Sunday, September 13, 2015

Leaving at the Top of His Game

Dave Barry ran one of the most shared and tweeted comedy sports sites on the Web, only to unexpectedly walk away from his own creation earlier this year. In this exclusive interview, Uncommon Journalism asks Barry why -- ahead of the 2015-16 NFL season -- he pulled the plug on ProFootballMock

THE MAN BEHIND THE MOCK: ProFootballMock founder Dave Barry with his children, Nick and Dylan. (Photo Credit: Dave Barry)

By: James Swift
uncommonjournalism@gmail.com
@UNJournalism

Dave Barry, 46, has long aspired to be the “Dave Barry of the NFL.” 

Although this Barry -- a Hollywood, Florida native who currently resides in Burbank, California -- isn’t the same Pulitzer Prize-winning Dave Barry, he nonetheless shares the beloved Miami Herald columnist’s fondness for humorous columns. 

He got his start in the mid-1990s, writing for The Dallas Cowboys Weekly magazine. His crowning achievement was having an article picked up by Herb “Hub” Arkush’s Pro Football Weekly

“Thing is, the articles I wrote were terrible,“ Barry recollected, “so my visions of becoming a world-famous NFL humor columnist never materialized.”

Having had his pigskin-parodying print dreams dashed, he turned his attention towards a different medium. For the last two decades, he has worked as a television promo writer and editor for the CW Network which, in the pre-Roger Goodell era, was known as the WB Network.

“It’s a great job that pays me well and allows me to have fun and be creative,” he said. “Plus, I get to wear jeans and sneakers to the office and drink all the free coffee I want.” 

Alas, while producing commercials for “The Vampire Diaries,” “Jane the Virgin” and “Whose Line is it, Anyway?,” Barry just could not shake those old football funnies fantasies. So in the spring of 2012, he decided to give it another go -- this time, as a website. 

After he bought a domain name and hosting services from GoDaddy (their ads, Barry said, always reminded him of softcore pornography), he started work on his online opus -- a collection of The Onion-inspired parodies focusing exclusively on the National Football League. As a loving homage to Mike Florio’s ProFootballTalk, Barry christened his site ProFootballMock

The start-up costs, Barry said, couldn’t have been more than $300. Relying on Google AdSense for revenue, Barry made a little under $100 during the first few months his site was live. 

“Back in October of 2012, during the run-up to the presidential election, I read a fake Facebook conversation between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, which was pretty funny," Barry said. “At that time, Tom Brady and the Patriots were getting ready to play Peyton Manning for the first time as a member of the Denver Broncos, so I thought it’d be funny for those two to square off in a Facebook convo that would start off respectfully, but gradually devolve into nastiness and name calling.”

It was the genesis of ProFootballMock’s most popular -- and perhaps, most infamous -- recurring feature, “NFL QBs on Facebook.” Shortly after the first installment went up, site traffic exploded, topping out at three quarters of a million views per day. Practically overnight, Barry’s site went from being a largely under-the-radar niche interest website to an almost ubiquitous football season social media meme featured on Total Pro Sports, UPROXX and even Forbes

ProFootballMock -- Barry’s dream project for nearly two decades -- had officially gone viral. 

Because ProFootballMock Became Popular, You See

Using a dictation app on his phone, Barry wrote about 75 percent of the first “NFL QBs on Facebook” conversation while driving to meet a friend at the movies. 
THE MAN BEHIND THE MOCK: Dave Barry, 44, has run
the popular sports satire site ProFootballMock since 2012.
(Photograph Courtesy Dave Barry.)

“After throwing out a few Brady/Manning gags, I decided I should get other QBs involved like Joe Flacco, Tony Romo, and Drew Brees,” he said. “And of course, since this was just a week or two after the infamous ‘Fail Mary’ game between the Seahawks and the Packers, I knew I had to get Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson to trade some barbs.” 

Barry, however, wasn’t very satisfied with the final product. In fact, he almost decided to scrap it altogether, but since he had spent so much time working on it -- not to mention he needed space to fill on the website -- he published it anyway. 

After the segment took off, Barry’s wife Sonya convinced him to do an update every Sunday. “She could have, and should have, smacked me in the head every time I said ‘honey, I have to sit and watch football all day, it’s my job,'” he said. “Instead, she happily fed, bathed and tended to our kids and dogs for days at a time while I sat at the computer thinking of new ways to call Jay Cutler’s mother dirty names.”  

With miscellaneous coaches, retired quarterbacks and contemporary players at other positions joining the fray, the “NFL QBs on Facebook” cast quickly grew to more than 100 regular characters. In fact, the list of characters became so large that TV Tropes, a website cataloging pop culture archetypes and motifs, created an entire page to keep track of all of them

Barry said the “personalities” of the characters more or less evolved naturally. New England’s dapper Tom Brady became a serial womanizer, Denver QB Peyton Manning became a hyper-egotist infatuated with his own statistical greatness and Indianapolis star Andrew Luck transformed into an overly polite pushover. While many of the “characters” were rooted in real-life -- Michael Vick always showed up when the topic of animal cruelty arose, while virtually every installment contained at least one reference to Ben Roethlisberger’s alleged sex crimes -- some players developed personalities that were, presumably, fictionalized. Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch spoke in “Incredible Hulk-speak,” Minnesota’s Terry Bridgewater was a walking thesaurus and then, there was former St. Louis (and now Philadelphia) QB Sam Bradford. 

Following the Rams tie against the 49ers in the 2012 season, Barry decided to spin the old “kissing your sister” cliché  into an extremely raunchy joke at Bradford’s expense. From there, his character morphed into a vulgar deviant, whose perverse one-liners made him one of the most beloved “NFL QBs on Facebook” regulars.

"I think Bradford’s personality was the most fun to write for,” Barry said. “I did a lot of Urban Dictionary research to think of new, weird fetishes for Sam each week.”

Despite the website’s popularity, Barry said he never received confirmation that any of the players he parodied ever actually read his articles. While the NFL is known for taking hardline stances against those who run afoul of “the shield,” Barry said he never got any e-mails or phone calls from League higher-ups, either (although he was denied media credentials for Super Bowl XLVII.) 

Looking back on the mock conversations, he said he has few regrets. “I’d worry that Drew Brees would be offended by what I said about his face, or that Aaron Rodgers would be bothered by the fun I had with rumors that he was gay,” he said. “Bill Belichick might possibly have been offended by stuff I wrote, but I wouldn't care about that because fuck Bill Belichck.’” 

The Sweat Behind the Screen 

Site traffic remained very high after the first couple of “NFL QBs on Facebook” features. With it came a considerable amount of revenue, which allowed Barry to upgrade and overhaul ProFootbalMock.  

“I reinvested some of the profits in a snazzy new logo package and website template,” Barry said, “as well as some custom-designed programs that would let me write things like the QB convos and my Intercepted Texts conversations in a more professional style.”

The income, however, steadily declined over time. The Google ads only pay out to sites that generate a constant barrage of unique visitors. Ironically, as the site drew more regular visitors, it actually cost Barry advertisement revenue. 

Initially, each Facebook parody took Barry four hours to write and an additional two hours to format. However, as the pressure to deliver new material mounted, he found himself spending more and more time on the articles. “By 2013, I was staying awake all night each Sunday writing and formatting before finally releasing the convo sometime around 9 a.m.,” he said, “at which point I would go to work and produce TV promos in a sleep-deprived state before finally returning home at 6 p.m. to collapse into bed.”
THE PEYTON TO DAVE'S ARCHIE, OR HIS ELI? Nick Barry sports a tee
shirt bearing the logo of his father's now-defunct website.  (Photo
courtesy of Dave Barry.)

That’s not counting the time Barry invested in producing other content for the site. On average, he was logging two to four hours a day writing, editing and Photoshopping ProFootballMock material. 

“Each week, PFM would take about 20-to-30 hours of work,” he said. “It was always a labor of love, but it was also time that took away from my family and my actual 9-to-5 job.”

The hard work -- easily enough to qualify as a part-time job -- did not necessarily translate into more readers. While the Facebook conversations continually generated around 100,000-to-150,000 hits every Monday, traffic throughout the rest of the week lagged. On a good day, ProFootballMock drew 70,000 views; sometimes, the volume would slow down to as little as 30,000 hits a day. 

Serious fatigue kicked in, and Barry found himself running into a creative wall. Even in an offseason glutted with material ripe for PFM spoofs -- from DeflateGate to Geno Smith getting sucker punched by his own teammate -- he just wasn’t feeling as inspired anymore. 

As a dedicated husband and the father of two young boys, Barry had to make a tough decision. Shortly after SuperBowl XLIX, he announced that he would be retiring the “NFL QBs on Facebook” feature. Then, smackdab in the middle of the 2015 preseason, he announced that he was done with the site for good.

“I’m just more limited in time than I used to be,” Barry said. “I don’t have any burning ideas I want to explore, which tells me that it’s time to walk away.” 

What Could've Been (and What Already Was)

Over the site's roughly three-year-run, Barry said several articles stand out. Among his favorites include Hoodie Wearing Stranger Exits DeLorean in 1974, Offers To Pay For Archie Manning’s Vasectomy," and "Jay Cutler Spends Majority Of Visit With Sick Child Complaining About Bears Offensive Line.”

Despite stepping on many a pro footballer's toes (not to mention mercilessly mocking fans of such long-suffering teams as the Minnesota Vikings and the Buffalo Bills in a string of "alternate universe"columns), Barry said few of his columns really sparked any outrage from readers. However, an article he wrote shortly after the 2013 Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin "bullying" scandal did inspire some negative feedback


THE FIRST FAMILY OF MOCK: Dave, his wife Sonya and his sons Nick and Dylan
strike a pose with one of the more popular non-NFL trademarked mascots.
(Photo courtesy Dave Barry.)
"Of course, anyone can be bullied, even adults, but I still found the notion of this big, strong athlete quitting his team because the other guys were picking on him to be funny," he said. "A lot of readers, even my most loyal ones, took it as 'PFM endorses bullying.' I could have and should have written it more sensitively, but I still don’t regret it."

By and large, Barry said his readers were incredibly nice and supportive. "Half of the letters people would send me usually said something like, 'I’m a Patriots fan, but I still love it when you take shots at us,'" he recollected. "It was always super flattering to think that some stranger living in some other state, or even a different country, had taken the time to read some silly thing that I wrote." 

Several companies have already reached out to Barry about purchasing ProFootballMock. He said he has mixed feelings about the prospect. Understandably, he has a strong sentimental attachment to the site and doesn't want to sell it off to new management who just want it for its name recognition. However, if a potential buyer demonstrates a commitment to creating quality content, he said it's a possibility he would consider. 

"Part of me like that idea because it would allow me to contribute more material in the future, maybe even an occasional QB convo, without feeling the pressure to do it every singly day," he said. "But at the same time ... I don't want to let it go just as a cash grab." 

Back to Being a Fan 

Having published hundreds of columns, Barry said he still laments not getting an opportunity to create his "dream" ProFootballMock project -- a video takeoff  heralding the arrival of a new NFL season to the tune of the old Christmas standard "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," with hypothetical lyrics such as "when the Browns fans are crying, Tom Brady's high-fiving, but no one is near."

Coincidentally, this year marks the first in three seasons that Barry can enjoy the opening weekend of NFL play without concerns about creating new content hanging overhead. Instead, he'll be able to watch his beloved Dallas Cowboys do battle with their divisional foes the New York Giants in primetime, curled up on the sofa with his five-and-eight-year-old sons, his spouse and maybe even a pet or two.

While he remains proud of his ProFootballMock articles, he also said it serves as something of a cautionary tale about trying to turn one's hobbies into a profession.

"One of the great pieces of advice in life is to do what you love as a career, and then you’ll never work a day in your life ... but there is a flip side to that," he said. "When I channeled my passion for football into a website, it was a lot of fun, but it also kept me from just sitting in front of the TV and vegging out to watch the games. The thing I was most passionate about was in danger of becoming a chore that I dreaded, and I didn’t want that to happen."

Barry said he will keep ProFootballMock's archived material up for the time being, just in case faithful readers feel nostalgic pangs for the 2013-2014 season. With the site behind him, Barry said he has no plans to pursue any other multimedia ventures. Instead, he's going to sink his free time into an entirely different project. 

"Work and family will keep my busy enough for a while," he said. 


Uncommon Journalism, 2015.

7 comments:

  1. I MISS PROFOOTBALLMOCK!!!!!!!!! :-(

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  2. Yeah, I miss it. Thanks for the FUN, I used to die laughing at that stuff.

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  3. I'm happy you'll have more time to enjoy with your family and thank you for the past couple of years. I will miss the conversations, Mondays will never be the same.

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  5. This was by far one of the funniest websites I have ever seen. I would look forward to QB's on facebook on Monday more than Monday night football! I wish Barry the best of luck and thank you for all the articles that I enjoyed so much! Please, please, just do one QB on facebook this season. Do I need to start a go fund me account to get the website back?

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  6. I would laugh until I was crying. My husband would just glance over and ask "Quarterbacks on FB?".

    I understand your reasons, Dave, but DAGGUM, we miss you and PFM!

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  7. Awesome article. Favorite site on the internet. Wish it was still going.

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