In Internet age, sports teams are increasingly in the news business

March 14, 2011

When the University of Iowa named a new basketball coach last year, reporters around the state scrambled to get the story. Several staked out a local airport and hung around campus hoping to snag an interview with the new man, Fran McCaffery. No dice, university officials said — McCaffery and his team weren’t giving interviews.

At least, they weren’t giving interviews to traditional news outlets, such as the Des Moines Register, the state’s largest paper. Instead, McCaffery’s first comments as Iowa coach came on the Big Ten Network, a cable network partially owned by the school. Iowa’s players, meanwhile, spoke exclusively to the university’s Web site, slamming the door on reporters. “We used to compete against other news organizations,” says Bryce Miller, the Register’s executive sports editor, of the episode. “Now it seems like we’re competing against the university.”

For sports journalists these days, the playing field isn’t always level. As the Iowa incident suggests, teams and leagues can break their own news, over and around the independent news media that cover them. Professional and big-time college teams aren’t just news sources now; they’re in the news business, too, with their own radio, TV and Internet operations.

At the same time, teams and leagues have imposed an increasing array of restrictions on news organizations limiting how and what they can report. The trend has even trickled down to the high school level, with some state athletic associations signing “exclusive” TV and media contracts that prevent independent journalists from certain kinds of reporting.

In an earlier age, teams welcomed coverage as free publicity. Now, in an age when technology permits almost anyone to broadcast text, photos and videos instantly, some are far more wary of reporters, viewing them as info-competitors.

For special access to most professional and major-college events, news organizations are given a lengthy list of restrictions on their behavior. Reporters, for example, are sometimes prohibited from live-streaming and live-blogging from a venue, or tweeting in a manner that gives a running, real-time account of the action, because of exclusive contracts. No unauthorized media organization can post clips of a professional game, either. The NBA and Major League Baseball permit news sources to display only two minutes of interviews and practice-session footage per day; the NFL allows just 45 seconds’ worth.

Even photos taken by news photographers are subject to limitations. The NBA last year objected to news sites that had posted multiple action photos taken in quick succession; the league was concerned that such high-volume “galleries” could mimic the action of a video, much like a flip book. The NBA now says a media organization can use “a reasonable number” of game photos.

“We want to have as much [news media] coverage as we can have,” says Tim Frank, an NBA spokesman. “But at the same time, we have to walk a fine line between giving the media what it wants and running our business.”

The Southeastern Conference — home of such college-football powerhouses as Alabama, Auburn and LSU — demanded last year that news organizations restrict their use of online game photos to just two per game, and that such material not be shared with other Web sites, even if another site is owned by the same news outlet. After sports editors banded together and objected, the conference backed down, permitting news organizations to apply their own discretion.

“They thought they were the NFL,” said Phil Kaplan, executive sports editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel, which covers SEC games. “They were looking for ways to drive traffic to their Web sites. The thinking was, if we curtail the amount of content out there, people will have to go to [the SEC’s] Web site.”

Journalists, of course, usually chafe at any attempt to handcuff their work. But as teams and leagues seek to crack down, some reporters see a pernicious effect on the quality of sports reporting. “We’re definitely being disadvantaged,” says John Cherwa, a deputy sports editor at the Los Angeles Times who serves as chairman of the Associated Press Sports Editors’s legal-affairs committee. “Some of these sports were built on the publicity that we in the media gave them. They need to remember that it’s important to have independent voices covering them.”

League and team officials acknowledge the news media’s needs but point out that sports are big businesses, too, with multibillion-dollar “partnerships” with sponsors and TV broadcasters. As such, “we have to protect our name and our brand,” says Tony Wyllie, the spokesman for the Washington Redskins and its owner, Daniel Snyder. “People associate value with the connection to the Redskins name. It’s our job to make sure that it’s used properly” to preserve that value.

The Redskins, who have been at the forefront in creating their own multimedia operations, have been aggressive in policing the use and misuse of their “brand” by others.

For many years, the “Redskins” name was used freely in the titles of local sports highlight shows on TV and radio. No longer. The team put an end to the practice several year ago, now only permitting “authorized” uses of its name — that is, under contractual agreement. Comcast SportsNet is the “official” TV network of the team, for example, and airs a highlight program called “Redskins Nation” hosted by Larry Michael, a broadcaster who is an employee of the team. At the same time, the Redskins produce a half-dozen interview and promotional TV shows through the team-owned Redskins Broadcast Network. The programs air on local stations during the football season.

The Redskins recently asked The Washington Post to rename the newspaper’s video webcast and blog about the team, which was called “Redskins Insider,” according to people who have knowledge of the circumstances. The team had used the name “Redskins Insider” first, and The Post agreed to switch to “Football Insider.”

To date, courts have given professional organizations such as the Redskins deference when the news media’s free-speech rights come into conflict with the teams’ contracts and copyrights. While the First Amendment prohibits governments from eclipsing the press’s freedom, private enterprises enjoy more discretion. That privilege extends to the NCAA, which is legally a private entity, despite representing the interests of hundreds of state-supported colleges and universities.

“The larger picture is that sports lives in this uncomfortable space between news and commerce,” says Rich Gordon, a journalism professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School. “Journalists want to think of sports as news, but at the end of the day, it’s about entertainment and making money.”

Ruling in favor of revenue

A new legal question is whether high schools enjoy the same status as the NFL and the NCAA when it comes to imposing coverage restrictions on the news media. An ongoing clash in Wisconsin between news organizations and a state athletic association is testing the question.

The case stems from an agreement between the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, which represents high schools, and a video production company called American Hi-Fi. The contract gives the company the right to stream high school sports events in Wisconsin over the Internet.

The agreement, however, precludes newspapers and other media organizations around the state from freely streaming the games themselves. To do so, they must first get a license from the WIAA, which charges as much as $1,500 per game for the privilege. A Wisconsin newspaper owned by McLean-based Gannett Co. challenged these restrictions as a violation of its First Amendment rights, prompting the WIAA to go to court last year to seek a declaratory judgment.

A federal district court decided in the WIAA’s favor last year. “Ultimately this is a case about commerce, not the right to a free press,” the court wrote in its decision. “The principal reason the WIAA granted an exclusive license to stream its games over the internet is not to promote discourse, but to create and grow an additional source of revenue.”

That is indeed why the WIAA says its contract with American Hi-Fi is exclusive; by giving the company “exclusive” rights to the games, it increases the value of the rights, much like an NFL or Olympics TV deal. WIAA spokesman Todd Clark says the streaming contract is part of a package of sponsorships that raise about $300,000 a year for the association. “Instead of raising ticket prices so that they’re unaffordable for families,” he said, “we chose to [offset expenses] through these contracts.”

But news organizations argue that high schools are public institutions, much like a city council or Congress, and that the First Amendment trumps the schools’ profit motive.

“The athletic competitions that are the subject of this suit are staged primarily on public property, involving primarily public-school athletes and supported primarily by public funds,” attorneys for a group of media firms, including The Washington Post Co., argued in a recent friend of the court brief. “The Constitution does not permit a state actor [such as the WIAA] to ration and sell First Amendment freedoms — for any purpose, let alone to raise revenue.”

If the courts bless the arrangement, the media companies argue, other states will follow Wisconsin’s model, leading to more exclusive deals among high school associations. (State athletic associations in Illinois and Louisiana have tried making deals similar to Wisconsin’s but have backed down in the face of legal uncertainty.)

Sports fans may be used to colleges and the pros doing it, but high schools, too? “Just because there’s revenue involved, does that mean you should be able to keep the public out, or the media that represents the public?” asks Gordon, the Northwestern professor. “It’s a troubling trend when it comes to taxpayer-supported institutions.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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