The Squeeze

Mar 21, 2023

My wife and I signed a lease in Champaign three years ago last week. The Covid-19 Pandemic was only a couple days old, and the NCAA Tournament had already been canceled, so we decided to stop our house search in Champaign and rent instead. The world seemed to be turning upside down, so we figured that renting was the best way to navigate the uncertainty.

I had already quit my job in St. Louis, and she had already started her new job up here (I believe she was in training in Memphis that week and then home over the weekend), so we had already begun our move to Champaign. And we had come up to Champaign the weekend before to tour several homes for sale. This time, with our St. Louis condo under contract, we needed to find somewhere to live starting early April. We chose to rent, not buy, mostly because it felt like the world was about to crumble.

I begin this way because, now three years into turning my hobby into my job, I still feel like that. I feel like I'm renting, not buying. I'm three years in and I still can't put a nail in the drywall because I'm worried about the security deposit, so to speak. I feel like I still can't do what I came here to do.

The first few years, the answer was obvious: Covid. The first seven months it was as simple as "yeah, there's no sports right now", and then, once college football and basketball returned, we were still renting the sports. No fans. No interviews besides Zoom. Football practice began again in September of 2020 but there was no chance to watch one single minute of it. Totally understood that. Can't risk a single player getting Covid.

As Covid has faded away (at least in terms of legislated restrictions), the restrictions around the things I hoped to cover did not fade away. Those restrictions remain in place. Limited access to football practice; no access to basketball practice. And any access to players is limited to pre-arranged media scrums with no chance for a one-on-one conversation. I had always covered the team informally, and suddenly every informal way to cover the Illini was eliminated.

So I pivoted to covering the team "formally." Like a media member. But after three years of struggling with that, I still feel like an outsider. I still feel like there's no tread on the tires and I'm slipping and sliding all over the place. By choosing to cover the team like I do, I guess I've sacrificed any chance at gaining credibility. I'll explain this with a story, and it will be long, but like always, I promise to land the plane.

The best part of being credentialed for home basketball games is the ability to observe things from up close. Illinois has the best media seating in the Big Ten, and being able to see (and hear) the coaches and players really enhances what I write about. I'm forever grateful to the DIA for credentialing me and allowing me that access.

But I don't use that access like everyone else does. I used to attend all press conferences, but then some stuff happened and I'm no longer comfortable in that room. I used to apply for credentials for every road game but now I sometimes just buy a ticket on StubHub and sit with friends. My writing is always about my personal experience - I travel to every single road football game and Tyler or I travel to every single basketball road game so that we can tell you what it was like in there - and sometimes I can get a better sense of things from the stands. Especially when I can purchase a ticket near the Illini bench (like the Maryland game).

Covering the team that way, though, has led to IlliniBoard being, uh, de-emphasized. We're at the bottom of all the lists. As in, at the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago last week, every other media outlet was given media seating. IlliniBoard was moved to overflow.

Before I give all the details, please remember, I'm the one who will sometimes wander around the arena (or go pace somewhere). When I was moved up into the stratosphere for the Texas game at MSG, I complained out loud for Brad Sturdy's sake, not my own. I'll grumble, but I can accept "they get to sit here, but you have to sit over there" when seating is extremely tight.

But this was a step beyond that. Eight steps beyond that. This was every other media outlet (and some blogs) getting at least one seat (sometimes two) while IlliniBoard wasn't included in the seating chart. We were instructed to sit in overflow. And when I asked about overflow during the afternoon session on Thursday ("do we go to the hockey pressbox up top?") we were told that the hockey pressbox was being used for something else and that overflow would be in the media room.

I want you to think about that. I've applied for a credential (for both Tyler and myself) to cover the team in Chicago. Both were approved. I took the train up, stayed at Tyler's house on Wednesday night, he took off work, and we both headed down to the United Center on Thursday. And when the seating chart is put up for the evening session (starting with the Illinois-Penn State game on Thursday), we're not on it. Our instructions were to sit in the media room underneath the stadium and watch the Illinois-Penn State game on TV.

That's probably the best way for me to explain the disconnect between media approvals and media usage. The media approval side really sees no problem in suggesting you watch the game on TV in the media room. After all, you're just there to get quotes from the players afterwards, right? Why would you even need to watch the game? You can watch on TV, grab a stat packet after, ask the coach one question, and write your 800 words. For me, I'm only getting the credential so I can observe up close and write about what I observe (and I'm likely not even going to attend the presser), but "ability to actually watch the game" is below "ability to attend the press conference" on the media approvals side.

Now, thankfully, for the evening session, the Big Ten went back on what we were told for the early session and they opened up part of the hockey press box. That's where Tyler and I sat for that game. But in the media email the next morning (middle paragraph)...

I honestly feel bad for the Indiana media who were there on Friday. They always bring a massive number of reporters, and for some of them to be asked to watch the game on TV, well, it's just not right. At that point, if you can't seat everyone, you just have to restrict the number of credentials you hand out. I can assure you, media aren't traveling all that way to watch the game on TV in the work room in the bowels of the arena. (Hopefully they employed a system for Indiana where every site gets at least one courtside reporter with everyone else in overflow, but that's not how Thursday worked.)

Back to BTT Thursday. Every newspaper and website besides IlliniBoard that applied for credentials to cover Illinois-Penn State was given at least one courtside seat. Sometimes two. The choices didn't even make sense. An example:

The SB Nation blog Champaign Room was given two courtside spots and Illini Inquirer (247) was given one. Jeremy, Derek, and Joey all do this as their job while the Champaign Room guys just do it as a hobby in their spare time. I mean, more power to them, and I hope they're writing things for free at SB Nation as a buildup to starting their own site some day, but I'll never understand a hobbyist prioritized over a full-timer. It's why I always stayed way out of the way (and never even applied for a BTT credential) when I was a hobbyist.

Tyler and I discussed our plight in the hospitality room before the Penn State game (before learning that the hockey press box would be opened for that session) and decided that the only way to handle a situation like this is to speak to the person responsible directly. I went to where he was stationed in the United Center and pleaded my case. To his credit, he apologized and said that if Illinois continued in the Tournament, he'd squeeze us in (at least one seat) for each Illini session. Penn State's Andrew Funk then took care of any future Illini sessions.

But really, my frustration wasn't really directed towards him. It's directed towards... the last three years. Everywhere I turn I feel like I'm getting squeezed. I knew it would be difficult to walk the fan/media tightrope, but these first three years have felt more like a clothesline.

Seriously, what do I have to do? I've gained the ear of the fanbase over the last 14 years and no one seems to fully recognize that. I've been a free PR department for the football program 10+ years now, getting to know their players and spotlighting them in one-on-one interviews and covering their charity work, yet I can't write those articles anymore because the places where those articles were conceived are no longer accessible to me. I have media members telling me I don't belong in the pressbox, I have other media members trying to prevent me from asking questions at press conferences, and IlliniBoard is viewed as 9th out of 9 when it comes to Illini media outlets at the Big Ten Tournament.

All of that leaves me with one feeling: why did I work so hard? Like, what was the reason for building something from scratch? Is it all about the name on the second line of the credential (your outlet), not the first?

I had an opportunity to do the SB Nation thing. When their Hail To The Orange blog went away, they contacted me about moving my blog to SB Nation. They even knew I had been on The Solid Verbal podcast before and had Dan Rubenstein call me to pitch me. I eventually said no (because the current version of IlliniBoard is what I pictured and I didn't want to deviate from that).

When Fletcher Page left the Illini site to go cover Georgia, the guy heading up Scout at the time contacted Brumby to offer IlliniBoard returning to Scout (which was then bought by 247 a few years after that). Brum and I discussed it and we said no. I just wasn't interested in the "crank out recruiting articles" thing. I had the current version of IlliniBoard in mind.

So I stuck with it. Kept my head down. Cranked and cranked and cranked on articles. Three years ago right now, I quit my job and made the leap (to build that version of IlliniBoard). And after three years, I'm now questioning if the only way to gain traction and earn close-to-the-action media seats is to have taken those SB Nation and Scout offers years ago.

This past weekend in Des Moines was more of the same. I decided to do the media thing and not the "buy tickets on StubHub" thing because A) the media seating is courtside and B) StubHub tickets are just a tiny bit expensive (especially when Kansas fans are buying tickets to the same session). I have this debate with myself all the time. If I'm just wanting to watch the game up close, as a fan, shouldn't I pony up for great seats? Am I cheating the system by trying to use media seats to get close to the action? But the media seat has a table, and I can have my laptop in front of me, and that allows me to tweet and research stats in real time. I should apologize for wanting to cover the team - this is what I do for a living.

But again, the way it works is rather infuriating. One Illini media outlet applied for a credential, was given a courtside seat, and didn't show. The best way to explain my feeling towards that is to say that your downtown office building has 8 parking spots for 12 units, one guy with the right company behind his name applies for and gets a spot, you never see a car parked there, you ask him about it, and the answer is "oh I don't even have a car - I just wanted to see if I could get one of the spaces." I'm scratching and clawing and trying to build my brand to where I can earn one of those seats and others are grabbing them based on the media company they work for and then not even bothering to show up?

In my frustration over the Big Ten Tournament, when I was on the train back from Chicago that Friday, I felt like I needed some kind of data that would prove that I have the ear of the fanbase. Just going by day-in, day-out Twitter views wouldn't work because any tweet that causes discussion (a ton of responses and arguing in the comments) will inflate the view counter. To get a baseline of "how many people see each tweet?", it would have to be done during a game when the tweets are flying by. We're putting 240 characters out there - how many people are seeing them?

This is an important data point because someone's follower count can't really be trusted. As I've said the past few months, I was somehow added to one of those "follow these recruiting people" lists this past fall and my follower count skyrocketed. Mostly thanks to 1000+ follows from high school football players. They get lists from their coaches and are told "follow these people" (to get their name out there) and suddenly three-fourths of my new followers had bios that said "2024 ATH from Georgia, 6'-1", 178 lbs, 3.54 GPA." And those kids aren't actively reading everything during an Illini game. I'm sure almost all of them followed and then muted me from their timeline. They wanted me to be aware of them, not the other way around.

What matters more, in my eyes, is how many people are actively scrolling Twitter and looking at your tweets (either by following you or following a list). And to determine that, I felt like the best way to track it would be to use in-game tweets. I'm not going for "did you have a tweet go locally-viral and get 50,000 views?" here. I just want to see how many people see the "Funk now 6-9 from three" tweets during the game because I was pretty sure I'd have more than everyone else.

And I was right. I won't attach names to all of these numbers because I don't want to make this about this person or that person. My goal while building that spreadsheet was to make my case to the Big Ten for putting IlliniBoard in overflow while eight other eight outlets were seated next to the court. If I have the ear of the fanbase, why do you consider me dead last in terms of media seating? I have the subscribers and the Twitter activity to prove that I should be near the top of the list.

So I totaled up views for every account given a seat by the court to compare to my own. I added all of the tweets between 5:30 and 7:30 (during the Penn State BTT game) from every account tweeting down by the court plus me tweeting from overflow upstairs. I ignored two "mini-viral" tweets from two of the accounts which gained all of their views from people returning to it for discussion that night and in the morning. I just wanted flow-of-the-game stuff. (An example there: my tweet at the end of the Arkansas game where I listed our point total the last three NCAA Tournament losses, got 56,000 views because it was debated that night and the next morning. That's not the type of thing I'm going for and it would artificially inflate my number. I just want to find in-game tweets to see how many fans are following along in real time.)

Here's the results. And I'll use A-B-C here instead of names:

A - 9,838 average views per tweet
B - 6,863
C - 6,843
D - 5,709
E - 2,829
F - 2,513
G - 1,501
H - 1,214
I - 188

Be careful here. This was a very specific data set during a game. You might go to your own Twitter account and see that one of your responses in some back-and-forth argument under someone's account had 4,000 views and that might lead you to say "I have more clout than some of the Illini media courtside". No. Go look at when you had 84 views during the game when you tweeted "why can't we make free throws?". This is very specific data which is seeking one outcome: when the in-game tweets are flowing from all media members tweeting from the same event, whose tweets are seen by the most people?

I believe mine are. I'm "A" on that list. I made screencaps of all my data in case anyone wants to challenge all of this, but since I'm the only one I'm choosing to identify, I'll just give you one screencap of a few of my tweets that Friday :

The little number on the bottom right - that's Twitter reading how many times someone viewed your Tweet. And as you can see from the "15h", I did these screencaps 15 hours after the game ended (which means the numbers will be higher now if you go to look at them).

My entire point here: how is any of this possible? How can I build up such a following, build up a subscriber base, and constantly get squeezed out? Why did I spend all of this time grinding and grinding and grinding as a part-timer if I'm going to get sent to overflow once I've been doing it as my full-time job for three years? Shouldn't market share be recognized? Or is this just as simple as "oh, he's a fan - he doesn't matter"?

Look, this isn't just about Twitter views. And, to be honest, because I choose to tweet maybe 10 times during a game, not 50, that probably helps me on the "views per tweet" thing. They don't get as lost in the shuffle (although as I'm saying that I immediately think I'm wrong because I don't think Twitter works like that - my tweets would still get lost in their shuffle because most diehards follow everyone who had a seat down there).

My argument here is not "I'm the king of the Illini media world!". Hardly. I'm not the one called for media interviews from other Big Ten radio stations. I don't tweet as much as everyone else, I don't cover recruiting, I don't live-tweet from press conferences - I'm in the shadows a lot. Hell, I got season tickets for football last year and there's no cellular data in my section until the crowd thins out in the second half so I couldn't even tweet during home football games last fall.

So in that sense I can see how I'm not "recognized." Being the voice asking the question at the press conference probably does matter more than engaging with the fanbase immediately after a game. In 2023, I believe B is way more important than A, but it doesn't matter how I see it. It only matters how those organizing media access see it.

As I said above, though, this goes well beyond that. At the Big Ten Tournament, eight outlets were given courtside seating and IlliniBoard was put in overflow. At the NCAA Tournament, six outlets were put courtside and IlliniBoard was put in overflow. And I have just as much of a Twitter presence, if not more of a Twitter presence (actual, engaged followers), than nearly all of those outlets. I spent fourteen years building a subscriber base without the backing of a single media organization. I wrote one thing down on a sticky note which I stuck to my desk years ago - "if the work is good, people will notice" - and I let that be the guiding principle. People noticed, this is now my job, and... I'm sent to overflow for the BTT one weekend and the NCAA Tournament the next.

So just look at all of this from my perspective. I moved here to do my thing at football practice and we keep getting squeezed out (although today's 30 minutes of open practice was a nice surprise). I go to Chicago for the BTT and am asked to watch the games on TV under the arena. For the second year in a row I'm sent upstairs at the NCAA Tournament (and that's after being denied a credential in 2021). I have one goal - get as close to the action as possible (at both practice and in games) and then report back on what I see - but it's been 36 months of being pushed away from all of those things. Press conferences have been lost to the tyranny of narratives, so I try to utilize every other opportunity to read the coaches, the players, and even the fans so that I can return to my laptop and tell you what's going on. But it keeps getting harder and harder to be close to anything. All I'm asking is to be close enough to do my job.

For football, at home, I gave up on the pressbox and built my own "pressbox in the stands.". Perhaps that was some kind of signal that I'm not serious about all of this (I was just trying to get closer to the action and I still need that field access at the end of games like it's oxygen). For basketball games at home, I gave up on the press conferences and remain courtside for a half hour to better get a flavor of the postgame. Maybe those things signal "he's not even trying to be a media member because media members do these exact things". I feel like I'm trying to set a new standard for how games are covered, and the DIA has been great about retaining my credential at football and basketball games (as well as a permanent courtside IlliniBoard seat at basketball games), but I just can't gain any traction outside of that.

Sorry this was so long. I'm just frustrated. And I promised to do one thing - share every part of my journey with you, even the ugly and the uncomfortable - so that's what I'm doing. Sorry you have to read this and not football practice notes (they're over on the Slack channel for subscribers).

Bottom line: I feel like I can't get close (to the action, to the players) like I used to. My entire second career is built upon observing these teams from up close.

And I feel like I keep getting squeezed out.


jdl on March 21, 2023 @ 03:08 PM

Have you asked the DIA about this? Any response?

Robert on March 21, 2023 @ 03:15 PM

The DIA doesn't control those credentials. They will respond if consulted ("hey, which five courtside spots are the most important"), but those decisions are up to the Big Ten and the NCAA.

As for open practices in Champaign, I've asked for 2019-level access approximately 82 times.

jdl on March 23, 2023 @ 04:03 PM

Yeah was more of a general question than specific to those incidents.

SirIllinois79 on March 21, 2023 @ 03:29 PM

This is unhinged. Seriously. Diving that deep into Twitter views. Acting like it's you against the world. This whole "media wars" thing you've been writing about over and over again. You need to pull out of this if you're that deep into the numbers and the frustrations and the ways it personally affects you. I'm being serious. I don't even think you're totally wrong, but you're coming off like a whining brat. Have you ever considered you've changed since pre-COVID times, too? Why is this everyone's fault but yours? There's been a recurring reaction amongst me and my (large) group of Illini friends to your articles over the past 18ish months, and it's "Who Freaking Cares." You're no longer fulfilling that niche piece of Illini media that you used to do so well. You're just complaining left and right.

Robert on March 21, 2023 @ 03:36 PM

Absolutely agree. Have sought out advice from probably a dozen people over the last two years. Even wrote a "not sure I can do this anymore?" article in February but deleted it.

It's one of the reasons I've left the paywall down for 6+ months now. I think I've added exactly one new subscriber in 2023, and when I got that email my first reaction was "come on, I don't deserve that."

But I don't see a path around, only through. So I'll keep writing these until I find my way through (or quit). If along the way I lose your (large) group of Illini friends, I lose your (large) group of Illini friends.

uilaw71 on March 21, 2023 @ 03:35 PM

Stay the course my friend.

Robert on March 21, 2023 @ 04:22 PM

Thanks Ken. Appreciate it.

aoneall on March 21, 2023 @ 03:52 PM

Seems like leaning into traditional media has taken the joy out of it for you. Taking the joy out of it has made you feel guilty about charging for it.

So is it really a leap of faith to do the opposite and lean back into being a fan again?

Also, take advantage of local and go watch more of the minor sports. Absorbing some energy from a college tennis match will make you feel better.

Robert on March 21, 2023 @ 04:20 PM

When I was just a fan doing this as a hobby, I got way more access. More interviews with coaches, more one-on-one interviews with players, more conversations on the sideline, more lifelong friendships - I developed good relationships with many players and I think my writing grew out of that.

Now that door is completely closed. So I guess I don't really see the problem being "media has taken the joy out of it for you." It's more that they closed off all of the stuff I loved to do and it's hard to write from my fan spot without it. I'm left with bland press conference quotes to inspire what I write.

If you're a subscriber with Slack access, go read what I wrote about the 30 minutes of open practice this morning. I think you'll read that and immediately say "oh yeah, that's his brain in the right spot".

(And to those asking, I put practice notes behind the paywall on Slack because I want to be able to control who reads them instead of publishing the notes "in public.")

LosAngellini on March 22, 2023 @ 12:02 AM

I don't get this (although I am not a journalist). I doubt that people read IB because of your relationship with players. Perhaps this important to you personally, but maybe not to readers?

Also you have way more to work with than bland presser quotes. Sports games are inherently dramatic and entertaining. That's what you have to work with. And your observations and takes on the games are crazy next level great. Maybe focus on using that amazing talent on games, and less on sulking about not being friendly with the punter.

DQ4515 on March 21, 2023 @ 04:58 PM

I was going to post the exact same comment as uilaw71 did, so I will. Please stay the course.

allansellers89 on March 21, 2023 @ 05:26 PM

I agree that nothing has been normal for the past 3 years. My youngest son plays a sport at another college and this was the first season where things seemed "normal" since 2019 for his sport.

I think that your role is challenging as it doesn't fit in:

  • I'm an alumni/fan
  • I'm part of the media

Your article is almost a retrospective of what's happened the past three years (in particular the past year).

Using my Agile training at work I'd suggest making lists like this:

  • What should I stop doing
  • What should I continue doing
  • What should I start doing

Some things are going well, but it seems like you feel a lot are not.

There may be certain things you don't like doing a lot that pay more dividends. I thought your interactions with Bielema in press conferences (zoom ones and some in person) were excellent. He always had positive answers and seemed to really enjoy interacting with you.

Maybe you are an introvert where the conflict of arguing to get what you want does not come easy. I get that.

It is a great time for reflection to determine what's next.

The forum does not lend itself to clicking "like" although I wish it did. I don't have a lot to say, perhaps like many, but I enjoy the articles from your unique perspective.

Thank you!

illinois81 on March 21, 2023 @ 06:52 PM

I like this response, and also want to suggest returning to press conferences. You bring unique perspectives to everything, including dry, predictable pressers.

LosAngellini on March 21, 2023 @ 11:41 PM

+1 to these thoughts, including your presence at press conferences.

Also, maybe ask your subscribers what past content they enjoyed. That could be valuable feedback. For example, your 1 on 1 interactions with athletes weren't super interesting this subscriber. But your commentary on what actually happened in a game is off the charts terrific. Again that's only one data point.

Chief4ever on March 22, 2023 @ 01:24 AM

Yes to these comments. And an “upvote” or “+1” or comments would be great. Give you more feedback too. There are many like me that don’t comment much, but read comments and really like some.

FYI, you persuaded me to finally get football season tickets for my family.

OrangeBlazer on March 22, 2023 @ 02:31 AM

A lot of great comments on this article, but these stuck out to me as particularly helpful. I would echo the sentiment that the one-on-one player stuff is not particularly meaningful for me, though knowing Robert a little bit, I understand (and can appreciate) why those kinds of interactions and relationships are what help make this enterprise meaningful for him.

That said, I would also add a +1 to getting back into the press conferences. Easier said than done, and I'm not the one who has to deal with condescending remarks from "traditional" media or fight through the scrums to get a word in edgewise.

But, so much of what is discussed in those press conferences is just meaningless drivel--questions designed to elicit responses to fill out articles that have already been written.

And yet we have two coaches in Bielema and Underwood who are fantastic in press conferences and will engage and provide thoughtful and meaningful answers when asked. So from my vantage, It's such a waste to have coaches like that fed an endless stream of silly and pointless questions with no substance.

All of that is to say, we need Robert on that wall asking intelligent and thoughtful questions, if he ever feels the inspiration to go back.

ClassOfDeeDeronJames on March 22, 2023 @ 08:48 AM

Another +1 to these comments. You bring a specific perspective to the otherwise boiler plate press conferences. It's those moments that maximize your unique content.

1on1 interactions may have made you feel different, but I don't think that content comes through well, as none of us can or think of having that experience. We can watch the games and press conferences and wish someone would ask the question we are all wanting to hear but typical reporters are unwilling to ask. We have been in that stadium and want to read you describe what happened better than anyone, putting us right back in the building. I think the 1on1 interviews meant more to you than to us, which is totally understandable. But you can absolutely be you without them.

Now that I'm thinking more about it, maybe the 1on1 interviews with players means more to you because you do not engage with recruiting. Most of us at least browse recruiting threads and hear about this or that from a player for many months or even years before they join the team. You are getting caught up and a 1on1 is a fantastic way for you to engage and get up to speed. We've been on the slow boat for three years just waiting to see on the court results.

Be you Robert, with whatever access you are granted.

purcy51 on March 22, 2023 @ 12:12 PM

And another +1 to these comments. Loved when you went to press conferences, especially football.

GilThorpe on March 21, 2023 @ 07:43 PM

sadly, a lot of things have changed in society since 2019.

personally, we have dealt with the unthinkable of family tragedies, so my outlook is biased. But we are in dark times and we need a dramatic event to change things for the good

sorry for the doom and gloom, but things are tough for many people right now, people of all ages and backgrounds .

But the sun will rise tomorrow and its up to us all to face it and make things work

chillini on March 21, 2023 @ 07:54 PM

You’re perhaps uninterested, and this has nothing to do with your dilemma above or my reaction to it — I’ve thought this thought for several years: the News-Gazette and WDWS should line you up to replace Loren Tate someday (hopefully years from now) as principal Illini columnist/talker. Bring the blogging, tweeting add at them to the column and the occasional weeknight and Saturday morning radio show (recorded as podcasts). I know the columns and content would be different as you’re a different voice. Loren’s would be huge shoes to fill, of course. But it will be a complete swing and miss if they don’t try to hire you — again, as an opinion/fan guy, not the straight reporter (I know Loren has done some of both over time). Just my two cents.

ktcesw on March 21, 2023 @ 08:12 PM

I thoroughly enjoy your writing, Robert! Hang in there.

Illiniboat on March 21, 2023 @ 09:17 PM

I have often thought of what you do as being similar to how Bill Simmons started. Simmons always made it a point to pay for his own tickets to games and essentially do nothing like traditional media. His goal was to be a columnist without waiting in line for 20 years as a reporter. I think the primary difference between his arc and yours is that he went to ESPN and then started doing things on his own when he was able to attract investors to do so. Like if you had gone to the News Gazette for a few years and then started the current version of Illiniboard. Maybe you need to find a way to be 'you' inside of a Illini sports machine for awhile. Benefit from the support and access, continue to amass readers and then re-open your small business with more clout, financial support and clarity.

OrangeBlazer on March 22, 2023 @ 03:01 AM

This is spot on, and I once told Robert the same thing many years ago.

That said, I do think there is one key difference. When Bill Simmons first started out (in his AOL days in the late-90s, even before he was writing three columns a week for ESPN), he was very clear that he had no interest in going to press conferences or being in the locker room to talk directly to players and coaches (that obviously changed when his career took off and he became a national figure and media mogul of sorts).

In fact, Simmons explicitly said being in the locker room or at the press conferences would actually prevent him from writing as a fan, because it would fundamentally alter the fan experience. That's because when Simmons started out, he intentionally only wrote about the fan experience and provided whatever his take was about any given moment from a fan's perspective. It didn't matter what coaches or players said. It didn't matter what happened at practice. What mattered was that feeling during the game--whether it was in the stadium or at home.

(There is another key difference, because Simmons only wrote about pro sports, he was also willing to criticize the decisions of coaches and players--something Robert (rightfully) doesn't do.)

But in my view, that has always been Robert's strength and why I have always come here to read his writing. As I mentioned above, I don't really have an interest in practice reports and player interviews (though I absolutely understand there are many who do, including Robert. And he does it well, which is why I hope he finds his way back to press conferences eventually).

What I look for is the bigger picture--what does this particular moment/game/team/season feel like as a fan; what does it mean in the big picture; and what does that meaning look like when we take the perspective of a long view of the modern era of Illini sports.

In my (limited) view, this is what Robert does that nobody else can. We can watch the press conferences ourselves; we can get player quotes from other places; we can get practice reports other places (which is not to say Robert can't or doesn't do that well).

But nobody in the Illini media world--traditional or otherwise--actually speaks to fans as a fan. That's what Simmons first did 25 years ago, and in my view that's what Robert was doing back in 2009 when it all began.

Just my two cents. Keep finding your way, roughy/Robert.

etidwell_12 on March 22, 2023 @ 12:43 AM

Really sorry to hear about your frustrations Robert. Just want to let you know that all your hard work and dedication doesn’t go unnoticed. Your enthusiasm for Illinois athletics is contagious and it has made me love the Illini even more! You have my support. God bless

Robert on March 22, 2023 @ 11:35 AM

I deleted a comment above per the author's request but I wanted to include my clarification response. Here it is:

To be clear, the DIA doesn't send me up into overflow in Champaign. They've been great about up-close access at basketball games and full access at football games. My frustrations in Champaign are not credential-based, but access-to-the-team based (and that's every media member, not just me). I got so much stuff from post-practice, off-to-the-side conversations with players and coaches at Camp Rantoul. That's the space I wrote from. Now, those are all gone. The only access to players and coaches are media scrums (10 people standing around asking questions and recording), and I can't do what I used to do in an environment like that. It all went away during Covid and it never came back.

My issues when I leave Champaign are credential-based. I've worked to gain a seat at the table (literally - the courtside table), I've been doing this for 14 years (I think only one person downstairs while I was upstairs has been doing this longer), I have more in-game Twitter engagement than anyone at that table, yet there's no way to prove my legitimacy. The entire media world has changed but the media hierarchy is stuck in 1988.

The only weapon I have in that war: write this article.

drewpershing on March 22, 2023 @ 11:44 AM

I would agree with many of the above comments that I found your press conference questions very good and gave opportunities to Bielema and Underwood to give thoughtful answers. Would love to see you be able to go back in there and ask questions you want the answers to.

IlliniJoe81 on March 22, 2023 @ 12:59 PM

Interesting article. My unsolicited advice would be to do what you think is right and what makes you the happiest. Don’t do what you “should” do and don’t let people who can’t do your job tell you how to do it. If you get treated badly, write an article about it. Do it in a way that feels right to you. Never quit. Replace things that don’t work for you with things that do. You built this. You own this. You got this far because of your unique talents. Trust yourself. I would have no idea how to handle this situation but that’s why I only write comments and don’t have my own site.

danny on March 22, 2023 @ 06:26 PM

This so sounds like “woe is me”. People are picking on me, they aren’t playing fair.

Initially you seemed to be on track to be the voice of Illini Sports. You were the go to read. Except for football, the Illini Board has become the life and times of Robert. That’s not what I’m looking for when I come to Illini Board. To be honest, I rarely read them and don’t really care that much. The basketball content is nowhere near your football content.

I get the media environment has changed since you started, but successful businesses must adapt. Otherwise they become another Blackberry. Your passion is what makes you so good, but recently it seems misplaced. Don’t be Blackberry.

Robert on March 23, 2023 @ 12:47 PM

Didn't we almost have it alllllllll. When love was all we had worth givinnnnnnnnngggg.

Eagle on March 22, 2023 @ 10:14 PM

(Big hug for you Robert) I'd be encouraged by the number of readers who cared to respond to this article. The disrespect shown you by the league is totally undeserved. It only proves their ignorance. Lots of good advice from readers who love your unique style.
The criticism by other media members is your face to face experience with competition. The more they feel threatened by you and jealous, the more they feel they need to knock you down a few notches with the "You're not real media" talk. My advice would be to expect it, accept it and be proud of it. My advice when I coached was to expect physical contact as you go up and explode through the contact. Get your And 1. I'd suggest you do the same. Expect the criticism and be proud that they feel threatened by you. Explode through that contact with a smile. The coaches recognize your differences and talent. If the fans love you and the coaches respect you, ignore the rest of the media.
As for the league, I'd have an attorney friend send them a formal letter just to get some attention. They only understand power. This article is a powerful weapon in itself. It informs the public that the league can be very much like the NCAA in that it's very prideful and ignores that it exists for the fans. The NCAA has lost a lot of respect over the years and the B1G can set itself up to do the same thing.
Lastly, your best and easiest path to the right person in the league office is thru Josh. Actually, the last, last thought is this. Are you allowed to talk to athletes outside of official events? For example, if you ran into one of the players in a restaurant, could you give him your number and say "Hey, I'd love to talk about Spring practice when you've got 10 minutes?"

snipes824 on March 23, 2023 @ 05:46 PM

My two cents is that you need to decide whether this is actually a job to you or not. You took it on full time and as the source of your income, but it seems you were not ready for it to become "work." Work has aspects we like and aspects we don't. Sometimes it means having a bad boss or an annoying coworker. Sometimes it means things change because business priorities shifted, an acquisition occurred, or we're in a recession. But we do it because of the livelihood it provides us (the paycheck), and then we go enjoy the things we like outside of work.

Do you like press conference narrative questions? No, neither do I. But if it's your job to be an Illini media member, you show up, ask a question if you can get it in, and take away what you can from it. You're not required to write about any of what you heard there, but as an Illini media member, you showed up. And by showing up, you get to sit by the court. And if you can sit by the court, you can get a little taste of what you once used to love.

Do you like "getting your Illini thoughts tainted by other people" (or whatever that thing is)? No, but part of work is getting along with your coworkers. I'm sure you wouldn't feel so alienated among your peers and in the press conference room (I forget the details on that one) if you actually followed them on Twitter, interacted with them, and built a cromeraderie with each other like I see a ton of sports personalities do with their friends.

If you're looking for purity, where you get to be 100% you on 100% your terms and compromise nothing in return, then maybe this really was meant to be a hobby and not a job after all. And that would be ok. And maybe a stress reliever for you.

I would also say it's always important to look forward and not backward. The way things used to be, where you can get 1-on-1 interviews and see every training camp practice, those days might be fully behind us. If it is, and those things are in the rearview mirror, would you still sign up for the rest of it? It might be that the job you signed up for originally is not still the job available. I think it's important to think about and understand whether what's left is even interesting to you, because the question isn't whether you like what the job once was, it's whether you like what the job will be.

Look, you'll get my $60/year as long you keep this site open because I think you're a good guy and I like reading your stuff. But it would be ok, and not at all a failure, if you ended up admitting that something you're as passionate about as Illini sports is not compatible with being a job. A job requires compromise. A job requires doing things that we don't always agree with. And maybe that's meant for a domain other than Illini sports for you.

Robert on March 23, 2023 @ 06:50 PM

Help me out with the "coworkers" thing (where you said that the other Illini reporters are my coworkers). Do you carry that forward to other professions? If there's some doctor's office waiting room and the Ritalin, Adderall, and Vyvanse reps are all sitting there waiting to give the doctor their latest pitch, should they all "build camaraderie with each other"? Even if the Ritalin guy is about to go trash Adderall in front of the doctor? Shouldn't that waiting room stay in the "maintain professional respect" category?

Seems to me that any pharma rep trying to be friends with his competitors is absolutely looking for intel.

snipes824 on March 23, 2023 @ 10:39 PM

Yes, I think anyone you spend time with on a regular basis because of work is someone you'd (the royal you, not you you) be better off being friendly with. Coworkers, vendors, customers, the doorman, the guys you see at the trade shows, whatever.

If you look around the sports media industry, everyone is very chummy with each other. NFL Network and ESPN folks, The Ringer people and the CBS Sports people. When someone gets a new job, there's a million "well deserved!" responses from everyone. When someone gets laid off, there's a million "you are one of the smartest people I know, anybody would be lucky to have you" responses. It's because there's a camaraderie there. The only people who don't seem to interact are the news breakers (Woj vs. Shams, Rapaport vs. Schefter), but the opinion people and the analysts and the beat guys? They all joke around with each other on Twitter and seem friendly.

But there's no "should" here. Everyone can act entirely how they want. It's just my unqualified, outside opinion that isolating yourself could be part of the reason everything doesn't feel great. Or it couldn't.

LosAngellini on March 24, 2023 @ 02:27 AM

+1 to snipes wise advice. Robert maybe "peer" is a better a term than "coworker." In my experience, to be successful, it is critical to be on friendly terms with your peers at your competitors. You can learn from them, benchmark with them, share best practices, call in a favor to fix a problem, and collectively effectuate change in the industry (like equitable distribution of media passes, or asking follow up questions to evasive coaches). If you can make your peers your allies, so much good can come from those peer relationships. This doesn't mean that you have to agree with their business methods (clickbait recruiting articles) or share your keys to the kingdom.

Covering Illini sports is not a zero-sum game and you've shown enough humility in your writing that I suspect you know that you don't have a monopoly on "the right way" to cover for sports.

Chukwuwumba on March 27, 2023 @ 03:38 PM

Thinking about this more… From what I gather, you want access to tell stories of players at the beloved to Understand them and their journey. Best access you had in the past year? Bus trip to Chicago sponsored by NIL, my perspective. Was it yours?? Maybe partnering with NIL groups to gain access to players? You have a trustworthy history. It’s about the players. Other media would describe themselves as independent, just reporting. You are a self reported fanalyst. Perfect opportunity for you, where maybe only you would fit I. This niche. Someone from, let’s say Chicago media, would never work. Benefit for NIL groups? Awareness of program, players, further fan support. Just spitballing here.

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