Tri Bourne and I released our sixth-year anniversary episode of our podcast, SANDCAST, on Wednesday. It happened to be a fan question episode, and we received around 100 or so questions, around half of which were centered around Bourne and his decision to dump Trevor Crabb and pick up Chaim Schalk instead. Eventually, though, we hit other topics, one of them being commentating, a job I love doing for Volleyball TV.
I mentioned that the only feedback I generally care for is that of the players — many of whom are good friends — coaches, the families of both, Clayton Lucas, who is the head of commentating; Simon Golding and Tom Feuer, incredible professionals in that arena who I consider tremendous mentors; and Finn Taylor, the CEO of Volleyball World. Two of those men decide whether or not I have a job, and the other has a sizable influence. I care about their opinions quite a good deal.
A listener of the podcast commented that “it seems like what really matters for the sport should be the fans’ perspective. The players and parents of players are going to watch anyways. For the sport to grow, it should cater to the fans. The point of the commentating is to make the viewing experience better for fans. Obviously there will always be lame negative comments on everything, but you should be taking into account what the fans want, because ultimately they fund the sport. They PAY for Volleyball World TV.”
This person — who goes by @beachvolleyball2713 on YouTube — isn’t wrong. The perspective of the fans is enormously important. To “cater to the fans,” however, is an impossible task, because the “fans” in this instance are not one organism. They are many, with opinions and requests that invariably contradict one another. It would be as if President Biden were told to cater his federal immigration policy to the states’ perspectives.
Texas or California?
Florida or New York?
On a smaller scale, same goes with our podcast, and my style of commentating.
One fan likes chocolate.
Another likes vanilla.
To cater to them both, you’d maybe make a chocolate-vanilla swirl, but now neither fan is happy, because you can’t get chocolate or vanilla; they’re tethered together.
Try to please everyone, and you wind up pleasing no one.
Cater to one, you alienate the other.
Earlier this year, as an example, I was having a discussion with Taylor about which camera should be the primary during the broadcast: the back line — which I love — or the side cam. I petitioned for the back cam, and backed it up with a poll of fans, 629 who had voted in. The majority — 55 percent — desired a back camera as the primary. Currently, the back cam is the primary cam, and the side is secondary.
I love it. So do others.
I hear, almost daily, that this is wrong. Someone on Twitter actually told me that it was “objectively” wrong. This in spite of the fact that we quite literally catered to the fans’ majority preference, and that it is, empirically speaking, the choice most fans in the sample size desired.
We are currently in an age in which feedback is limitless. Conversations that would formerly only turn up in sports bars or houses in which men and women would gather to watch sports now occur on Twitter, Facebook, chat rooms, livestreams, and comment sections, among others. What was once a slow but steady stream of opinion and feedback via letters to the editor, op-eds or snail mail is now a firehose of often hastily-worded vitriol that isn’t well thought out. Worse, those on social media have begun to get a hang of the algorithm: Dunking on people gets engagement, engagement gets attention, attention begets dopamine, dopamine begets more dunking.
So the cycle goes.
“If criticism isn’t constructed like you want it, is it garbage?” wrote @davidnimmons. “Have you ever criticized an announcer while watching sports from home? I would assume so. It goes with the territory.”
Of course I have.
That doesn’t mean that Jim Nantz will, or should, take any criticism I have for him — and I have none for Nantz, one of the greatest to ever get in front of a mic — seriously.
NFL quarterbacks get criticized by fans every Sunday.
Should they take the feedback and apply it?
Not if they want to keep their jobs.
I don’t like Stephen King’s books. My feedback for him is that he is a phenomenal writer and that he should stop writing about scary topics so I would give him more of my dollars to read his books. I am a reader of books — but not of King’s, because he writes scary books. Shouldn’t my opinion matter?
He has $500 million reasons why it shouldn’t.
A fan once told me I should hit at least 50 percent of my attacks opposite-handed.
He was serious. He was polite about it. He truly wanted me to succeed. He had my best interests at heart.
I thanked him and moved on with my life.
At an AVP last year, my brother told me that he thinks I’d be better if I pulled off the net every time. He has never played beach volleyball. I love my older brother very much. There are many areas in which I take his opinion to heart.
Volleyball is not one of them.
One especially funny instance of a fan weighing in came less than an hour after Taylor Sander and Taylor Crabb won the Manhattan Beach Open. They were celebrating at Shellback when a fan approached Evie Matthews, informing him he had made a terrible decision in having Crabb and Sander switch sides — Crabb to the right, Sander to the left.
Literally less than an hour after they won the biggest tournament on the AVP.
To maintain sanity, anyone in any public profession – or just anyone in general, really – in which criticism or praise from strangers you don’t know and probably will never meet comes with the territory, you must limit the number of people and inputs through which you take feedback in various areas of your life.
A few weeks ago, Wisconsin volleyball coach Kelly Sheffield urged those on a popular volleyball message board to refrain from spewing negative comments. The comments were finding their way to the players, and it was distressing them and their families.
This would be one thing if Wisconsin were struggling.
They were undefeated at the time.
There’s a reason the first rule we were taught in journalism school is to never read the comments, a sentiment that was echoed by my editors when I was hired at Yahoo! to cover the 2018 Winter Olympics.
“You have a limited amount of fucks to give,” wrote Mark Manson, author of the life-changing book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck. “Very few, in fact. And if you go around giving a fuck about everything and everyone without conscious thought or choice—well, then you’re going to get fucked.”
You have a limited amount of fucks to give. Very few, in fact. And if you go around giving a fuck about everything and everyone without conscious thought or choice—well, then you're going to get fucked.
— Mark Manson (@IAmMarkManson) November 2, 2023
An athlete’s “fucks” are reserved for his teammates and coaches — not fans and those watching on TV, who have plenty of opinions, or even commentators like myself. Some of them might even be valuable and spot on. Many are not. They must be treated the same.
A husband’s “fucks” about his performance as a husband are reserved for his wife and kids – not strangers at a park who think he might be doing a lousy job. The strangers might have something of value for the husband. They might not. They must be treated the same.
Stephen King’s “fucks” are reserved for his editors and publishers — not readers who want him to change direction.
My commentating “fucks,” in this specific case, are reserved for Lucas, Feuer and Golding — my coaches in this arena — Taylor, and the players and others I respect in the sport.
Whether the feedback from those outside of the circle you have chosen is overwhelmingly positive or negative, it cannot matter. They must be treated the same.
There’s a growing trend of audience capture, in which podcasters, YouTubers, influencers, whatever, will continue giving the fans exactly what they allegedly want to the point that they become a distorted version of themselves, or lose themselves and the sight of their original mission entirely.
“Audience capture is an irresistible force in the world of influencing, because it’s not just a conscious process but also an unconscious one,” Gurwinder wrote on Substack. “While it may ostensibly appear to be a simple case of influencers making a business decision to create more of the content they believe audiences want, and then being incentivized by engagement numbers to remain in this niche forever, it’s actually deeper than that. It involves the gradual and unwitting replacement of a person’s identity with one custom-made for the audience.”
An audience’s feedback can be taken into account — and is — when it is either solicited or it becomes a somewhat consistent line of thinking, when it seems a majority are expressing a similar sentiment and that sentiment could, indeed, be a positive move in the right direction. Our audio in the early days of the podcast was one of those instances.
It took some time for us to grow the budget, but when we did, the first thing we bought was new mics.
There are nearly monthly occasions when we’ll solicit feedback from the audience via our fan question episodes. When the feedback is solicited, we allow the firehose to trickle through, look into it, make an entire podcast out of it, and then close the hose again and carry on.
When I began hosting The Road to Paris spinoff of SANDCAST, I asked the fans for their opinion, both the good and the bad, and how the show might be improved moving forward. A few suggested I separate the men’s breakdown from the women rather than mixing them in throughout. A good idea. One I implemented.
Someone also said I should stop covering the women.
Bad idea. One of many.
Feedback from the right sources can be immensely valuable.
It can also make you lose your mind.
How do you wrestle with the conundrum of constant feedback?
You limit it to the individuals who should get the fucks, ignore the rest, and continue with your mission.
The mission statement I’ve crafted for myself, for example, when I began covering beach volleyball, is a simple one: “Be a good steward for the sport.”
That is the driver behind every story I write, every podcast I host, every match I commentate, every conversation I have. Am I being a good steward or not? If I think so, and Bourne thinks so, and my wife thinks so, and VolleyballMag editor Lee Feinswog thinks so, and Taylor and Lucas and Golding think so, and the players think so, I continue doing my job. If one of them doesn’t think so, and they inform me how I could be doing a better job of that, I take the feedback, apply it, and continue doing my job — hopefully in a better manner than before.
Everyone who reads my stories or books, listens to my podcasts or commentary, or watches me play beach volleyball is welcome to their opinion, and their ability to express it. I love that they have them. It’s a sign of passion, in one way or the other. That passion is wonderful, and I have a great time interacting with fans who are both approving and disapproving of my work.
I love and appreciate when people have good opinions of what I’m doing. It makes me happy.
It is inevitable that many will not have good opinions. I’d prefer everyone to love everything I say and do, but such is not the reality in which we live.
I take both the exact same: If it isn’t from the circle I’ve crafted for myself, if it isn’t solicited, I continue doing my job.
There are only so many fucks to give.
Only a handful get mine.