Go The Distance
No, not Field Of Dreams. Hercules. The Disney version of Hercules from 1997. The one with the song Go The Distance. You were probably thinking of the words whispered to Kevin Costner when he was sitting at the ballgame with James Earl Jones, but that's not what I was going for here. Hercules is what I was going for. The cartoon one.
Am I referring to Illini football needing to Go The Distance in the suddenly miserable Big Ten West? No. Is this some reference to Illini basketball? It is not. Yesterday began year three of You Pay Robert To Cover The Illini, and I need to write about it. So yes, this is one of those articles. Those of you who stop reading as soon as you learn that information can stop reading now.
Actually - wait one more paragraph and then stop reading. For those of you who subscribed that first week in September of 2020 when we went live, your renewal is coming up soon. We have an auto-renew system, so if you want to keep subscribing, you don't have to do anything - the system will renew for you. If you want to opt out before that renewal hits, go up to the My Account tab at the top and mash that CANCEL button.
OK, now you can stop reading. The rest will just be about the things I've learned through two years of this and the changes I'm considering for year three.
Here's the best way to describe my approach to each year:
Desperately trying to cover the team like a beat reporter because this is my job now. This led to an unfortunate crash at the end of the 2021 Big Ten Tournament. My tank hit empty and I slowly rolled off onto the shoulder. Gotta keep an eye on my gas tank next year.
"Coverage" isn't as important as being there and observing. Pontificate less, observe more. Find your comfort zone. And when there's a big game (like Houston/Illinois in Pittsburgh, eschew the press pass, get some tickets, wear orange, and scream I-L-L.
I am on my way, I can go the distance
I don't care how far, somehow I'll be strong
I know every mile will be worth my while
I would go most anywhere to find where I belong
(It's a song from Hercules. Sorry I'm being so random. This will all make sense.)
That's my goal for this next year. To find where I belong. It's why I bought football season tickets and sat in the stands these last two home games. It's why I just bought some basketball season tickets the other night. It's why I've started skipping a lot of the football media availability/interview sessions. It's all part of a big long quest to figure this out.
I'm not going to go deep into the details, but there was a thing that happened at a press conference last fall which sent me down this road. A member of the media told me, in no uncertain terms, that I didn't belong in the pressbox. Poor form to just come out and say it, obviously, but he might be right. I've spent the majority of the summer wondering if that insult was actually a gift.
It's a very tricky thing to try to pull off, this thing I'm doing. First off, I believe I'm the only Big Ten reporter who says "we". There are dozens (and I mean dozens) of other reporters who are massive fans of the team they cover. Go look up any article on Iowa and you'll find some of the wildest homers on the planet. But they won't ever cross the "we" line. They'll say "Iowa landed a top recruit", not "we landed a top recruit". They know the scrutiny that comes with stepping over that line.
I've chosen, from the beginning, to go over the line. I'm a fan and I'm not going to hide it. Schools keep fans out of the press box for obvious reasons - they might cheer, they won't be objective when asking questions, etc - but I've built and maintained a good relationship with the DIA (at least I think I have) and I've gone out of my way to make sure every question I ask comes from a place of curiosity, not fan angst.
But then this really strange thing happened. Starting around 2019 or so, the media started to move in the fan direction. And I moved in the media direction. Suddenly, I'm the one asking about player concussions and the reporters are asking "how special is Chase Brown?" for the fourth time because "Chase Brown: So Special" articles will drive subscriptions. I never anticipated switching roles (newspapers with a full-time Illini reporter when I started doing this: 11; newspapers with a full-time Illini reporter now: 2), but here we are. Fan sites dominate the scene.
I tell people all the time that the biggest surprise for me in the last 2.5 years since I moved to Champaign was how much I would grow to dislike press conferences. You would think I'd love it - "coach, how awesome is James Kreutz? Also, how awesome is Gabe Jacas? And if you have time, how awesome is Hank Beatty?" - but I can't stand it. This means something to me, and when I see how the sausage is made - how every player and coach is sent through an Instagram filter so they can be seen in the best light - I want out of the room immediately. I think any fan getting a tour of the sausage factory would feel the same way.
Because you start to feel super gross. Like you're part of the problem. You start to question everything you write. You start to look at your articles and wonder if you've been in the fan manipulation business. I mean, after all, you're the one who gets super excited when writing the football preview, talking about how awesome you think Gabe Jacas will be. What's the difference? Aren't you cranking out the same sausage?
This is key because this is the paragraph I've been leading you to. Time to pay attention and stop skimming.
Right here is where our relationship is the most important thing. You and me. The IlliniBoard subscriber and the fan running IlliniBoard. The way I escape all of those questions above ("am I guilty of the same?") is right here. I need to view you as supporters, not subscribers.
I said this last fall when responding to someone (it's in the comments of some football post somewhere). To make my point, I made a rhyme:
We're not reporting, we're describing
You're supporting, not subscribing
If IlliniBoard had a mission statement (we don't), that would be it. It took me a few years, but I finally realized that I don't really have a subscription structure. I don't generate business with a paywall. When you have a paywall, you're supposed to tease all of your articles on Twitter. Slam people into the paywall enough times and the money will fall out. Well, I usually only link something on Twitter if it's an unlocked article that I want everyone to read. I just hate the concept of telling my Twitter followers "hey, go read this" and when they click on it they can't read it because they've used up their three free articles for the month.
It's why I never talk about subscriptions. It's why I believe I've only tweeted "subscribe to IlliniBoard" one time (two years ago today). The more I move towards a subscription model, the more I would get comfortable asking "how awesome is Chase Brown?", and I can't ever let that happen. This is the team I love, and you enjoy my love letters, which means any step in the direction of "this is what people will want to hear" is a bad one.
What this is, at its core, is you paying me to create content you want to read/watch/listen to. I created 18.5 hours of Illini basketball podcasts over eight weeks this summer. Spent at least 25 additional hours editing and uploading the content. I've heard from so many of you (at the grocery store, outside the stadium, via email or Twitter DM) thanking me for that series. I enjoyed doing it, and you apparently enjoyed listening.
Know how much money I made on that? $0.00. Know how much I could have made had I monetized the episodes with ads? Based on the number of listeners, maybe... $200 or so? Is $200 for 40 hours of work worth it? I'd make three times as much working the drive-thru at Wendy's.
Is it something that could grow into a monetized podcast with sponsors? Maybe - that's the hope - but if I was going for a monetized podcast I wouldn't restrict it to one team. Should I hide the podcast behind a paywall where only subscribers can get to it? Perhaps.
Let's just get to the important question: why do it? Why create things that don't make any business sense? Is this just year 13 of "build up a following and THEN monetize that following"?
No. I finally figured out that I do it simply because I'm you. I enjoyed all 18.5 hours of those podcasts because I'm an Illini fan who loves talking about Illini things. The value of that isn't for me to decide. It's for you. This is a very simple relationship that you and I have. You give me money. I go make the things.
I'm finally realizing that the subscription tiers aren't really "I'll subscribe at this tier because that gives me the things that I want" - they're "here's how much money I want to give Robert to make the stuff I like." I go to all the games, home and away, and tell you what I see (not reporting, describing). You put some money in my pocket because that's the stuff you like (supporting, not subscribing).
Which brings us back to Go The Distance. Year Three looks a whole lot better to me when I view everything through this lens. Maybe the story is in the stands. Maybe it's in the pressbox or at the press conference. Maybe it's in the tailgate lot (or even outside Carver-Hawkeye Arena at 11:00 pm on a cold, windy night). All I know is that the pressure is gone when I make it very simple: you give me money, I go find the story.
I'll have more on this in another article soon, but we're going to keep the same structure. Three tiers, support at the tier you think is best for you. But I'm also going to bring back the tip jar. When I view through this "supporter" lens, it makes more sense why some of you have asked me to put the tip jar back up. YOU'RE determining what my content is worth, not me. You loved the podcast series and you want to toss in a few coins for the effort. I'm not selling tickets for my banjo concert; I'm standing on the street corner with my banjo case open in front of me.
It will probably be a week or so before I get all of that ready. Right now (let me check the number real quick), I have 37 "your credit card is expired so your renewal didn't go through" emails to send. And I'm restarting the newsletter this week, so I need to work on that. Also, there's a Thursday night game. So I'll work through the bulk of these renewals (and that other stuff) and then get the tip jar up there.
For now, just know that I've found a good place for my brain to rest with all of this stuff. Do I belong in the pressbox? Not sure! Should I attend more press conferences? Maybe! Am I going to try a little bit of everything this year and see where it all shakes out? Yes!
Your job: I'd love for you to support what we're doing. My job: Go the distance (booked my train trip to NYC today!). Find where I belong (Section 231!). And hopefully say this once this third year is complete:
Every mile was worth my while.