Three Questions with Matt Futterman

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Matt Futterman is the Aaron Ramsey of sports writers. A box-to-box type who isn’t afraid to get stuck in, but has the ability to stop you in your tracks with his natural skill. In the last month alone, Matt’s written about everything from a potential breakthrough in ACL surgery to Jurgen Klinsmann to the Golden State Warriors basketball revolution. Matt’s new book, “Players: The Story of Sports and Money, and the Visionaries Who Fought to Create a Revolution” chronicles the rise of sports as big business. In this edition of Three Questions, we ask Matt how the idea for the book was born, advice for aspiring sports scribes, and which stadium has the best media food.

MiB: Talk about the evolution of this book. From the initial idea, to identifying and then choosing the stories you use to illustrate sports’ transformation into the industry we know today.

MF: Modern sport has a clear narrative. I wanted to tell the story of how sports went from essentially a mom-and-pop operation, where most professional athletes had to hold down off-season jobs in hardware stores or hawking cars or real estate, into a $150 billion behemoth that is irresistible and captivating and crass and over-commercialized and still sucks us in. The more I asked that question, the more it became apparent that the story began with Mark McCormack, the founder of IMG, who started his business in 1959 trying to book golfers in exhibitions at country clubs for $500 a day. He failed miserably at this endeavor, but at the end of it he had one client, Arnold Palmer, and together they freed Palmer from the shackles of an incredibly exploitative deal with Wilson Sporting Goods and turned him into the first modern sports entrepreneur. Palmer built an empire -- everything from a dry cleaners to instructional videos to a course design business -- and he became the model for every athlete that came after him.

McCormack’s brilliance was understanding that making athletes wealthier was about creating an environment where, with more money and freedom, athletes could work harder and train more, which would improve the quality of competition, which would make sport more appealing and valuable as a form of live and televised entertainment. That would make more people want to pay to watch it, which would drive more money into the system, money that could flow back to the players, which would make their jobs more desirable, stoking competition all the way down to the youth level. That would improve the development of the next generation of stars and allow the whole system to snowball.

Once I understood that, the task became tracing how this pattern spread, from individual sports to team sport and identifying key players, like Stan Smith, the Wimbledon champion who abdicated in 1973 to protest an unfair suspension of a fellow player, or Catfish Hunter, the great pitcher who was baseball’s first free agent and taught a very skeptical group of players in all team sports how free market economics work. The money came with a tradeoff. Eventually sport becomes corrupted by a Nike-inspired fascination with turning athletes into legends built on fabrications. That’s how we end up with Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods and a host of others. There’s a real narrative arc to it all.

MiB: The epilogue contains several lines that we love: “I have covered World Series and Super Bowls, Olympics and World Cups, the Masters and the US Open (both golf and tennis), interviewed modern legends like LeBron James and Masters of the Universe like Red Sox and Liverpool owner John Henry. Through all this, the US Women’s National Soccer Team has always been my favorite.” Why are people so drawn to this team?

MF: These women never forget the reason why they are playing soccer. They want to make money, and they should get paid every dollar they deserve and more, but their love of the game is always so apparent. They never seem weighed down by the training, the games, the attention, the adulation. Maybe down the road that will change, but there seems to be a psychology among this group that gets passed down from one team to the next to behave a certain way.

Also, for any parent with a daughter who plays, watching these women play is incredibly familiar. They wear the same headbands made of pre-wrap our kids do and seem to relate to each other in the way teenage girls on the same team do. For now, they also sort of exist outside the sports-money ecosystem in weird ways. They fly coach. You run into them in random cafes and they are sitting alone reading magazines. It reminds me of stories people who grew up in Brooklyn tell about running into members of the Dodgers on the subways and busses. They’re just normal. And they’re really, really good at soccer.

MiB: Your favorite interview subject throughout your career? The toughest?

MF: These days, there is no athlete more precociously poised or more articulate about the artistry of her profession than the skier Mikaela Shiffrin. At 19-years old she delivered this incredible, extemporaneous soliloquy comparing slalom skiing to dancing. She came into the Wall Street Journal for a lunch last year with a half dozen other people. We had ordered platters of sandwiches that I carried into the room in two big bags, as I enter, she gets up and offers to help. Then when it was over she starts clearing the plates from the table, not just hers, but everyone’s. She’s an Olympic gold medalist and whatever the opposite of a diva is, that’s what she is. She’s also slightly neurotic and does word searches before races to stimulate her mind. She’s apparently not Jewish, with a name like Shiffrin, that’s close enough for me.

Toughest interview is Serena Williams. Once, back in the summer of 2009, she sat in a room with me and stared at her phone and giving me one word answers. I had 20 minutes. The clock was ticking. So after 10 minutes I started telling her I thought she was old and out of shape. That got her to stop looking at her phone. It probably also nearly cost me my life.

MiB: What event/press box has the best media food in all of sports?

MF: There’s a brunch spread before Jets and Giants games at the Meadowlands when they’re in the 1 PM time slot on Sundays. It’s impressive. Mountains of bagels and eggs and bacon and sausage
(hopefully Ansche Chesed Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky isn’t reading this).

MiB: Piece of advice for young sports writers and journalists starting out?

MF: It’s all about the reporting. Resist the urge to pontificate. If your work day is 8 hours long, spend 7 hours on the phone and one hour writing. It’s a cliche but good reporting makes for good writing and nothing sells a story like being able to break news.  

This article originally appeared in the April 29, 2016 edition of our newsletter, The Raven. To subscribe to The Raven, please click HERE.