Will Leitch seems totally too nice for his line of work. He retains a Midwestern aw-shucks openness from his childhood in small-town Illinois and sports a full, boyish haircut of a type rarely seen in New York media circles.
His day job, though, consists of playing mother wolf to a virtual pack of thousands of hardcore sports fanatics - fans who steal moments from work, class, or the couch to see who can most viciously and hilariously mock the sporting world's news of the day. That is much of the appeal of Deadspin.com, and its committed fan base is morphing what is essentially a one-man operation into a leading mover of the direction of sports media in America.
Leitch landed his present job almost as a fortuitous accident. Online powerhouse Gawker Media approached him about heading a (soon to fail) gambling blog.
"I actually don't like sports gambling. I think it's against the spirit of the game," he says. "I'm too dorky and corn-fed."
Instead he pitched the idea of a sports blog - which sits far outside the classic Gawker sweet spot of media, gossip, and tech - and somehow convinced them to do it. Deadspin launched in September 2005 and can now tally more than 100,000 visitors in a single day with one hit posting, despite a near-total lack of a promotional campaign.
The site has prospered by becoming what amounts to an anti-ESPN. Where the network is huge, generalist, and exhaustively catalogued, Deadspin is small, quirky, and sometimes only tangentially related to sports. Its catchphrases, though, seem to enter the popular sports lexicon with incredible frequency. One of the first stories it pursued vigorously was the infamous "Ron Mexico" incident, when Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick was sued for giving a woman herpes, though he had previously visited clinics under that pseudonym.
"[He's] the number one most marketable athlete in the NFL, the public face of the league... but the next week, Sports Illustrated had a cover story on Vick and didn't even mention it. And ESPN never had any stories about it on their site," Leitch says. "It's what the average sports fan would definitely be talking about... I realized there were so many [hurdles] a story has to jump to get to the mainstream."
Deadspin has developed a reputation for taking shots at ESPN TV personalities like Sean Salisbury and Chris Berman - whose Deadspin-bestowed moniker, "You're with me, Leather," (allegedly a Berman pickup line) is now nearly as famous as the man himself. Leitch says he has nothing against ESPN in particular, but instead is carving a sports media niche that formerly did not exist.
"I don't think I'm trying to destroy [traditional sports media] or trying to go up against them," he says. "I do my own little thing."
And most normal sportswriters read Deadspin themselves. Jeff Pearlman, a former Sports Illustrated writer, says he reads the site often, but views it as a supplement rather than a replacement to traditional media. "To ask how [Deadspin] compares to SI, ESPN, or daily papers," he says, "is comparing apples to paper clips."
A.J. Daulerio, a Gawker Media veteran who writes a column for Deadspin, sums up the new paradigm of sports blog popularity neatly, saying, "I don't know if ESPN and SI will ever have to worry about Deadspin, but I do know that Deadspin would never have to worry about them."
For his part, Leitch remains humble about his site's role as a sports ziggurat. "People make a big thing about, 'Here come the blogs!'" he says with a laugh. "But when I go home to Illinois, nobody knows what the hell I'm talking about."
Founder and editor, Blacktable.com
Writer, Venture Reporter (2001-2002);
Registered Rep. magazine (2002-2004)
Assoc. editor, Brill's Content