First off, apologies for the bizarro looking picture of Ray up there on the top right. I wasn't quite able to crop it like I was hoping so I'll work on getting that squared away.
In the meantime, in what was arguable the worst kept secret ever, Ray Ratto has left the San Francisco Chronicle and joined CSN Bay Area. If you've wandered around the front page of our site, you may have noticed some CSN Bay Area mentions here and there. We've had a partnership deal in place that includes some content distribution. And with the addition of Ray to their writing staff, we all though it would be interesting to sit down and have a one-on-one conversation with him.
I realize a lot of people have very heated opinions about Ray Ratto. He seems to be the kind you love or you hate, in large part because he crafts out often contrarian positions. His columns can be infuriating at times. I've seen enough comments on SB Nation blogs to understand what people think on this matter.
And yet, that is part of the reason I was interested in doing this interview. When you're dealing with somebody who is such a lightning rod for fans, this kind of interview provides an opportunity to cut through the BS and try to get a better sense of the individual. I've posted a transcript of the conversation after this, but I thought I'd hit some of the high points. Additionally, our discussion continued after I stopped recording and he had some interesting comments about his own background that I thought were worth sharing.
We discussed his position within the Bay Area media and how he writes his pieces, and he doesn't quite feel he has a specific role to fill. He just writes what he writes. He obviously takes a lot of contrarian points of view, but he doesn't feel as though he's being so outlandish as to be ridiculous. His thought is that the teams have a million and one chances to get their position out to the fans in some form or fashion. His point of view comes from the fact that for every professional team in the Bay Area, there is a very distinct contrarian point of view worthy of discussion.
As a 49ers fan, one of the primary beat writers for the team, Matt Maiocco, has never really indicated who his favorite football team really is. And that has always had me wondering whether it's the same for every long time sports writer: does covering all the teams kill your love of specific teams. I asked Ray about this and if he had any particular favorite teams at this point, and he said that even growing up he was never a huge fan of particular teams. He enjoyed going to games because of the chance to see the opposing teams. In the Bay Area, where every major sport is represented, and you've got both the National and American League, he was excited by the chance to potentially see every single professional athlete in some form or fashion.
All in all, I ended up having a really enjoyable time getting his take on a variety of issues. The interview started off with a lot of discussion about CSN Bay Area and how he views their future development. I inquired about his thoughts on the battles between blogs and mainstream media as well, in part because he's in an intriguing and somewhat unique position. He's leaving a traditional newspaper and moving over to a web-based resource and is experiencing both sides of that equation.
It was interesting hearing his thoughts on CSN given my own position here at SB Nation. From his angle, he sees CSN as a well-funded start-up that is working up to battle the proverbial big dogs. Of course, I view them as one of those big dogs. I'm not sure I agree with his thought about the proverbial "boots on the ground" when I look at SB Nation. He spoke a lot about how important it was for CSNBA to get sources following the team on a regular basis, traveling constantly with the team, and basically filling the role of newspapers.
As a writer here at SB Nation, we're big in the independent market, and I think we can become in the big picture, but our "boots on the ground" are in a different sort of fashion than that of a CSN Bay Area. We may not have quite the Insider sources that they do, but I think we bring a different viewpoint and angle to the table. But that's also why I think there's room at the table for all of us. We're all competing with each other for eyeballs, but in the end we're also working in conjunction with each other in some form or fashion.
However, by far the most entertaining aspect of the interview was getting his thoughts on all the Bay Area teams. He basically sees the Bay Area fanbase as incredibly pissed off about their teams, most notably the Warriors. Given the pending sale of the team, they are certainly going to be one of the major stories to be covered.
In the end, I think he closed well. Although there is a lot of mediocrity in Bay Area sports at the moment, we might as well kick back and get another beer. Enjoy.
We got right into it as to why people were critical of him in particular, and about sports in general.
Ratto: It's sports, but this is the age where everybody gets their say. I mean, it hadn't been a pyramid as much as it had been a funnel before this. You know the reader basically didn't get to talk back and now they get to talk back any way they want. And a percentage of them, as yet undefined, would like to just kick you in the nuts verbally. And that's fine because everybody gets to go to the church they want.
I don't have a great sense where I fit in the Bay Area. I have just sort of done my job and when I came here I got very lucky to get this gig.
DF: Speaking of this particular job, is there a particular reason, aside from the fact that apparently CSN is going to own the world at some point.
Ratto: Well, my theory is that at some point ESPN and Comcast will divide the world. I don't know how that's going to happen and will probably not be alive to see it. They're going to be the dominant players in sports television and sports programs.
But largely I came because they asked and it was a great opportunity to do something that was significantly different than what I've had been doing, while also enough of the same stuff so that I wouldn't feel completely out of the woods. You know I'm 56, so when you get a chance to get a challenge with what is basically an extraordinarily bank-rolled start-up here, and still to be able to see that this is going to be part of something bigger...I mean it's a neat opportunity that only an idiot would turn down. They didn't have to ask me six times.
DF: Did it factor in at all that they're talking about how the newspapers are going the way of the dodo and things are changing?
Ratto: Well, sure it did. I mean I don't know that newspapers are going the way of the dodo, but it's clear that in the foreseeable future, their scope is shrinking, their ambitions are shrinking. The Chronicle is a smaller paper, and a less ambitious paper than it used to be. And most of that is due to the fact that after the Internet boom landed, and Craigslist got its legs, I mean all of a sudden the landscape changed from beneath them, and they, and all newspapers did this, is they decided to cut back and cut back and try to stay profitable. Because they got hooked on the 25, 26, 27% profit margin they were making every year. And there are still papers that are making money. I think the Chronicle is making money now.
But, that's not why I left. I left because this is a great opportunity, and I'm not blowing smoke up their keesters. It just is. But, the fact is that newspapers face an uncertain future, there's a future for them. The day that there's no newspapers is the day we as a society are profoundly f----d.
But, in the shorter term, a lot of really good people have already lost jobs. A lot more are going to lose jobs. It's a very uncertain industry right now. So yea, that was part of it. If these guys had been a fly by night operation running out of Ted Griggs' trunk, no I probably wouldn't have come. But this is obviously an ambitious company. Because I got to be in the studio for Chronicle Live I got to see how they work. It's this massive ball of energy that is sort of learning by sprinting into the wall, falling down, and sprinting into the next wall.
There's talent here, there's energy, there's enthusiasm, there's creativity, and it's still learning, so in that way it kind of is like a start-up. They don't have sort of that overwhelming ESPN structure that must be adhered to. They're trying to make a structure, so it's one of those things where all things are possible, and so when they approached me, I was intrigued from the get. And then after a few procedural hurdles with the Chronicle...I just said, Well I have to do this. I'm an idiot if I don't. So when I said yes, I've been ready for this day for a while. It's sort of rejuvenates you. I mean you're surrounded by people in their 20s and early 30s. They're smart; they have a lot learn; they're going to learn it because they are smart. The place just vibrates, and I don't know that most people realize how important that is until they've been in the work place for a while. That you get hooked on the adrenaline of adrenaline.
God basically french-kissed me and said here, do this for a while. So I'm thrilled.
DF: What kind of content will you be producing for CSN?
Ratto: It will be largely what I've been doing, which is mostly writing; between 4 and 5 columns a week. I'm sure they'll have me twittering. I keep waiting for that technology to change or die, but it looks like it's gonna be around for a while. The occasional blog, the occasional chat room. For the foreseeable time, there will be some TV, but not like I'm getting a game show. But it's mostly a writing gig, so it's right up my street, and I've done some blogging, not as much as I probably should have because I've had plenty on my plate. I've never tweeted so that'll be a first.
My daughter's friend made me a Facebook page, which I've never looked at. So it's all of a sudden like, it's 2010; it's no longer fashionable to be a luddite. Pick up the game!
The Internet is still at a stage where it's not funded well enough to take over newspapers. But it can link to them. So there's this sort of uneasy cooperation between what everybody thought would be two competing technologies. When the Internet is bankrolled well enough that they can have three people in Afghanistan and two in...when they can run like the New York Times runs its newsroom, then you can say it's time for newspapers to pass on. But there's such an enormous amount of money involved in that and you can't just do it with three people. You need to have competing megaliths. Otherwise you'll get one side of every story and you're incredibly vulnerable.
That was the beauty of newspapers at their best 20 years ago. The NY Times fight like well with the Washington Post, which fought like hell with the Chicago Tribune, which fought like hell with the International Herald Tribune. There were competing newspapers trying to get stories. The Internet is there on the technology side, but is not there on the information/content side, which is one of the reasons why this is so important. Right now, ESPN is the entire cabinet of sports information in many people's minds. I mean there are other really good sites, but they're down the road a piece. Yahoo does well but it's mostly created on its fantasy content. CBS Sportsline, which I worked for, is important but it ebbs and flows with the seasons. At some point you'd like there to be 3 or 4 or 5 ESPNs. Not owned by Disney, but owned by different people who want to start chasing for stories. And being able to run on the fast track, and so this I think is what Comcast wants to do with all their regional sites at some point. Which I imagine at some point somebody will want to turn into a big thing.
DF: Speaking of ESPN, and the fact that they're considered the be-all end-all at this point, the LeBron James stuff has created backlash, and it seems like the backlash has been developing for a really long time now. Is that something that CSN will be able to take advantage of, or....?
Ratto: It's gonna depend on the quality of our content ultimately. Other network sites have a leg up. CBS Sportsline has been up for 15 years as far as I know. What Comcast has though, is they've got a bunch of regional sites. They've also got the NBC Sports sites. When the Comcast-NBC thing happens all of a sudden it can be as big a player as it wants to be. And it sounds like they want to be a player. I mean you don't go and buy a network for $35 billion if you don't want to be a player. And I think the fact that they are opening and developing and funding these regional sites, is an indication that they want to be one of those big dogs. And that's all well and good because you can't be a dog without funding and people. But ultimately content is gonna determine how far you can run.
They have good people, but it's going to have to grow because there's a lot to cover here. They'll have to hire more people for the sites, covering teams day in and day out. At some point they're going to have to commit to traveling with the baseball teams. But everybody here is ambitious and they want to do all that. The long term answer, without me ever having been in a planning meeting, is I think they want to cover the Bay Area as comprehensively as the newspapers do, and with the site in Chicago, the site in Philadelphia, the site in DC, and the other places they're gonna go, if they want to be serious they're gonna be serious. And serious to me means you have boots on the ground. You have somebody traveling with the Giants home and away. The Warriors home and away.
I mean the Warriors are about to become a very interesting story. I mean what happens after the train wreck. After the diesel's been extinguished and all you've got is soot, shards of glass, that's gonna be fascinating. And Matt Steinmetz, who's been ahead on the ownership story from the get, he's gonna be working 74 hours a week just watching this thing get rebuilt from the ground and see what kind of structure results. The Warriors are about to become an expansion team. I mean they're going to have to strip this thing down to the framework and rebuild it from scratch.
My theory is that as soon as Ellison gets the team, they're gonna take it down to the bricks and start over again. It's gonna be worse before it gets better on the floor, because it has to. You can't take this roster and fix it. You've gotta blow it up. You start with Curry, and if David Lee still has life in him you keep him. And everyone else is in play. Because there's nobody else there that you got, man you've gotta keep him.
The expectations of Warriors fans have been submarined so many times that they get all excited about Anthony Morrow. Every team's got an Anthony Morrow and there's ten more in the D-League. The Warriors have not been in a position where they have had a phenomenal player of which there is no comparison. They haven't had LeBron James since Wilt Chamberlain, and that was the mid-60s. You could make a case for Barry, but he was not so much a special, jaw-dropping athlete, as he was a great basketball player.
They haven't had Kobe Bryant, and they haven't had Michael Jordan, and they haven't had Julius Erving, and they haven't had Larry Bird. The Warriors have been...the one championship they've one was against all logic. They have no had a physically dominant team that makes you go "Wow" since they had Chamberlain and Thurmond in '64. I mean that's a zillion years ago.
The field for them is wide open. They're going to become an incredibly fascinating story. And when we're gonna be able to be there home and way like the Chronicle is, we'll be a player there. And we're getting there in a hurry. Matt Maiocco was a phenomenal get because he basically owned the 49er beat. Mychael Urban has been around baseball for a long time. Steinmetz has been with the Warriors forever. We're at the start of something that I think is gonna be big and I think it's gonna be important and it's gonna be a place that you go to find out what you need to find out. That I presume is what the goal is.
DF: Do you think that having that day-to-day, insider access, is really the key to going from a normal media operation to being big-time?
Ratto: It is because, and I'll use the Steinmetz example again. He developed sources just through inter-personal contact that he could call, and he called them all yesterday, to get this. And he was ahead on the story. Everybody else was going "Well maybe Mastrov's got a chance" or "There's this other guy lingering around." But it was Ellison from the get, which everyone knew.
But you only nail down stories like that if you know people, and can make a call and get them to answer that. That's where being on the road and seeing these guys in social situations and things like that, that's the advantage that newspapers have when they're on the road. And they're starting to abrogate that in some places. And we can fill that void. That's how you break stories: by knowing people that know things and are willing to tell you or guide you.
That's where the boots on the ground matter. When I covered baseball, back when the earth was still cooling, because I was there every day in the clubhouse, I could get things from players because they saw me every day. Once you stop being there every day, players tend to be more reluctant to speak openly to you because you're not there every day, you're not a familiar face.
We're at a stage now where we're starting that process and I think it's only going to get bigger and better. The best reporters are the ones that have the access to everybody but don't feel like they have to compromise themselves to keep it. And the work that Matt did on the Warriors story, and the work that Maiocco does all the time, is a sign, this is how access pays off.
This is how you get the information upon which everybody else reacts. And that's the invaluable thing that newspapers figured out a long time ago, but decided that they can no longer afford it, or can't afford it for the foreseeable future, that sites like ours will be able to.
DF: There's been a good deal of conflict at times between blogs and mainstream media, how do you view independent blogs and independent sites, generally, fitting into this whole equation.
Ratto: The idea of the blog war between mainstream media and blogs is so much nonsense to me because there are blogs chalk full of great content. I mean some of them are aggregators, sure. But some of them are creative, thoughtful, really helpful stuff. I mean if you're a basketball fan and you're not reading Free Darko? Well then you're not really as much of a basketball fan as you oughta be. And that's just one example. The soccer sites that have been up for five and six and seven years that all of a sudden people noticed during the World Cup. That, as much as anything, explains why there was such a ratings kick for this World Cup, as opposed to all the ones before it. It's because there are bright people working on blogs. There are also some incredibly stupid ones. There are also incredibly important newspapers and incredibly lame ones.
All we're arguing about between a blog and mainstream media is the access and the size of the audience. Some of the best bloggers are already getting swallowed up by mainstream sites. Mike Florio is basically an aggregator with Pro Football Talk, got hooked up with NBC. The Free Darko guy I think is working with Sporting News. If you're a college football fan and you're not reading Every Day Should be Saturday, part of the party is getting by you. If you're interested in social issues, about the black athlete and pot in post-modern America and you're not reading Sports On My Mind or The Starting Five, or Dave Zirin, you're missing stuff.
So there's no reason why there oughta be a war. There's no reason why there needs to be a close relationship. I think frankly it's working fine now. It's when we start covering each other and pissing and moaning about "Well they don't get to do that" and "Those guys are too close", SHUT UP! There's a bunch of different ways to cook a chicken. I've never understood why there's the argument because smart people will win out. If you're good at what you do, if you're working on an etch-a-sketch, yea you're at a disadvantage, but if you're smart enough you can get through it. The content will bear itself out.
DF: We've talked about blogs and newspapers to death, let's switch gears. Who's your favorite individual in the Bay Area right now to cover? Whether it be ease of access, or they provide a good story.
Ratto: There are different people for different reasons. And my favorites change depending on what they do at any given moment. I think unfortunately we are in a period where the athletes are fairly bland. So more and more it's almost like you're dealing with front office types who have their own sort of agendas and you're very wary of what they say and how they say it because they'll lie to you for a quarter and ask for 20 cents change. I think Billy Beane is interesting because he may be looking at the end of his tenure. I mean if this team doesn't get to move to San Jose I cannot see how John Fisher and Lew Wolff aren't going to put it up for sale. And if it's up for sale, the new owner may decide I want my own general manager.
The Warriors are clearly gonna be...I mean I don't know whether Larry Ellison will ever be a public figure. He's gonna show up at games, but I don't know if he's ever gonna be a guy who courts us very much. But what he does is going to be fascinating. Jed York, I mean they need to figure out if they can afford this stadium that they just got permission to build. Mike Singletary is a weird guy. I wish there were more players who, and I guess Lincecum might be the best example of this because I think he's starting to break out of his shell some, of a guy who is both smart and not afraid to say stuff because there are guys who will talk. Dallas Braden's a good talker; Aubrey Huff's a good talker. But you can't keep going to them day after day after day. Like everybody else they go stale because everybody's got a finite amount of thoughts in their head. So, for now, and because the teams have been so bad, it's not so much people that are the fascinating things, but the situations that they're in.
The Raiders are fascinating because, you know, they're the freaking Raiders. Long story short, there are ownership issues with every team except the Sharks. There are general manager/manager issues with every team, except the Sharks. The 49ers are a little more stable but if they go 6-10 this year, you think Mike Singletary wouldn't be in some trouble? I guarantee you he would be. Jed York's 28 and life's flying by. They got a stadium to build, they can't wait around if things go stale. So, right now, the interesting stuff at least for human drama and the future of the teams is more personality based in the front office than it is on the field.
You still want to see Patrick Willis because he's a great player. You still want to see Stephen Curry. You still want to see Joe Thornton. Whether you like them or not, you're gonna watch them. Because the teams, by and large, have been mediocre for as long as they have been, these are now front office drive stories, rather than player-driven stories. When you're going good the players are the most interesting thing going. When you're not, it's the people making the decisions.
DF: Which team do you think is the closest to getting back to the top?
Ratto: Well, the Warriors are not, not only because of persistent rot, but because the NBA is so stratified that only a few teams have a chance to win in every given year. I can't tell about the Giants or A's because their best players are all 12 years old. The 49ers, I think they're still 3 or 4 years away from being a Super Bowl contender, and winning a division is not the same. The Raiders are, God knows what, because you don't know how long Al's gonna be around. There's a team that's gonna have a sea of change when he retires, passes the team on, however that transition happens.
I think it's gonna have to be the Sharks because their success is at least foreseeable, and they're not so far away that you cant imagine it. Everybody else is 3-4 years away minimum and all for different reasons. I suppose at some point the Earthquakes could be a factor again. MLS is just so, it's incredibly gruesome to watch. Once you've seen the World Cup and once you've watched Fox Soccer Channel, and when you've seen the English Premiership or the Spanish League, MLS, that's hard to figure out. I don't know, maybe the Sabercats? They're back again.
But I would say, this is the easy answer, but the Sharks have less ground to make up and can do it quicker if they can get one or two guys, or the Blackhawks implode, or the Red Wings are too old. They have an opportunity whereas the other teams are still multiple years away.
This has been a weird area for sports for a long time, and for the first time in my memory, there are more people that are angry about their team situations than before. This used to be a fairly placid market in general, one because they were winning, and two because people did not get as on edge. I mean Giants fans are on edge now even though they've stopped losing because they haven't for them yet. And there's this new fascination with "Well they've never won the World Series here." Well, five years ago, seven years ago, that didn't matter. All of a sudden they're morphing into the Cubs. You know, "We never get to win." Oh, shut up.
DF: What do you think is causing that?
Ratto: I think part of it is the fans changed when they went to the new stadium. It's less of a shared experience and there are more casual fans who want to be part of a party. And they feel like, "I got my chance in 2002, but I didn't get my souvenir key chain." A's fans are unhappy because they're seeing their team basically scooped out from under them. I think most A's fans aren't absolute diehards wonder if the people running the organization are trying hard enough. Sharks fans are pissed because they think they've had the best team, when they haven't. Warriors fans are pissed because it suddenly occurred to them that they've been getting the bad end of the s--- sandwich for the last decade and a half. I mean they used to go, "Well at least we get to see Kobe and well at least they run and they're entertaining." But, that's an angry fan base now. They're probably angrier than even Raider fans. And maybe part of it is the Internet culture where snark is the coin of the realm. But Warriors didn't used to be pissed off like this, and I think it's a great thing, because fans invest their money and they invest their emotion and far too often, and this is why I'm not sure I understand the fan-thinking in all this. When you're getting crapped on, which is sort of what the Warriors have done because well we're filling the place and we're giving you free pizzas, and yea the basketball's s---, but you keep coming out. I think the best thing to make sure sports team is working its ass off is an empty seat.
I mean, it doesn't have to be an organized boycott or any publicity stunt like that. It's just people saying "Screw it, I'm staying home." You get enough people staying home, and owners are ego-maniacs above beyond everything else. And an empty seat is a middle finger. "I could've come to watch your team, but I don't wanna. I've got something better to do."
DF: Well, when you look at the A's who get a ton of money in revenue sharing, it seems like things like revenue sharing make it easier for the owners to overlook that and just say "screw the fans."
Ratto: The problem with that is, people are more willing to look and see if they've got a bad team and go right to the owner, where they used to say "The coach is screwing us" or "we have a bad general manger." Now, if a team is not doing well, at least in the stands, if they're not providing a level of entertainment, people are going to blame the organization, "They don't understand the audience, they don't reach out." The Warriors get people to come in and it defies logic.
I think one of the reasons when Chris Cohan finally decided to get out, other than the IRS thing, is that he'd become a punchline. He had been for a while, but with the increased venom, which they have absolutely merited on every level, at some point even when you're making money it stops being fun. Le Wolff went from being the avuncular grandfather to now he's portrayed as this flint-hearted carpetbagger who just wants to go to San Jose because he's a real estate guy. And that's his fault because he made a bunch of missteps over the years that people could have told him not to do. He's basically reliving some of the mistakes that Bob Lurie went through when he was trying to move to San Jose. And that was two decades ago...three decades ago.
I think in general people look at their entertainment and even in a bad market, and when I say a bad market I mean one in which teams haven't done well in a while, they want to see that you're at least trying and want to stay competitive and you're in trying to swing with the big boys. And for different reasons, the Raiders are largely dysfunctional, the Warriors are a tire fire, the Giants suffered from bizarre ownership, the A's from "We just want to get out, we just want to keep our overhead low," and the 49ers from just years of bad hiring, for different reasons, they've all become mediocre at the same time. So when you don't have another place to go, and if you're not a hockey fan you don't have another place to go, you get pissed.
We've got 7 million people here, how the f--- can this be?! And people just say, "This is bulls---." And this might be part of American culture in general, I don't know. This is an angrier fan base because it's been a long time since any of these teams really mattered. And so they lash out and they look for the convenient target.
For the 49ers, the convenient target was John York. The Giants it's Brian Sabean. And in some ways he's been unfairly targeted because a lot of the decisions they put on him were either forced on him by the boss, or weren't made by him at all. He's not the one who wanted Barry Zito at $126 million. He's not the one who wanted Aaron Rowand at $60 million. But he's the guy who grew up the Steinbrenner era where you shut up and you take it and you just do your job as best you can.
Billy Beane has largely been exempted because people still believe in a lot of the theories he espouses. Although, what he's found out like everyone else, is you can be smart, you can be rich, or you can be both. If you want to win you have to be both because smart alone isn't gonna get it done. You can't continue to squeeze a nickel here, and bring in a guy who used to be good but has an injury history. You're not playing with face cards. You're trying to make that 2-7 into a straight somehow.
And I just think in general, people are pissed off because it's been a while. 2006 seems like a million years ago, which is remarkable. They weren't as good as the Tigers that year, they weren't going to win that series, but 2007: bad, 2008: bad 2009: bad, 2010: probably gonna be bad. They don't like it that they're sort of faceless.
The Giants, they're still pissed about 2002. I mean, why? They've had a longer attendance honeymoon than any other team ever. But, once Barry Bonds was no longer there, well, sell us something else. Well, they had nothing to sell because they wouldn't throw money into the farm system because they didn't want to rebuild around Barry Bonds because he had to retire first for some unknown reason. So they had two years of s--- baseball. Last year they were interesting because they built around pitching. This year, I think they'll still be interesting. They're actually a better offensive team, but the two guys they sold aren't having big years for them.
You could sit there and parse this a million ways, but again, in general, people are pissed off because they haven't had a diversion other than the Sharks. And if you're not a big hockey fan, you've got none whatsoever. And you're watching everybody else have a great time, and you're standing outside the window eating a tuna sandwich, going what the f---, what about me? And I think after a while, in a culture that is more hooked on immediate gratification; four years for the A's, seven years for everybody else, is basically BS in their minds.
"When do we get ours?" Well it's gonna be a while. I would buy more beer.