The end of 2009 was a scary time. The national discourse pretty much belonged to Avatar and Glenn Beck, which is probably something worth thinking and feeling about for a minute, and pretty much everything else that's currently lousy in our culture was similarly lousy then, and we didn't even have the Killer Mike record to distract us from it. It was a bad time, but it could've been worse. Because, on December 22, 2009, Sports By Brooks broke the news that TMZ had registered the domain name TMZSports.com. It was going to be just what it sounds like. It could've been the end of everything.
"The sports media monopoly created by ESPN hath wrought a perfect storm for TMZSports.com to not only succeed, but to turn the industry upside down," Brooks wrote then. "TMZSports.com will be one of the few operations, if not the only, that can make a dent in ESPN’s brilliant business acumen. How large that dent will be depends on its editorial execution, but if TMZ.com is any indication, we may be looking at an industry game changer that could somewhat destabilize ESPN’s complete dominance over the field." At Deadspin, which at the time was semi-ambivalently surfing the barfwave of Josh Hamilton's relapse, then-editor A.J. Daulerio wrote a long post on the new competition. He didn't sound all that shook, but Gawker Media boss Nick Denton sort of did.
The good news, which in no way mitigates the bad news that TMZ still exists and makes money and even has a howling cultural-colonoscopy of a bus tour to its name, is that TMZ Sports never really happened. By 2011, smirking taupe hatesteak and CEO Harvey Levin—who is not much of a sports fan, unless laughing at one's own quips about Amanda Bynes qualifies as a sport—had recognized that both the sports venture and a planned politics channel weren't good looks. Given that Politico continues to reveal itself as valueless, misprioritized and self-congratulatory enough to make TMZ DC redundant, that makes sense. Deadspin was the obvious competition for the notional TMZ Sports, but that didn't quite make sense, either.
While there's a certain easy equivalency between what TMZ Sports would have done—leeringly post mocking, stupid-superior non-news items relating to sports figures embarrassing themselves—and a (seemingly shrinking) aspect of what Deadspin actually does, it's not a very good equivalency. There are several reasons for this, but the most important one is that TMZ Sports would have been TMZ Sports—dumber, meaner, exponentially more fatuous and differently angled than anything else, a pink slime-y nightmare patty dipped in the same loathing gravy as the rest of the toxic fast food that defines the TMZ menu. There are bleak volumes to be written on TMZ's queasy-clammy addict's relationship to the type of fame it mocks and covets and bullies and creates, but that relationship can't and couldn't really work with sports. It's not that there isn't enough news (i.e. fresh embarrasments) to keep the shit-cycle spinning; there is, especially if you deem JR SMITH ARRESTED to be news. It's that writing about all that as people who don't care about sports—or care about it only as a source of schadenfreude to feed into one's garbage disposal of a soul—is not the sort of thing that will attract people who care about sports. Dim, smirky loathing/loathsomeness doesn't go well with a sports fan's engagement.
Which, yeah, is an awesome review of a website that never existed. But also the proof is on the internet—while there's nothing at the domain TMZSports.com, there is a sports tag at TMZ, and as a preview of what TMZ Sports might have been, it makes for a pretty freaking compelling argument for there never having been a TMZ Sports.
What's there has the same tone of disapproving, glibly "knowing" idiocy that defines the TMZ aesthetic, which isn't a surprise. Ditto for the way it hews to the standard TMZ areas of interest. On the front page alone there are DUIs (Darrius Heyward-Bey's made the cut, so the bar is low), kookball end-of-their-tether celebrities being troubled (Jenna Jameson and her ex-MMA husband, Tito Ortiz) and the gory flotsam from various reality television shipwrecks (Terrell Owens, late of VH1 and the Indoor Football League; so much Lamar Odom). There's also the video bit linked above, featuring the show's deranged narrator and the Priceless Office Quippery that makes TMZ's television show pretty much the most unwatchable thing on television not to feature either a "Created By Chuck Lorre" credit or Dog The Bounty Hunter. It's about how T.O. and Odom should start a water park called We Be Swimmin', and both the foregrounded idea and meta-joke of the video is that it's racist.
But also, alongside and throughout that chuckling horrorshow of abasement and unearned dumbass superiority, there is something encouraging. There is the broadly good recognition that this could never have worked. It's not just that it's too dumb, although it is that. It's that there's no life in it, none of the offhand love that is the central ingredient in being a fan. It's just uncut and uncurated prurience, all tearing down without any sense of considering (let alone consideration for) the things that have, rightly or wrongly, been built up. We're all better off without TMZ Sports, of course. But it's clear from the zombie version that exists that we also would've rejected it. For all the unearned pats-on-the-back that fans receive on the regular—from ourselves and others, generally in service of encouraging us to purchase some souvenir of our virtue—this is an instance in which a high-five might well be in order. We are, at least and at last, all of us, a good deal better than this.