An interview with Dr. Bruce Berglund, Editor of the Allrounder website and the New Books in Sports podcast

Dr. Bruce Berglund is a professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI and the Editor of the podcast/website New Books in Sports, which features interviews with authors about their recent sport books. Among the many interviewees are some people who may be familiar to hockey fans, such as Roy MacGregor and Todd Denault, as well as some academics who have at times published insightful commentary on hockey, such as Dr. Kevin Young (University of Calgary) and Dr. Mary Louise Adams (Queen’s University).

Dr. Berglund has recently launched a new venture: a sports website called the Allrounder. This website aims to bring together scholars to provide insight into and analysis of sport around the world [full disclosure: I will be an occasional contributor to the site]. He has assembled a diverse crew of writers with a variety of disciplinary, theoretical, and geographic foci. The Allrounder is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to raise initial operating costs to launch the site and pay its contributors.

After the jump, I have an interview with Dr. Berglund in which he explains the impetus behind New Books in Sports and the Allrounder, the present state of sports journalism and writing, and the significance of new media and the Internet for the production and dissemination of analysis about sport cultures around the world.

You run the New Books in Sports website/podcast and now are launching the Allrounder. Could you tell us about the impetus behind starting each website and about their aims?

In the three years of doing the podcast I’ve interviewed over 125 people, mainly academics who do research in different areas of sports.  When I’m recording the conversation, and especially later when I’m editing the interview, I typically think: “More people need to hear about this person’s research.”  For example, one of the early episodes of the podcast featured an economics professor who had written a book about the economics of college sports in the US. After that interview, whenever I’d hear guys on the radio talking about the problems with college sports, I’d get mad that they really didn’t know what they were talking about.  A couple times, I actually yelled at the radio that they needed to talk to this economics professor. But they didn’t.

So starting The Allrounder is a way to bring this economics professor–and political scientists, sociologists, historians, biochemists, even philosophers and theologians–into the broader discussion of sport.  The podcast does get a good audience.  Last year, we got up to 10,000 downloads per month, and we had listeners in over a hundred countries. But podcasts are a limited form of media, since people have to set aside a chunk of time to listen. I had the idea that something like a blog, with these scholars’ writing available in short, digestible posts, would help to bring their work to new audiences.

Tell us more about the Allrounder. Why are you trying to launch this website? What are you hoping the website will become when it is launched?

Selfishly, I’ve long wanted to find a single site where I could read the work of different scholars and thoughtful, literary journalists, a site that featured a variety of sports, some place that would be a go-to site for thought-provoking writing on sports.  Of course, that kind of writing is out there, but it’s scattered on different blogs and other sites.  To be honest, one model for The Allrounder is Hockey in Society.  This is a great site, both for the original content you post as well as for your weekly selection of links. Of course, Hockey in Society focuses on one sport.  And you’ll be the first to admit, Mark, that it’s hard work keeping new content on the site. So the idea was: how about a site that covers a range of sports, and that has enough writers that we keep a constant supply of new, fresh material.

The other key part to the plan is that this will be a global site, even a cosmopolitan site. In doing the podcast, which gets about sixty per cent of its listeners from outside North America, I’ve come to discover that there are people who are global fans. They might have grown up following cricket or soccer or American football, but they’ve come to discover new sports, perhaps after studying or working abroad. The Allrounder is intended for those fans. Following from that, my hope is that the site will be read by fans who are educated, engaged, but also critically minded, in Australia, India, the UK, and Canada and the US.

It seems as though there is a large demand online for thoughtful long-form sports writing. Do you see the All Rounder fitting within in this trend? Do you foresee it filling a particular sports writing niche?

No, I don’t see us doing long-form writing. There are already a number of sites that do long-form journalism very well, and we’d be foolish to compete with them. Plus, long form is a literary style of journalism, with an emphasis on narrative. Speaking for myself, I can’t write like that, and I’m not going to ask our contributors to write like that. No, we’re going to publish essays and opinion pieces that are rooted in our writers’ expertise as researchers. As you know, devoting years of research, reading, and teaching to a subject brings a deeper, more considered perspective. And that’s what our contributors will offer. That said, we want to do this in a way that’s engaging and readable. So we’ll steer away from the dense theorizing that you’d find in an academic journal on sports history or sociology or some other field.

Yes, this does fill a niche in sports writing.  Since we started making plans, a number of sports journalists have told us that what we’re doing is needed and welcome, as something of middle ground between the academe and journalism.  You see similar types of periodicals, in science and international relations, where professors write for readers outside their specialized guilds, and journalists do the kind of in-depth research and analysis they don’t have the chance to do when meeting deadlines.

You’ve got some excellent editors and writers lined up. Could you tell us a little bit about some of these authors and their expertise? How did you recruit them? Collectively, what do they bring to the website?

This is really the fun part for me. Most mornings, I open my email and I have messages from one of our contributors in Australia or South Africa. It’s really a treat to work with so many talented people, who together offer such a wide range of expertise. And I’d even say that our writers are enthusiastic about being part of this larger project, that links people around the world with this shared interest in the broader meanings of sport.

We have a large pool of writers, which is deliberate. We wanted to have a number of different world regions and areas of interest represented. Plus, we wanted to avoid having people burned out by constantly writing new content. That said, there is a core of about ten writers who will post consistently.  And all of the writers will be working with a team of four editors.  One of the editors is Mike Buma, who might be familiar to Hockey in Society readers as the author of the book Refereeing Identity, on Canadian hockey literature.

As for finding the writers, it really began with people who had appeared on New Books in Sports. They were committed to launching The Allrounder, and they contacted colleagues who they knew would be good contributors. But we’ve even been adding people in recent days, after the start of our Kickstarter campaign. We’ve had some well-established and respected writers who’ve contacted us, asking to contribute. This has been encouraging, to know that people want to be part of this project.

And, of course, the All Rounder’s success is reliant on the fundraising campaign you are running. How is the Kickstarter campaign going? How will these funds be used?

Well, the stories you hear about the Kickstarter project that raised $200,000 on its first day are the rare, rare exceptions.  Kickstarter campaigns build slowly, and then have a big jump at the end.  That’s been the case for us.  Right now, halfway through the campaign, we’re at about twenty percent of our target.  This puts us in good position for the jump at the end.  We did a lot of research and planning before the campaign.  Still, once it began, we learned things that we didn’t expect.  It’s been a fascinating experience. And it’s also a ton of work.

The money from Kickstarter will cover our operations, on a bare-bones level, for the first year. We’ll then use that time to put into place some strategies for the long-term maintenance of the site. For instance, we’re going to look for appropriate advertisers for the site, not things that will make us cringe.  And we also plan to publish print volumes during the year, featuring original work by the writers who contribute to the site as well as other writers.

One of the issues we have focused on quite a bit on this blog is the significance of new media to both hockey fan cultures and hockey media. Presumably, based on your work with New Books in Sports and the All Rounder, you also see sociocultural significance to new media and critical readings of sport. Could you speak a little bit to your view of this subject?

That’s a great question. One of the recent episodes of the podcast featured two sociologists in Australia, Brett Hutchins and David Rowe, who are doing research on sport in the digital age, ranging from games being broadcast live online to fantasy leagues and online fan communities. One thing that is striking to me is the democratization of sports writing and commentary.  Back in the day of print and broadcast media, there was a small group of professional journalists who were the experts on sports. But with the advent of new media, you have greater participation in the analysis of sports. You know, academics like us are now able to take part in the discussion, to bring our work directly to fans and to interact with journalists, something that wouldn’t have been the case 20 years ago. And one thing that Hutchins and Rowe point out is that many of the professional sports journalists, particularly those who had their start before the digital age, do not see this as a good development. It’s a challenge to them.  I think we need to be aware of this, those of us involved in new media.

Something we’ve been trying to do in plotting out the course for The Allrounder is make clear that we want to offer something new in sports media, rather than claiming that we’re going to do it better. That said, I know that there is a critical element to what we are doing in new media, in terms of questioning how sports have been traditionally presented by print and broadcast media, questioning how large media companies are now in many ways the drivers of sport, and looking critically at the narratives that these large media companies promote. I know that this is something you and your writers have done at Hockey in Society, and a number of our writers for The Allrounder have written books and academic articles that take this critical approach to media and sport.

But still I have to say: I love to read great sports writing in a newspaper or magazine.  One of my all-time favorite moments in doing the New Books in Sports podcast was when I had Roy MacGregor as guest, to discuss his collection of hockey essays, Wayne Gretzky’s Ghost.  During our conversation, he said to me, “You clearly know your hockey.”  Coming from one of the deans of hockey journalism, that was one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received.

Any final insights or thoughts to share based on your work with New Books in Sports and/or the All Rounder?

One guest that I’ve had on the podcast a couple of times, a political scientist named Andy Markovits, talks about sports knowledge as being like our knowledge of languages. I grew up in northern Minnesota and was on skates from age three. I speak hockey – the game, the culture, the history – with native fluency. In the last ten years, I’ve become a fan of world soccer. I’d say that I’m proficient, but I mess up on the grammar, and I don’t have complete command of the vocabulary. What I’d like to see The Allrounder become is a place where those with native fluency, in a variety of sports, will have conversations with those who are gaining proficiency. Just as when you’re speaking with someone who’s learning English, you explain yourself clearly, and you avoid inside references or colloquialisms that might confuse the person. You want the person to better understand the language. And at the same time, one of the benefits of studying another language is that you gain a more refined knowledge of your own.  I think a lot of people would appreciate a sports site that encouraged that kind of interaction.

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