Chicago hotel issues
I'm glad they had the event in Chicago, since it gave me an excuse to get out of New York for the weekend and visit a city I hadn't been to since 2003. But they could have checked to see what else was going on in town before scheduling the event for last weekend. There was a major oncology conference in the city at the same time and that event took up all the hotel rooms. People coming to Blogs With Balls had to stay at O'Hare Airport, in Skokie, and who knows where else. Being in far-flung locations meant that we had to consider our travel options wisely or else spend upwards of $30 on cab fare. My friend and panel moderator Amanda and I had rooms at a mediocre hotel near O'Hare that, as she put it, “isn't even convenient for the airport.”
The pre-conference party
Bleacher Report sponsored the pre-conference party at The Fifty/50 in Wicker Park. The basement room was a little small for the crowd but the beer was cheap and, if you participated in the Guinness pour contest, free. The basement had wi-fi but no cellular service so we could tweet and e-mail but texting was out of the question. In a room full of people who like to stay connected, I think there were more than a few who felt like they were out of touch. It was especially entertaining to watch Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final in a room full of Chicago Blackhawks fans. Unfortunately, the Flyers won.
Blogs With Balls
The Captain Morgan Club was a great choice for the event itself. It's just outside Wrigley Field so now I can say that I was there, though I'll have to go back for a game to see the stadium itself. It's right on West Addison Street and open-air, so we had a cool breeze blowing through the conference area most of the day. There was a screen with a scrolling live feed of tweets with the #bwb3 hashtag all day long, which served a few purposes. It provided instant feedback on the panelists, both from audience members in person and from people watching on justin.tv. It was also a little distracting as people tried to one-up each other's jokes and be the first to tweet about a particular comment. We'd been promised that there would be wi-fi at the event, but we never got the password so no one could use except the organizers. I heard someone say they were afraid that if we all used the wireless network we'd affect the live video stream. That's a good excuse but only a handful of people had laptops. The rest of us had cell phones. What did they think we were going to do: watch the live video stream? Listen to Pandora? I'm sure there would have been enough bandwidth for everyone. As it was, I got by with AT&T's network, having left my laptop back at the hotel.
The panels themselves were not as interesting as I would have liked. The conference had a strong “who do you write for?” quality, as opposed to “what do you write about?” Some of the panelists represented sports blog networks and it seemed like many of the attendees either wrote for one of those networks or aspired to write for one. In other words, they were professional bloggers or wanted to be professionals. I'm not part of that group. I don't begrudge anyone their ambitions, but I write for the sake of writing. I don't have any dreams of being bought out by Fantasy Sports Ventures or going to work for Yahoo Sports. So when some of the panelists talked about “branding” and touted what their network had to offer over another, I tuned them out. And when the question of how to become a better blogger came up, the answer seemed to be “get better at your writing and you'll be a better writer [and get bought out by a bigger network.]” Thanks, but I didn't need to fly 900 miles to hear that. I learned that in high school.
The highlights of the day, for better or worse, were the ethics panel moderated by Jason McIntyre of The Big Lead and Spencer Hall's panel after lunch on how blogs are changing the game. I like Hall personally and professionally but his moderation style seemed more along the lines of “class clown in charge” and at times it distracted from the discussion. He asked each of his panelists a completely random question that, while funny, didn't have anything to do with the subject of the panel. McIntyre's panel on ethics didn't work at all. Rather than discussing the concept of sports blogs from a legal and ethical viewpoint, McIntyre asked his panelists how they would handle (or handled) a variety of controversial topics, like Tiger Woods and Ben Roethlisberger. When the discussion veered into the subject of writing about unsubstantiated rumors, the consensus was “just do it and try not to get in trouble.” I was especially disappointed that McIntyre showed up for his panel just before it started and didn't stick around after lunch. Fantasy Sports Ventures just paid a “low seven figure” amount for his blog. I think a room full of writers eager to get paid for their work might have benefitted from more of his insight had he stuck around and asked questions of the other panels.
Enough talk -- let's drink!
I didn't pay much attention to the last two panels of the day and from the empty seats I wasn't alone. But that's typical of every conference I've ever attended, tech, sports, or otherwise. By the end of the day, people have had enough of panel discussions or Powerpoint slides and they're ready for something else. In this case, it was the after-party at a bar a few blocks away. The after-party led to an after-after-party at another bar and I was out far past my bedtime, even for a Saturday night. At 2 AM we were at a dive bar drinking Old Style, rehashing the day, telling old stories, and in many cases getting to know people that we'd only known online until that day. And that's really why I went to the conference. From that standpoint, it was a smashing success. I'd go back in a heartbeat for the socializing alone.
We're all writers
My biggest problem at the conference was how to introduce myself. I figured out right away that telling people “I have a personal blog” was a good way to lose their attention. I didn't feel inferior per se, but when the first few people I talked to asked me “who do you write for?” I was unprepared. By the third or fourth time I met someone new, I described my blog by talking about what I wrote about the Steelers, the Penguins, the Olympic hockey tournament, and my plans for the World Cup. That seemed to come out much better and led to more fruitful discussions.
But the central problem remained that the conference seemed geared toward “bigger” writers. I got the feeling that there was no room for the little guy. We've all been little guys at one time or another. Have we forgotten what it was like before we moved from our own blogs to sbnation.com or The Sporting Blog or Deadspin? I don't want to write a blog for a living, at least not right now. But I'd like to hear more about what I could do to improve my writing, aside from “just get better.”
I'd like to thank Don, Kyle and Chris for organizing the weekend's events. It's a massive job and they handled it well and with grace and charm. I think the event itself is really worthwhile and needs to continue, but the format could use some tweaking. For future events, they might want to consider moving beyond the panel discussion format into smaller group discussions or more focused workshops. There are people who want to hear about where ad dollars are going and then there are people like me who want to focus on writing and analysis. There's room for everyone at this kind of event.