NBA superstar Kobe Bryant scooped the world — and mainstream news outlets — Sunday by announcing he’d retire at season’s end on a relatively new sports site founded by former New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter.
Would he or wouldn’t he? In recent months, conventional sports outlets have spilled barrels of ink (and a profusion of pixels) over the possibility that Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant would make this season his last. Fed up with speculation about his dwindling career, the NBA standout sent a legion of scribes to their keyboards after a game earlier this month when he reaffirmed his commitment to retire as a Laker.
“How many times do I need to say it?” Bryant told the media. “God. I’ve said it so many times … I’m here. I’m a Laker for life.”
All signs from the five-time NBA champion indicated his storied career was coming to a close. But there was no telling when he would announce, or which reporter he would favor with the official disclosure. It would have been an enormous get for traditional sports reporting powerhouses like ESPN and Sports Illustrated or digital upstarts like Bleacher Report and SB Nation.
Alas, they were all beaten by the most privileged source possible: Bryant himself. His announcement was highly unusual. It wasn’t printed in the pages of a magazine or broadcast on a live television special. Instead, it took the form of a short poem directly addressing the sport of basketball that waxed nostalgic about his days as a young player.
“I fell in love with you,” Bryant wrote. “A love so deep I gave you my all.”
The poem triggered a frenzy of aggregation among sports outlets as they scrambled to follow the story. In minutes, word of Bryant’s retirement had spread to Deadspin, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, SBNation, The Big Lead and elsewhere. Within an hour of the announcement, The Players’ Tribune website was briefly inaccessible — presumably owing to the traffic Bryant’s news generated.
Launched earlier this year, The Players’ Tribune has already distinguished itself as a soapbox for high-profile professional athletes who wish to speak for themselves without filtering their news through media outlets. When MLB slugger David Ortiz wanted to fire off a screed earlier this year about being reprimanded for using banned substances, he turned to The Players’ Tribune to make himself heard. Writing for The New York Times in the wake of Ortiz’ post, Richard Sandomir called The Players’ Tribune a “direct pipeline to athletes” that was well-positioned “to break news ahead of traditional news organizations.”
This strategy of leapfrogging the media can’t be welcome for sports journalists, who have typically enjoyed a monopoly on watershed sports announcements. When LeBron James infamously told the world he was “taking my talents to South Beach,” he did so via a televised special orchestrated by ESPN. When NBA center Jason Collins publicly announced he was gay, he did so in the pages of Sports Illustrated.
But this tactic is not exclusive to the world of sports journalism. The realms of politics and media reporting have both been disrupted by the Web, which allows newsmakers to bypass reporters on critical stories. When Amazon issued a rejoinder to The New York Times earlier this year, it didn’t leak its talking points to a favored reporter. Instead, the retail giant published its response on Medium, where it was picked up by several news outlets (including Poynter). Similarly, politicians have harnessed the Web to represent their own points of view, as the Obama administration did earlier this year when it unveiled a webpage and Twitter account devoted to the Iran nuclear deal.
Bryant’s first-person announcement comes as sports media is being reshaped by sea changes to the reporting, broadcasting, writing and publishing processes. Automation is empowering news organizations like The Associated Press to produce recaps en masse without the aid of reporters. The rise of livestreaming apps like Periscope is allowing fans to follow big-ticket sporting events without intermediaries like cable networks. Game stories, a longtime staple of sports coverage, are being produced under ever-tighter deadlines, if they’re written by reporters at all. And the trend toward online viewership has led to a spate of cord cutting that has sapped revenue from stalwarts like ESPN.
For Bryant, the competition is coming to a close. But for the reporters who cover professional sports, the battle for scoops — and survival — clearly isn’t getting any easier.