I’ve been lucky enough to spend pretty much all of my adult life in sports media, a field in which the supply greatly outstrips the demand. Because it’s such a competitive field, there’s often a lot of hand-wringing over jobs lost and jobs acquired. How could they fire so-and-so? Why did so-and-so get that job over so-and-so? No matter who gets hired or fired, there are broadcasters who will complain about it, regardless of market or prestige. This complaining is made easier thanks to scores of message boards frequented by sports broadcasters at both national and local levels.
What many sports media members scrutinize more than anything when someone is hired is whether that person has “paid their dues.” Paying dues has nothing to do with membership in a union or a fraternal organization but, rather, with a person’s career path. Does he or she “deserve” to get that job? Or, is someone “overqualified” for that position and, thus, robbing more “deserving” broadcasters of an opportunity.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what paying dues really means. Recently, Brian Moritz, a friend of mine now pursuing a grad degree after working for several years as a sportswriter in Binghamton, NY – mostly during the years I was a play-by-play broadcaster there – blogged about ESPN.com’s Bill Simmons, who’s become a successful national columnist by taking a non-traditional path, a path Brian says leads many in the journalism industry to resent Simmons for not paying his dues. Also, a couple of weeks ago, the Texas Rangers fired John Rhadigan, their first-year television play-by-play broadcaster, less than two months into the season. To my knowledge, it’s the first time a sports broadcaster has been let go during the season solely because of performance. When Rhadigan was hired, his selection was criticized by many because he got the job despite very little play-by-play or general baseball broadcasting experience and, as the season progressed, the Rangers reportedly had to deal with a lot of backlash from fans who were less than thrilled with Rhadigan’s play-by-play style and baseball acumen.
Simmons didn’t pay his dues and is one of the nation’s most-read sports columnists. Rhadigan didn’t pay his dues and doesn’t last the season. So, is paying dues overrated or important? The fact is, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to who “should” get what job and what path one “should” take in order to get that job, which is especially true in hyper-competitive fields like sports media.
Also, what exactly constitutes “paying dues”? In sports media, it generally means slowly working your way up the ladder. A sportswriter starts at a tiny paper, moves to a paper in a small city then onto a paper in a slightly bigger city and so on. A play-by-play broadcaster begins in the minor leagues or in a low-level position with little to no air time in a bigger market before beginning his or her ascent to the big time. More than anything, “paying dues” is about progressing slowly but steadily, according to the dues-paying police (whoever they are).
After a series of low-level newspaper jobs in Boston, Bill Simmons was tending bar when he begged the editor of the Digital City Boston site on AOL.com to let him write a sports column, getting paid 50 bucks for each one. He toiled in relative obscurity for four years, honing his craft and e-mailing his columns to an ever-growing circle of friends – since you had to be an AOL user to see his work published online – before being invited to freelance for ESPN.com, which wound up leading to a full-time gig. I would consider what Simmons did “paying his dues.” Sure, he didn’t go work as a columnist or a high school football reporter in Small Town USA before getting his big break. But, he still spent a number of years writing, making mistakes and getting better before getting national exposure. Some, myself included, would argue that the route Simmons took is even harder than the more traditional, “dues-paying” route other columnists have taken. Plus, if Simmons had pursued the more traditional route, he may have never reached the heights he has reached.
Some people are so talented, they don’t need to go through the typical “dues-paying” process. Or, they had built-in advantages that made the process obsolete. Take Fox Sports broadcaster Joe Buck. Since he is the son of legendary baseball and football broadcaster Jack Buck, many have suggested nepotism is what’s allowed Buck to rise as quickly as he did up the broadcasting ladder, allowing him to become, at 27, the youngest broadcaster to call World Series games nationally in four decades. However, those suggesting nepotism ignore the fact that, when he was a teenager growing up in St. Louis (where his father was the longtime Cardinals broadcaster) Buck would call Cardinals games into a tape recorder from an empty broadcast booth at old Busch Stadium. Buck’s father would listen to and critique the younger Buck’s play-by-play on their drives home from the ballpark. Many youngsters call games into tape recorders, but very few of them get those tapes critiqued by a Hall-of-Fame broadcaster. Plus, you don’t stay at the national level for a decade and a half, like Buck has, simply because of who your father is. You stay at that level because you’re talented. Nepotism may have helped Buck get his foot in the door, but it’s his ability that has kept that door wide open.
What if you slowly progress through the ranks and don’t get that plum job in a major city or with a major pro sports team simply because you aren’t good enough or aren’t willing to work to be good enough? The “dues-paying” crowd never talks about this. After all, not everyone who’s been in sports media for 10, 15 or 20 years is talented enough to work nationally or in a major market or wants to work in the big time. By the same token, there are some who’ve only been in sports media for three or five years who are good enough to handle the big stage.
I’ve always felt the end result is what matters. So what you got an opportunity you didn’t “deserve”? If someone offered you a high-level sports media job you didn’t think you “deserved,” would that stop you from taking it? It certainly wouldn’t stop me. What’s more important is what you do with that opportunity. If John Rhadigan, the Rangers now-former television play-by-play voice, did a nice job, or at least a job good enough to avoid major fan backlash, no one would be talking about his lack of previous play-by-play experience. If someone like Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim radio play-by-play broadcaster Terry Smith bombed once he got to the Major Leagues, no one would care that Smith called minor league baseball games for 25 years before getting his shot. Both Rhadigan and Smith are going to be evaluated the same way by the fans, their previous experience notwithstanding.
Just like the world doesn’t owe you anything, neither does your profession. After all, both were here long before you were and they’ll still be here long after you’re gone.