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Deadspin’s New Owners Are Embracing Betting Content—but Not AI

May 15, 2024 7:00 AM

Deadspin’s New Owners Are Embracing Betting Content—but Not AI

The future of once-beloved sports blog Deadspin has been murky since it was acquired by an unknown company called Lineup Publishing in March. The new ownership told WIRED they “don't want to ruin it.”

A person standing in an office while holding a large navy blue flag with a white letter D on it

An employee of the website Deadspin shows a logo at their office in Manhattan, New York on November 1, 2018.Photograph: John Taggart/The Washington Post/Getty Images

This week, former contributors to the sports blog Deadspin noticed something alarming: Their work had vanished from the site’s archives. There was no obvious pattern to why posts on topics such as ESPN’s attempt to create a “Black Grantland” and George R.R. Martin’s work ethic had disappeared, but it struck many alumni as likely intentional. Deadspin had recently been purchased by a new owner, Lineup Publishing, with ties to the online betting industry. Was this an attempt to sanitize a once-beloved blog’s history?

Lineup tells WIRED the story disappearances were in fact a simple error. “We’re really sorry to anyone that was worried we were going to delete their work,” Tim Booker, one of the company’s cofounders wrote via email. “Not our intention at all. Ever.” Many deleted posts have now been restored, and he says the temporary deletions were a “hiccup” as Lineup migrated Deadspin’s archives onto a new platform. But they are still fixing issues with the archive. Late on Tuesday former contributor Josh Gross noted that one he wrote in 2015 now had a different, incorrect, byline; by Wednesday morning, Lineup had fixed it, and says it is trying to fix remaining mistakes in the next few days.

Over a series of emails with WIRED, Booker went on to lay out what appears to be the first public statement of his plans for Deadspin. They include steering into gambling content—but absolutely no AI-generated blog posts.

Lineup’s takeover of Deadspin has put some former contributors and readers on edge, because even by the chaotic standards of digital media the blog has had a tumultuous history. Founded in 2005, Deadspin spent over two decades building a loyal readership with an irreverent, wide-ranging editorial purview. Staff rebelled and quit en masse in protest after private equity firm Great Hill Partners bought Deadspin’s parent company in 2019 and tried to restrict their editorial freedom. Many went on to found a new media cooperative called Defector.

Deadspin hired replacement bloggers, but the site’s reputation never recovered. Some critics gave it the nickname “Vichy Deadspin.” The blog faced new controversy when it was sued for defamation by the family of a child it erroneously accused of wearing blackface. (The case is still ongoing.)

When Great Hill sold Deadspin in March 2024, it wasn’t immediately clear why Lineup Publishing, a brand-new entity, had bought the blog. Writers Michael Gresko and Ernie Smith dug around for more information and discovered that one of the new owners appeared to be a man named Max Noremo, with ties to online gambling. (Noremo is, indeed, Booker’s cofounder.) 404 Media’s Jason Koebler unearthed interviews in which Noremo discussed how to make money with SEO and affiliate marketing by obtaining domain names, and suggested that the new Deadspin would function as a gambling referral site.

In his emails to WIRED, Noremo’s cofounder Booker confirmed that their version of Deadspin will include “betting content.” But he is insistent that it won’t be just anotherSEO clickfarm. “We've seen that some people are worried we’re gonna turn it into a spam blog, but it’s just not the case,” he says. “We don’t want to ruin it.”

Deadspin’s new ownership comes at a time when sports media is increasingly entwined with sports betting. Most major outlets, including ESPN, NBC, CBS, The Ringer, The Athletic, and Bleacher Report, have partnered with betting companies. What once might have been eyebrow-raising is increasingly accepted as standard practice, although some outliers, like Defector, still raise alarms about how ethically muddled mixing gambling and journalism—which can often move betting lines—can be.

Booker says that he and Noremo genuinely want to get into the media business. The pair “met recently through friends,” he says, and decided to look for a website to acquire and revamp. Booker says they plan to add more lifestyle and pop culture stories.

Booker, who is based in Malta, is British, with a minimal public online presence; prior to buying Deadspin, he was the chief technology officer for a digital marketing company focused on online betting called CashMagnet. Noremo is Swedish, but based in Spain, and has a huge digital footprint. Prior to jumping into sports media, he appeared on a popular sailing YouTube channel, where his captain described him as “the Swedish salty sea dog.” He has also moonlighted as a music producer.

David Woodley, chief revenue officer at the basketball media company Ballislife, says Noremo and Booker’s plan looks potentially straightforward. “What these guys are obviously trying to do is to leverage Deadspin, which has a good following, good SEO, good pageviews, and to monetize it using betting affiliates,” he says.

Since the rise of legal sports gambling, an online ecosystem where marketers drive traffic to online sportsbooks through search engine optimization, affiliate links, and other strategies has taken off in tandem. Woodley, who has consulted with sports betting startups, sees this as a reasonable strategy, and one not necessarily mutually exclusive with publishing what longtime Deadspin fans consider to be good blog posts. “At the very least, it seems like they’re going to be putting new content out, and it’s not just going to be an SEO race-to-the-bottom type of thing.”

Not everyone is so convinced that good intentions drove Lineup’s Deadspin acquisition. Noremo also recently attempted to purchase another once-beloved media outlet, the 155-year-old local newspaper Santa-Barbara News Press, through a Malta-registered company called Weyaweya Ltd. In a feisty editorial for the Santa-Barbara News Press prior to its sale, rival bidder William Belfiore accused Noremo of intending to turn the outlet into a “zombie website” to be “impregnated with parasitic paid pablum.”

Belfiore ultimately outbid Noremo, as part of a rival bidding group composed of young Santa Barbara natives, so the world never got to see the Swedish salty sea dog’s version of the Santa-Barbara News Press. As writer Michael Greshko initially pointed out, though, there is evidence of what his editorial strategy might be on newly acquired websites. Noremo has also worked for a company called Red Earth Ltd., which owns a number of SEO content mills, including some like Gambling Times that, as Greshko notes, appears to publish “AI-generated slop.” (Gambling Times did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment.)

Deadspin’s Noremo-inflected editorial future has already started to unfold. The site has started publishing new blog posts, and recently made its first editorial hire, a sportswriter named Nick Pedone who also runs the company’s social media. Deadspin is also paying a company called Field Level Media, a third-party “sports content provider” with clients ranging from Reuters to the Epoch Times, which offers a mix of syndicated AP-style wire reporting and custom articles. Field Level Media first started publishing syndicated work on Deadspin during the Great Hill era, and has now shifted to supplying custom content written exclusively for the blog, according to its CEO, Derek Harper.

So far, these recent posts are fairly dry and straightforward summaries of professional sporting events, like a Phillies shutout against the Mets and Caitlin Clark’s first WNBA game. But Booker is adamant that the new Deadspin’s blogs will be written by people and not text generators. “AI has no place on Deadspin,” he says.

For his part, Field Level Media’s Harper is stridently against AI in journalism, and confirms that the stories his company supplies to Deadspin have human writers. “We will never produce AI content,” he says. “That’s the antithesis of what we are.”

It’s a low bar to clear, but the no-AI dictum may separate Lineup Publishing from other companies snapping up media properties with the intention to capitalize off their reputations. The new management of Sports Illustrated, a title that was once the pinnacle of sports media, was recently pilloried after it ran AI-generated articles supplied by a third-party company called AdVon Commerce.

Even if the new Deadspin never comes close to the quality of work produced by the staff of its original incarnation, it may end up distinguishing itself for a remarkably grim reason: In 2024, relaunching an old blog without resorting to AI slime is a rare, arguably even classy, move. Of course, all that hinges on whether Lineup keeps its newly made pledges.

Update 5/15/24 10:15am ET: This story has been updated to include further detail from Max Noremo and Tim Booker, and to clarify comments Noremo had previously made about purchasing domain names.

Kate Knibbs is a senior writer at WIRED, covering the human side of the generative AI boom and how new tech shapes the arts, entertainment, and media industries. Prior to joining WIRED she was a features writer at The Ringer and a senior writer at Gizmodo. She is based in… Read more
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