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Sept. 5, 2013, 12:20 p.m.

The newsonomics of big sports money — and news

Sports used to rely on the media for publicity. Now it’s the leagues and teams with the power. How can sports journalism respond?

Our cavalcade of news and sports convergence now seems to be happening by the month.

Last week, it was Los Angeles Dodgers principal owner Mark Walter publicly mulling the possibility of buying his hometown paper, the Los Angeles Times — the same week, ironically, that soon-to-be Boston Globe and current Boston Red Sox owner John Henry flew to L.A. to visit the Times, mission unclear.

Now, many of us love both baseball and the news trade, but our instinct is to keep them separate. Modern forces now militate against that instinct. We’re well beyond the days when “Sports” was a section of a newspaper, a subsection of content within the larger news product. Now the money in sports is dominating the money in news. It’s not a brand-new trend, but recent developments show it’s accelerating. Both the newsonomics of the developments and of the multiplying built-in conflicts are worth a look.

Media, of course, shares a root with medium and mediate, connecting audiences with what they want — from lions in the Colosseum to Tigers in Detroit. This next sports revolution is being advanced by twin disruptors: on one side, old, doughty TV that has thus far been able to keep its privileged placed in the digital world; on the other, Internet-made mischief. The new connections are ubiquitous; baseball-run MLB.TV, for instance, is amazingly available on 350 platforms or devices, spanning screens gargantuan to tiny.

Let’s start with Europe. Both Axel Springer and News Corp, two of the 10 largest publishers worldwide, have merged sports and news pay strategies. Springer’s Bild — Germany’s most popular paper — has nervously launched a paywall, which charges €2.99 on top of €4.99 a month for video access (one hour after matches are done) to highlights of Bundesliga games.

The tie-in for News Corp’s Sun, a tabloid, is even stronger. For €2 a week, Sun readers will get the Sun’s content online and video recaps of the Premiere League games. The U.K. offer extends to digital subscribers to News Corp’s other papers, the Times of London and Sunday Times. News Corp paid $30 million for those rights.

News Corp is taking its model worldwide, buying digital distribution rights for Japan, Vietnam, and Indonesia, bringing those populations European football.

These are bundles, and they are bundles that indicate that sports is leading news readers to pay up. These are new bets, with both publishers unclear of how well they’ll work. Inevitably, the overlap between TV and digital video rights will keep getting more complicated and more expensive. 21st Century Fox-controlled satellite giant Sky Deutschland paid $2.5 billion for German football over a five-year period, spawning a new dispute, as Axel Springer contests Sky to preserve its own just-bought rights.

In the U.S., we haven’t yet seen as many of these sports/news bundles, though Cablevision’s Newsday tries to leverage the newspaper/sports (Knicks, Rangers, Madison Sports Garden) connection with its subscribers. We’ve also seen the Orange County Register forming a unique partnership with its neighboring Angels baseball team, which essentially traded 600,000 tickets a year for promotion (“The newsonomics of the Register’s Contrarian Paywall”).

Newspaper people are trying to figure out how to leverage the value out of sports. Sports owners are trying to leverage the value out of the huge daily audiences newspaper companies still command online and in print. That’s part of what John Henry sees and what Mark Walter may be seeing as well.

Enter Comcast. In California, Comcast SportsNet Bay Area is a coverage powerhouse, being the primary broadcast home of the Giants and Warriors. (The network is 30 percent owned by the Giants.) Comcast has a deep bench of on-air talent and has hired longtime San Francisco Chronicle columnist Ray Ratto. Comcast, now of course the owner of NBCUniversal, is as much a content company as a pipes company these days. The model Comcast subscribers see in the Bay Area model is found in 10 markets around the country.

All of these combinations, and wannabe combinations, pose larger questions about sports journalism. When the leagues, the owners and those who cover them are all glued together by money, how independent can sports journalism really be?

The biggest and latest conflict to arise is ESPN’s public and bruising withdrawal from a co-production with PBS’ Frontline of a documentary on football concussions. The truth of football concussion apparently proved too hard to take for the National Football League leadership. (“Why would you, ESPN, our partners, so baldly tell the truth about the issue?”)

It’s a question that makes elementary business sense. ESPN president John Skipper, no fool, pulled the ESPN name from the documentary, which will still air. Why indeed? Well, as we know, ESPN is one of the biggest sports news organizations in the world, having lured many top-flight journalists from newspapers and magazines for greater compensation and audience. NFL Nation, a grouping of 32 team-specific sites, is just the latest step in its sports domination strategy.

“It is really a natural conflict at ESPN between church and state,” as SI sportswriter Richard Deitch put it well on Only a Game this weekend. (The show’s segments, “Sports and the Media, A Conflicted Relationship” and “ESPN and Frontline Part Ways Over ‘League of Denial,'” a Bill Littlefield commentary, are well worth a listen, one of the best catch-ups on the controversy and its context.)

For experience on that topic, it’s worth considered the pioneer in this blur, When Major League Baseball decided to invest in its own news operation in 2001, newspaper people largely laughed at it. How could a league cover its own teams?

Now 12 years later, the newsroom houses about 100 journalists and serves a vast audience. Most tellingly, it can also claim three million subscribers to MLB video and mobile products. With a forthcoming announcement, those journalists will soon include a tenth national columnist, says Dinn Mann, executive vice president of MLB Advanced Media and a Kansas City Star alum. That’s along with 30 beat reporters. Those columnists — among them names like Richard Justice, Tracy Ringolsby, and Mike Bauman — all have roots in newspapering.

I asked Mann if his newsroom is as independent as that of the Kansas City Star when he was there. “No,” he said — but then he quickly explained his answer, putting a twist on the church-and-state metaphor.

“The walls are lower, but the halls are wider,” he says. Mann wants his journalists to be deeply immersed in the world as it is, doing more multimedia with much closer access to players — closer to the innards of MLB itself. That’s what Mann means by lower walls, and he views it as a positive. The wider halls are all those opportunities for storytelling and deeper knowledge about the game itself.

The coverage mantra sounds like readers-first: “How are we going to cover for the fans, in such a way that they are accustomed to trusting and believing and expecting. Just as we all go the stadium, and we react to the manager’s decision or a call that didn’t go our way. It’s just another venue. Its going to be critical, responsible and respectful, but not extreme.” There are many ways that could have gone off the tracks, given its league ownership over the years — especially in the recurring steroid/PED scandals — but it hasn’t.

Beyond its mastery of appropriate and seamless interactivity — in game graphics, video, real-time scores, news, and lots more — has built a business on knowing convenience. That all-in-one convenience drives our usage and our willingness to ignore the built-in potential conflicts of self-coverage. The tagline it runs on every story — “This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs” — is a promise to the audience. (Compare Fox Sports’ relationship with UFC.) One lesson: Some will do self-coverage better — more journalistically — than others.

Given the newer tilt towards sports-rich and news-poor, expect to hear all kinds of church-and-state metaphors. The European experiments put those News Corp and Springer journalists on the defensive. In Boston, Globe writers will find new opportunities for both voice and conflict, as John Henry’s holdings include not just the Red Sox, but the dominant New England Sports Network, throwing its coverage weight around as the Comcast’s sports nets are doing.

There’s an inevitability of bigness here, in sports and media. Given the nature of the TV licensing money flowing around big-league sports, we’ll only see more matings of these titans. As in the Internet business, it’s often a single winner taking all and dominating. Only a few companies have the financial power to buy rights. In the church-and-state game, we’re getting megachurches and rightsized states. (Take, for example, the year-old Sports on Earth, a co-production of MLB Advanced Media and USA Today Sports Media Group. That’s a sports league’s media arm now covering other sports leagues in partnership with a news company.)

Independent (e.g., non-ESPN) sports magazines are hanging in there, but are subject to all the financial pressures of the wider magazine industry.

As the might of national networks and TV has increased in sports coverage, the role of daily newspapers’ sports coverage has markedly decreased. Beat writers are shared across chains; many of the best columnists have been laid off or gone off to work for TV. Relatively few papers are investing heavily in competitive sports coverage, believing that franchise is all but lost. In addition, there’s no comparison between what MLB offers digital customers and what newspapers offer; the latter are still lost in text, largely devoid of video, data, and interactivity.

Sure, there are independent voices that get heard — like Gawker’s Deadspin, or Only a Game — but it’s sometimes hard for them to get above the noise.

So what models does this give us in the sports news trade, going forward?

The basic question, of course, is: What’s sports coverage for? Is it journalism, covering a team, a league, and its athletes the way journalists cover mayors, presidents, and business leaders? Or it is a simply a means of promotion, now hyper-extended by the reach of satellite, cable, and Internet? 

In his piece on Only a Game, Bill Littlefield makes the point that, long ago, major league baseball teams routinely paid all the expenses of the beat reporters who rode the buses with them. Their purpose was clear: promotion. Even the legendary 85-year-old Vin Scully, who has broadcast Dodgers games for 65 years and is considered the best of the best, recently summed up his job this way: “Sell tickets.”

So how much will sports news be affected? In truth, there’s a single dominant model in creation. It’s a sports video/news house. It can be run as a single business, using news to drive sports promotion; not surprisingly, it is parts of Fox that best exemplify the trend.

Then there’s the divided house model, that of ESPN, MLB, and probably the Globe/Red Sox/NESN. That model borrows from the old church/state metaphor in newspapers, where advertising and editorial existed in the same house, but usually lived in hostile coexistence. It’s clear who’s going to own the halls and walls, but how they’re navigated will tell us what the next generation of sports news will be like.

Photo by Keith Allison used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 5, 2013, 12:20 p.m.
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