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

By Paul Farhi
Tuesday, March 15, 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."

Protecting the 'brand'

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' 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, spokesman for the Washington Redskins and the team's 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.

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