Sarah Phillips and the Big Con of Internet Sportswriting
In case you missed it, Deadspin published an amazing story yesterday -- an ESPN.com writer named Sarah Phillips wasn't who she claimed to be.
I think what's eventually going to come out is that a guy realized that if he wrote as a girl he'd have more success getting attention. Why? Because guys are all responsive to a hot chick. So the guy recruited a hot chick to be the face of the column, to handle telephone conversations, and to carry on the fiction that she was really the writer. Hell, she may have even helped out, they could have been a tandem, the Bonnie and Clyde of Internet sportswriting.
When you break it down, the con was actually pretty brilliant, the Frankenstein of modern sportswriting, a logical extention of today's personal branding; she was the perfect Internet sportswriter. So meteoric was "Sarah Phillips" rise that a year after she started writing on gambling message boards she was an ESPN.com employee writing regular columns.
Would that have happened if Phillips wasn't a hot chick?
There are tens of thousands of online writers who have been busting their asses for years writing who have never gotten paid a cent for their content. Much less become ESPN employees. (ESPN will argue that she was freelance and not an actual employee. Stop with that fiction. Just about everyone who writes anything online today does so on a freelance basis).
The Sarah Phillips con played us all perfectly, sending an upstart writer who looked different -- even if she wrote the same -- soaring from inception to the worldwide leader in a year's time. As if that wasn't enough, the conners also artificially buttressed Phillips' social media standing by taking over successful Twitter and Facebook pages and turning them into shills for Phillips. Out of nowhere a message board gambling writer ascended on the strength of her Twitter followers and Facebook likes.
Even if, you know, it was all just a clever online manipulation.
As an online writer I should probably be offended by this con job, but I'm more fascinated than I am offended. I love all of the elements of the story, particularly the long con that would leave Sawyer from "Lost" impressed.
And if you really want to play ethics games is Phillips really doing much different than many sports sites on the Internet that have mastered Google's ranking system to manipulate traffic and lend an artificial credibility to their visitor counts?
Aren't many sports page views really just a function of manipulated site traffic rooted in rewrites of the original content? Is it different when an individual does what many companies are making a living doing? Indeed, the most interesting aspect to this whole story is that Phillips and the cabal behind her online rise to prominence were planning on starting a site to take advantage of their mastery of the Internet dark arts. If they could build a personality out of thin air why couldn't they build a site that's just as successful?
Were we very far away from Internet multi-millionaire Sarah Phillips?
And if you think it's just small, upstart sites gaming the online universe, keep this fact in mind, one day of Sports Illustrated swimsuit traffic leads to more pageviews than an entire year's worth of writing by 99.9999999% of sportswriters in the United States.
Is there really a seismic moral difference between models in bikinis for page views and claiming a hot girl is writing your column for the added page views and attention it generates?
That's why I love this story, because when you peel back the layers it actually gets more intriguing. Online ethics isn't a black and white issue.
Here are six things that fascinate me the most about the Sarah Phillips story.
1. If Deadspin doesn't bust Sarah Phillips how long does her rise at ESPN continue?
Hell, she could have ended up auditioning as a replacement for Michelle Beadle on SportsNation. Phillips could have worked as a sideline reporter for games.
Don't laugh, it's definitely possible so long as the Sarah Phillips "face" is actually pretty smart and somewhat knowledgeable about sports.
Let's be honest, sports aren't that complicated. We aren't asking her to fly a plane or operate on the brain, we're asking her to look good on television and have opinions about sports. Lots of smart, good looking people could nail these roles if they did the homework.
How bad would she have to be to completely fail as a sideline reporter? If she's smart and applied herself, I'd argue it would be almost impossible for her to fail at that job.
So what if the long con had led to television? Sarah Phillips, the face of the column, is only 22. (Caveat: according to her). If she kept this up for three more years is there any limit to her rise at ESPN?
Already, you know some ESPN editor or executive was fantasizing about her becoming the female Bill Simmons.
Only twenty years younger.
2. Hot chicks play by different rules than the rest of us.
The con doesn't work unless there's a hot chick involved. No one is giving a dude money through a g-chat conversation, noticing a random guy writing intelligently on a gambling message board and promoting him. No, it was the sex that sold Phillips. We, the stupid, gullible men, click on a hot chick's picture and read her take on sports.
Because we believe she'll eventually sleep with us if we read what she has to say about sports?
But you know who she definitely isn't sleeping with?
The guy who isn't reading her column. So we might as well invest five minutes to read. Especially when the other option is work.
Phillips was a fantasy archetype, the hot chick who loved sports as much as we do. We could watch Game 7 while having sex with a hot chick and gambling!
The two most powerful people in the world are rich old men and young hot women.
T. Boone Pickens could probably get an ESPN.com column if he wanted one too.
How quickly would Kate Upton be hired if I quit writing on OKTC and instead started a personal blog for Kate that revealed she was a huge college football fan and wanted to write daily columns about the sport? Basically, how much money could Kate Upton make if I was writing her columns and pretending to be her?
Within two years "Kate Upton" would be the most read and highest paid major site sportswriter focusing on college football.
Hell, Fox Sports has already sent us an offer just after reading these three sentences.
3. Lots of Internet contacts occur without face-to-face meetings.
I wrote for CBS Sports for three years without meeting a single editor face-to-face. Then I wrote for Deadspin without meeting a single editor face-to-face. Then I wrote for FanHouse for six months before I met a single editor face-to-face.
Hell, I wrote and published my first book, "Dixieland Delight", for a major publisher, Harper-Collins, before I met an editor face-to-face.
In fact, the only sports writing job I've ever interviewed for face-to-face was with Yahoo Sports.
Many will rip ESPN.com for hiring Phillips without meeting her, but I think that misses the point. Not meeting your writers face-to-face is actually common.
In today's Internet age we have an awful lot of virtual "friends" and business associates.
If you put a young girl on the phone and occasionally send out YouTube videos with her in them, ESPN, like most of us, assumed that the content and the content creator was real. Especially if people continue to read it in large numbers and the following continues to grow.
Here's an alarming thought for today's sportswriters, would we all be more read if we hired hot chicks as the faces for our columns?
A cynic would say yes.
4. Social media data can be gamed and that gaming can lend legitimacy.
I've already told you pageviews are a broken metric. But what Sarah Phillips managed to do was create an entire persona around her surging Twitter feed and Facebook likes. If 60,000 people were following a sportswriter that sportswriter had to be real, right?
But the presumption that they were real is out there.
Because Twitter creates two real paths for popular accounts -- they're either real or fake.
One of the reasons why this con is so brilliant is because the Sarah Phillips account was both real and fake at the same time. She was buying Twitter followers as a stamp of legitimacy. I had no idea buying Twitter followers was even possible.
Again, the Phillips con was so impressive because it completely gamed the system on behalf of an individual.
The Huffington Post approves, but thinks this is a small scale con job.
5. Complete lies are still unexpected.
Even on the Internet.
And even with all the lies that exist in our society the toughest to catch are from the people who lie about everything.
Because as part of human nature we are innately trusting of others.
Paradoxically, the bigger the lie the harder it is to believe. Ask Bernie Madoff or Enron about that if you disagree.
6. Diversity for diversity's sake makes no sense.
I've never read anything by Phillips, but if a guy had written the same things would ESPN have employed him just a year after he began writing online?
If a girl who wasn't hot had written the same things would ESPN have hired her after a year?
This is what passes for diversity in media today. Lots of major media companies want someone who looks different but writes the exact same.
Who should be the most angry about Sarah Phillips? Other women who bust their asses every day to create compelling and original content and stll haven't gotten a break. Other men, as well.
Already a couple of readers have emailed saying that they've written online for years without gaining a lot of readership traction. The most fascinating wrote this, "My wife's really hot. What if I'd written everything pretending to be her? Couldn't we make a living as a husband/wife sportswriting duo? She's the face of the column, but I'm the sports brains. Isn't this what politicians do all the time? Find a pretty face and put them forward as the rallying point while others steer them to the ends they most desire? Couldn't I do that with sportswriting?"
Evidence certainly suggests the answer is yes.
Kate Upton, call me.
What do you think about the Cats?
You're the perfect "sportswriter" for this generation.