When it comes to developments in sports books, Matt Harper, executive editor at HarperCollins, looks to the Internet—specifically, the influence of long-form sportswriting on blogs or websites such as the Ringer and Deadspin that delve into overlooked topics with irreverence and insight.
“It’s not that the reader has dramatically changed, it’s just that the readers are open to new concepts,” he says. A place for the season recap and the personal testimonial remains, he adds, but there’s a desire for a different window into information.
Sports as a pop culture phenomenon is at its apex, says Todd Hunter, an editor at Atria. “When you factor in social media, ESPN as a media behemoth, revenues at an all-time high, and athletes as successful brands, you get the sense that American sports, and athletes in particular, are as popular as at any time in history. There’s a tremendous opportunity for the publishing industry to not only capture the moment but become a part of it.”
With that prevalence, Hunter says, comes an insatiable curiosity from fans to learn about the business behind sports, what athletes do in their personal lives, and anything else that grants outsiders insight.
“We’re used to the quick blips of information, but there are still people who really want to know more—and sports fans, and sports readers, are passionate,” says Susan Canavan, senior executive editor at HMH.
Sports fans, Canavan adds, love to read about “one of their own”—the players and teams they root for. This year brings several books focused on the teams that have captured the nation’s attention in recent seasons.
In Betaball (Atria, Oct.), Erik Malinowski, who covers the Golden State Warriors for Bleacher Report, details how the Dubs embraced savvy business practices and Silicon Valley’s corporate culture to go from perennial doormats to NBA royalty, winning the 2015 NBA Finals.
The following year, the Cleveland Cavaliers ended the city’s 42-year championship drought in an unprecedented way, by rallying from a three-games-to-one Finals deficit to stun the mighty Warriors. In Return of the King (Grand Central, Apr.), ESPN’s Brian Windhorst and Dave McMenamin offer fresh reporting and new interviews on LeBron James’s struggles to lead the Cavs to the summit. Jason Lloyd, the Cavs’ beat writer for the Akron Beacon Journal, reveals the team’s bold strategy for retrieving the superstar after losing him in 2010 in The Blueprint (Dutton, Oct.).
A discussion of historic championships would be incomplete without the Chicago Cubs, World Series champs again after 108 years. Longtime Sports Illustrated baseball writer Tom Verducci—coauthor with Joe Torre of 2009’s The Yankee Years (Doubleday; 336,000 hardcover copies sold, per NPD BookScan)—spoke with team president Theo Epstein, manager Joe Maddon, and a number of players for The Cubs Way (Crown Archetype, Apr.). He begins in 2011, Epstein’s first year with the team, and follows along through game seven of the memorable 2016 series.
Sportscaster David Kaplan of ESPN Chicago 1000 also interviewed Epstein, as well as team owner Tom Ricketts, for The Plan (Triumph, May), his insider’s account of how the pair built their winning team.
The Big Issues
Not all of the action in the realm of sports happens on the field. Several forthcoming titles look at how players, teams, and organizations intersect with the rest of the world, in positive and negative ways.
In 2003, Etan Thomas was the first NBA player to speak publicly against the invasion of Iraq. In We Matter (Edge of Sports, Feb. 2018), Thomas incorporates the voices of more than 50 other athletes to discuss their involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement and other causes.
Dave Zirin, who heads up Akashic’s Edge of Sports imprint and cohosts (with Thomas) The Collision, a radio show about sports and politics, says social media has emboldened more athletes to speak out.
“A lot of athletes have woken over the last several years to the influence they can have,” Zirin explains. “You can’t downplay that, even if it makes us a little uncomfortable. There used to be a time when the commercial athlete was in the Michael Jordan mode: somebody who said nothing controversial, did nothing outrageous, wore a suit to the game. Today, there’s much more interest in the athlete as the iconoclast, who’s not scared to speak out. I think athletes are realizing that too: that there’s a benefit to being yourself in the Muhammad Ali tradition as opposed to the Jordan tradition.”
While many athletes thrive in the spotlight, for others, the stress can break them. ESPN writer Kate Fagan’s What Made Maddy Run (Little, Brown, Aug.) examines the 2014 suicide of 19-year-old University of Pennsylvania runner Madison Holleran and the pressure college athletes face to be perfect.
Sports can also have a big impact on their host cities, beyond the drama of wins and losses. In The Arena (Liveright, Aug.), veteran journalist Rafi Kohan (GQ, the Wall Street Journal) travels to college and professional stadiums across the U.S., delving into ticket scalping, tailgating culture, and what it takes to build and maintain these monstrous facilities.
Occasionally, a city finds itself ruing a sporting event’s arrival. Just ask Chris Dempsey, who cofounded No Boston Olympics to prevent the International Olympic Committee from setting up shop in 2024. He and coauthor Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College, review how a group of concerned citizens drove the Olympics from Boston, and offer other cities reasons and strategies for doing the same, in No Boston Olympics (ForeEdge, May).
Traditional sports biographies and memoirs are still a force (see “Game Changers”). However, a slew of forthcoming books use those life stories and career highlights to illuminate larger trends in the sports world.
In The Captain Class (Random House, May), Sam Walker of the Wall Street Journal dives into a common element at the core of great sports teams: an unconventional, often unacknowledged player—no Derek Jeter or Tom Brady here—who boasts specific and counterintuitive leadership qualities.
Veteran sportswriter Ian Thomsen, now with the NBA’s website, focuses on big names—LeBron James and Kobe Bryant among them—in his look at the pivotal 2010–2011 NBA season, The Soul of Basketball (HMH, Feb. 2018), when James’s ill-advised decision to play for the Miami Heat paved the way for a new generation of superstars.
Meanwhile, scientific and technological advances in materials, training, nutrition, and medicine have contributed to a new generation of stronger and faster athletes. Rayvon Fouché, a professor at Purdue University, examines this development through the lens of elite athletes including Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt, in Game Changer (Johns Hopkins Univ., June).
An entirely different skill set is required to make a team run properly. Two former front-office executives offer nuanced perspective into baseball. Ned Colletti, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ general manager for nine years, reveals how a baseball franchise really works, including how much power the players actually have, in The Big Chair (Putnam, Oct.).
Keith Law, an analyst for ESPN’s Baseball Tonight and former special assistant to the Blue Jays’ general manager, focuses on key figures of a different kind—baseball stats—in Smart Baseball (Morrow, May). Harper says Law’s book debunks the usefulness of some statistics, including batting average, earned run average, and saves, in favor of more recent statistics such as WAR (wins above replacement) and OPS (on-base plus slugging). “These numbers really are the future of the game, in the sense that more and more teams are using them to make their decisions on and off the field.”
Understanding them, Harper says, can add a dimension to the fan’s experience. Traditionalists may balk, but “you’re going to have a better understanding of where the game is and where it’s headed if you are tapped into those kinds of numbers.”
Pete Croatto’s sportswriting has appeared in Grantland, the New York Times, Slam, and Vice Sports.
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