I am going to be blunt: Most readers of this website, in America or abroad, don’t really want to read or hear much about Danielle Collins.
Is that fair? Is that right? I will leave that up to you to judge.
What I am interested in discussing is the larger reality of our times, encompassing the business of tennis writing, situated within the larger industry of online sports content and online content creation in general.
When I watched the Australian Open in my college years or even into my early 30s, I was just a fan having a good time. If I destroyed my sleep schedule during this Australian Open fortnight, I did so because I wanted to, not because I had to.
Now, as an editor and lead writer for a website which has yet to generate revenues (Saqib Ali and I need a sponsor for that to happen), I stay up late to watch the Australian Open overnight because I have to. It is a matter of professional responsibility. No one is directly paying me to do this. I do it in the hope of building this website into a profitable magnet destination on the internet which a company or individual will sponsor, giving Saqib and I the revenue streams needed to cover tennis beyond 2019.
If we don’t get that revenue, we won’t be covering tennis in 2020. Every venture has its reasonable limits.
This is not a fundraising appeal (though of course you can help TWAA by donating here). This is background context meant to amplify a basic point about Danielle Collins, an American who has soared into her first major semifinal at the Australian Open by beating Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in a three-set comeback victory on Tuesday.
Saqib and I both live and work in the United States. A new face bursting onto the scene in American tennis would normally be considered a big deal. It would normally light up mainstream media outlets. It would normally get huge amounts of social media traffic — such content would be, to use a jargony insider term, “sticky.” The content would have traction and gain continuous eyeballs and clicks.
However, we live in a time when online content has become highly politicized. No one who works in the larger online content industry — in sports or entertainment or politics — would dispute this. It is a widespread and evident reality.
The more popular sites and the more popular social media figures are those who produce content — in tweets or blogs or other forms of expression — from hard-edged viewpoints. You don’t necessarily have to be “extreme” in your viewpoint, but you definitely need to contain a sharp edge to create “sticky” content which industry insiders love as they consult what the Google analytics say.
Strong takes. Fierce denunciations. Ideological clarity. In an industry where clicks, pageviews and eyeballs are the main measurements of which websites make money and which podcasts get listened to, it’s not surprising at all that writing the responsible story often leads nowhere in terms of profit margin and sustaining a career in a difficult business.
From a cold business-based standpoint, I can say this without a single shred of doubt or hesitation: Writing about how impressive Danielle Collins has been this fortnight is not a good business decision for me and Tennis With An Accent. Writing about a player with zero main-draw major-tournament wins entering Melbourne, who has now earned a date with Petra Kvitova in Thursday’s semifinals, will not help TWAA’s profit margins. It won’t.
THAT story won’t get read. People don’t care — not in the United States. Not in the age of Donald Trump. Collins’ association with and proximity to the Harrison tennis family (yeah, that one) casts her displays of competitive ego in a negative light for large portions of American tennis fans. She exists in a position similar to that of CoCo Vandeweghe, who made the Australian Open semis two years ago before losing to Venus Williams. Collins’ upcoming semifinal against Kvitova will — for many Americans on #TennisTwitter — be very similar to that semifinal in the sense that it will feel like Good versus Evil.
I speak solely as a businessperson here, not as a tennis writer: The only Danielle Collins story which would be good for my and Saqib’s shared business is a story about how awful it is that MAGA-themed politics and worldviews persist in American tennis. THAT story would be “sticky” and get social-media traffic.
Writing the positive story about how amazing Collins’ 2019 Australian Open has been would be a turn-off.
If you wonder why tennis journalism and tennis coverage are so flawed, do note that the online content industry — like the journalism business attached to it — has a flawed business model. The industry has not yet found a reliable model which can internally monetize quality over the more readily visible metrics of pageviews, clicks, downloads, and eyeballs. The only alternative is a subscription-based model, but that means we have to put up a paywall and make it much harder for readers to access our site. Saqib and I agreed that keeping our site open — without a paywall or subscription — was a necessary act of openness.
Yet, even with our website being fully accessible, the limits of the industry are still readily apparent. Danielle Collins is merely the latest example of those ever-present constraints. The business of tennis coverage and the ideal goal of tennis coverage are nowhere close to being the same thing. That is sad, but it is the world we live in at the start of 2019.