Moss a few weeks ago.
Q: Do you personally have a go-to blogger either for inspiration or provocation?
A: Not really. My biggest goal is to find really good team-related blogs that I can read on a regular basis, so that I can link to them and give them more attention when they write something good. Among the best: Niners Nation, 18 to 88, Texans Chick, and Brian Bassett’s The Jets Blog.
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