Alex McDaniel on college football games without fans, telling Southern stories and more


We miss sports. We miss watching the games. And we miss the conversation and speculation that comes with it. And right now, I really miss sports coverage.

This week on the Reckon Interview we’re speaking with Alex McDaniel about what happens to sports reporting when there are no sports. McDaniel is one of the smartest, funniest, and Southernest people in sports media.

She’s Deputy Editor of SBNation but right this moment… she’s been furloughed. Along with so many of her colleagues. Ever since sports leagues started shutting down due to the coronavirus, we’ve seen a massive shrinking of the sports media world. McDaniel walks us through what it was like on her end. We also discuss whether or not we’ll have a college football season, bourbon, Memphis and more.

You can download and listen to the whole conversation on Acast, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Subscribe today so you don’t miss out on the rest of the season.

On the possibility of a fall without college football

It’s funny because I made the joke earlier, we all have 100 different answers and scenarios when the ultimate true answer is we don’t know. And, you know, for me, the biggest thing when it comes to one of the possible scenarios – which is playing it without fans – is… well it’s two things for me. First of all, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t claim this is amateurism and tell these players, “Okay, none of your friends or family are safe to be here. Cheerleaders aren’t safe. Band isn’t safe. Most people are not safe to be here, but we want you on that field doing this,” without saying that their employees who deserve to be compensated. I just fully believe that.

On the other end of it. There are certain sports, NASCAR, comes to mind that could happen without fans. The fans don’t make up the brand or the experience. College sports, but especially college football, I think a lot of people don’t realize how much of the experiential factor goes into why people invest in that sport. So when I think about some of the most memorable games from the past 10 years, can you imagine the Kick Six without fans? Would it have still been amazing? Yes, but imagine it with no fans and just like this, “Wow. Can you believe it?”

When I think about all these things, I think about even games that I’ve personally attended, it’s never really the plays or what happens on the field. It’s the traditions, how people invest in the culture, and so it’s more than just… can we satisfy a TV contract? You’re really changing the product, you’re changing what the product looks like, what it feels like, and whether people are interested.

It’s not that people wouldn’t watch football. But there’s a reason why so much money is made from it. There’s a reason why we say things like, “the SEC, it just means more,” right? People are investing in a culture.

On journalism in the South

When I was in journalism school, I did an emphasis in magazines. I was a news reporter but, to me, magazines are just what I was interested in. It didn’t matter which magazine. I wasn’t like into one type or the other. I just liked the idea of packaging stories. I liked working with long form things and short form things and finding a lot of different ways to tell a story. And that’s about as far as I knew back then.

And I think growing up in the South, there’s always the idea – and especially in small towns – it’s like New York is everything. And if you can just get to New York, then you made it. So that’s all I could focus on. And I got a job in New York, it was my first job after college, at Parade Magazine. And, you know, not making a lot of money, moved up there by myself, moved in with a roommate I’d never met. It was just everything you could imagine. And I think everybody should do that. Everybody should go away; it doesn’t have to be New York. Just go away and learn how to be an adult, and learn how to struggle, and how to figure things out on your own. I think it’s great.

But the main thing I learned when I was up there is I did not want to be up there telling stories. I didn’t want to be working there. I wanted to get back to the South. Part of that was probably fueled by the fact that any story assignment that was sort of Southern tinged, like if it had something to do college football, or anything. They sent me to the International Biscuit Festival in Knoxville, they would give it to me, because they’re like, “She’s our resident Southerner send her there.” So I got this kind of different, like, shiny perspective on “oh yay, I get to do all the fun things,” you know, down here.

And I stayed a year, and then took a job with a Clarion Ledger in Jackson, and I had never lived in Jackson. And this kind of goes back to my point about when all you know is Oxford, you can kind of get into that defensive like, “you don’t understand,” kind of mode. And when I got back there, even though I didn’t necessarily know if I wanted to be in news or whatever. All I knew is, even if the job doesn’t fit, or if maybe it’s not exactly what I want… I know I need to be down here doing what I’m doing. So I definitely understand that you just get a different perspective.

And you don’t wanna be down here telling the stories that I think a lot of people do… I call it Mason Jar journalism, where it’s like, you know – nothing against like Southern Living, Country Living things like that – nothing against them at all. No, we need good things. And if people outside the region attach themselves to those symbols then great. The more good stuff, the better. It’s not as simple as don’t ignore the bad stuff. We don’t need to ignore the very complex stories that happen down here. We don’t need to ignore the nuance. And it’s not as simple as there are good things and there are bad things. We have a responsibility to tell people about this place in a way that reflects more than just the extremes. And I’m pretty passionate about that.

To hear more from Alex McDaniel about what makes SEC football special, bourbon, juggling working from home responsibilities and more listen to the full episode here. McDaniel has now launched a furlough project dedicated to weird moments in sports history and Southern gas station food. I’ve subscribed and you should too. You can find it at AlexMcDaniel.Substack.com.

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