Seven Lessons About Succeeding in Sports Media, As Informed by ‘Set It Up’

Romantic comedies often feature at least one journalist. If that journalist is a woman, odds are good that she’s been assigned a story that requires her to report on a hot guy; if that journalist is a man, it’s likely that he works as a sports reporter. I’ve always found this trend baffling, because I’m a sports reporter, and I’ve met a lot of other male sports reporters, and we do not fit the archetype of Hollywood romantic hunkiness. Yet the sports reporter in My Best Friend’s Wedding is somehow capable of demanding the complete, unyielding romantic obsession of both Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz?

I don’t remember much about the plot of that movie—just that a sports reporter convinces Diaz (a billionaire heiress) to drop out of college so that she can follow him around the country as he writes about sports. Their honeymoon is set to take place in either Sacramento or San Antonio, depending on an upcoming basketball series. How is he swinging this? Many beat reporters can’t even put on clothing without stains. Why do rom-coms think we have irresistible Big Deadline Energy?

But the trope is flipped in the new Netflix original Set It Up. (Don’t worry, it unflinchingly follows every other rom-com trope, with zero deviation from standard rom-com formats.) You see, women are people too, and also enjoy sports! Lucy Liu plays Kirsten Stevens, a sports media mogul who has recently launched her own website; Zoey Deutch plays Harper, Kirsten’s personal assistant who dreams of one day becoming a writer. Neither can have social lives because of their work, so Harper coordinates with Charlie (Glen Powell), the assistant to a VC executive named Rick (Taye Diggs) who works in the same building, to set up their bosses.

If you’re a rom-com vet, you’re probably wondering whether Harper and Charlie go on to find love. Yet I was too engrossed in the spectacular rise of Kirsten’s website to focus on anything else. After all, the sports media landscape in 2018 is frightening. About 12 percent of my friends get fired on a daily basis, and the rest of us spend 70 hours per week cranking out blog posts on LaVar Ball. How did Lucy Liu build her empire?

We’re told some brief backstory on her character: Kirsten used to work for ESPN, where she “got Roger Goodell to admit he’d seen the video”—what video?—and broke a story about the Penguins’ concussion protocol that “literally changed the NHL.” Apparently, she used to be on TV, too; we see an old clip of her interviewing an athlete, during which she tells him, “If you could watch the ball as well as you’re watching my tits right now, you guys could have made it to the playoffs.” She is both an incredible investigative journalist and a compelling on-air personality. Plus, she never prompts athletes to say things by starting sentences with talk about!

In the past year, she has launched The Lineup, which appears to be a massive success. Kirsten says it “tells the story behind the score,” and it seems to have a larger budget than every sports website in internet history combined. So how did she do it? After analyzing the film, I’ve identified seven lessons from Set It Upthat can help those of us in the industry.

1. Get Out of the Press Box

You’re not going to get the story behind the score sitting in a stuffy booth alongside every other journalist. You need to truly experience the game, something you can do only by sitting among the fans—the preposterously rich fans, but the fans nonetheless.

A pivotal scene in the movie comes when the assistants trick Kirsten and Rick into attending a Yankees–Red Sox game. Sports fans will be distracted by a blatant mistake made by the film’s producers: The PA announcer says that Andrew Benintendi (a white outfielder for the Red Sox) is stepping up to the plate, when the player coming to bat is really Rafael Devers (a third baseman who is, uh, not white). But don’t let that mix-up overshadow the scene’s big lesson.

Rick is seated in the front row and offers Kirsten the open seat next to him. “It’s the best seat in the stadium,” he says. “Actually,” she responds, from a seat in the second row, “it’s just the most expensive seat. From where I’m sitting”—literally 5 feet away from the other seat, probably in the exact same price bracket—“you can hear both coaches better.”

Using the superior acoustics of the second row (way better than those in the front row!) The Lineup gets stories other publications can’t. This business model is flawless: All a fledgling sports journalism outfit needs to do is purchase the second-most expensive seats in every stadium instead of taking the free spots available in the press box.

2. Make Your Space Inspirational

The Lineup operates out of a massive office at 1 Bryant Park, on the corner of 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue, in Manhattan. Everyone knows that when you’re just starting out as a business, you should spend approximately a billion dollars per month on rent. But more important than location is decor. This is the defining feature of The Lineup’s office:


This wall must help Kirsten’s writers, because if they forget any sports words, they can just look up and see CHAMPION, TITLE, and BELIEVE. I think the words on this wall are just a mash-up of the nouns and verbs from all of Tim Tebow’s inspirational speeches.

3. Have a Diverse Editorial Strategy

What does The Lineup cover? Apparently, everything. Here is a short list of stories that have been (or will soon be) published on Kirsten’s website:

  • An Alex Morgan profile
  • A Simone Biles profile
  • An interview with Bill Belichick
  • A story revealing that a college athletic director bought a $2 million boat while one of his star players was using food stamps
  • An article about Cleveland fans
  • A story about lesbian soccer players in Nigeria

Eventually, Harper pitches her dream story—about “the Gerilympics,” which are the Olympics for geriatric people. The Lineup doesn’t appear to have any podcasts or multimedia offerings; the key to making gobs of money is to just put a lot of words on the internet.

4. Build Office Camaraderie …

Behind the Word Wall, the most prominent feature of the office is a whiteboard that says THE LINEUP FANTASY BASEBALL DRAFT. Having an intra-office fantasy league can be fun, as well as an activity that boosts morale! Especially if you use a whiteboard to list all of the picks, instead of a hellish failing system that nobody likes and ruins everyone’s week!

If your sports media company can’t even manage a fantasy draft without descending into infighting and insults, well, you’re doomed to fail.

5. … But Make Sure Your Employees Live in Constant Fear

One of the driving factors behind Set It Up is Kirsten turning Harper’s life into a living hell. Harper is responsible for feeding her, getting to the office before Kirsten does and staying until after she leaves, and walking around in circles to ensure that Kirsten’s Fitbit reaches 10,000 steps per day.

But this work environment extends beyond Harper. Kirsten is not just a figurehead—she seems to be The Lineup’s main writer, editor, and planner, even leading the daily staff meetings in which writers pitch stories. It’s like a totalitarian dictatorship, but for a quirky sports website!

Kirsten opens each workday by storming into the newsroom with a bullhorn, screaming, “TELL ME SOMETHING I DON’T KNOW.” It’s clear that she wants to get thoughtful coverage out of her employees instead of drivel. The best way to do that, obviously, is to publicly harass them until they produce the meaningful content needed to sustain the site.

6. Don’t Just Write the Story—Be the Story

One of Harper’s dates tells her that she has the coolest job. She responds by saying that her job itself isn’t cool, but the company she works for is. After all, she tells him, “Gronk got wasted at our Christmas party.”

Any website can post a story about Rob Gronkowski getting drunk. But The Lineup breaks the mold by inviting him to its Christmas party—a Christmas party that presumably took place in December, the month that Christmas is in. This just so happens to be a very important part of the NFL calendar!

Considering that Kirsten’s brand is to speak truth to powerful athletes, The Lineup probably followed this party by putting Gronk on blast for drinking heavily during football season. Honestly, it’s somewhat surprising that a story like this hasn’t been published in real life.

7. Take the Right Side, Even If It Upsets People

The scene at the Yankees–Red Sox game reveals the difference between Diggs’s and Liu’s characters. When Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius swings at a pitch and misses, Diggs offers up an empty platitude, screaming “BE ELITE” at Gregorius for his failure. Lucy, however, delivers measured criticism: “You knowhis slider drops like that!”

You see, Lucy appears to be a passionate Yankees fan. Her office also features a picture of her standing next to Derek Jeter.


I entertained the idea that this was an actual image of Liu and Jeter mingling at a function of some kind, but no—someone at Netflix Photoshopped this, to indicate both that Lucy’s character met Jeter and that she would hang a picture of them together in her office.

You’d think that it would be risky for a prominent sports media figure to take sides in the bitter Yankees–Red Sox rivalry, potentially alienating millions of readers. But Kirsten knows that it’s better to be strong in your convictions, thus coming out on the right side of history. That’s why she roots for the Yankees, who are good, and not the Red Sox, who are bad. Why would anyone read a website founded by a former ESPN personality who roots for the Red Sox?


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