It’s been a strange year to cover sports. Fans followed tournaments from their living room couches, athletes lived in experimental quarantine “bubbles,” and some leagues and managers cut corners to skirt COVID-19 safety regulations.
It wasn’t the angle most sports publications chased, but Giri Nathan ’13’s new company did. He a band of writers quit the sports media company Deadspin after a clash with management and in September launched a new site called Defector Media. They wanted to tell the critical sports stories they said broadcast networks and ESPN wouldn’t touch.
“It kind of was a pretty dispiriting time to try to write about sports as sports,” says Nathan, who studied philosophy, freelanced with the University Press Club, and served as editor-in-chief of the Nassau Weekly as an undergrad. “It was hard to ignore the context in which it was all happening.”
Nathan and his colleagues wrote about how the NFL tended to announce new COVID-19 cases on days when the affected players’ teams were not scheduled to play. They watched the NBA’s “sloppy” return to a post-bubble season, Nathan said. And for Racquet as well as a blog that preceded Defector, he has been writing about tennis player Novak Djokovic, who touted pseudoscience and questioned vaccines on Instagram Live. They weren’t new positions for Djokovic to take, but the pandemic added a layer of urgency — and risk — to his messages, Nathan said.
“Hundreds of thousands of people are watching this during a time when we don’t need people undermining public health practices,” Nathan says. “It was frustrating. We’ve seen this a little, with athletes making one-off comments here and there about their approaches to vaccinations. The messages players and teams put out into the world can shape public opinion.”
At first, the Defector staff was nervous about selling readers on another subscription service. “We definitely felt that the demand was out there, we just weren’t sure if this was the time,” Nathan says. Especially during a pandemic, who would pay? As of April, it turned out, 38,000 people. Forty percent even pay extra for a commenting feature.
“Our business model is based on having this loyal community of readers,” he says. “The fact that we’re not really accountable to anyone but our readers allows us to try stuff out, and then not feel upset if it doesn’t work out.”
Defector has an unconventional model: The founding staff members share editorial control, and each owns roughly 5 percent of the company. It has other unusual features, too, like a virtual book club where readers and staffers chat together each month about a novel or book of poetry in the comments section of a transcripted conversation.
That closer-than-usual relationship between readers and writers is built into Defector’s DNA, and Nathan says it’s part of why readers keep coming back.
“These are pretty precarious times, and spending money on a sports and culture website isn’t necessarily at the top of budget priorities,” Nathan says. “But a lot of our readers have expressed gratitude for creating exactly the kind of space they needed during a time like this.”