Monday, July 20, 2009

ESPN and The Future of Sports Media

About a year ago it started to dawn on me where the future of sports journalism -- traditionally the province of daily newspapers -- was going.
The first domino came last summer when the news broke that longtime Atlanta Braves general manager John Schuerholz was giving up his role to become team president. A quick visit to the Braves' official Web site revealed an incongruous picture.
One link announced that the team was having a press conference later in the day. Another, an independently reported story by staffer Mark Bowman, broke the news itself about Schuerholz's departure.
The second came when I heard that former Falcons beat writer Steve Wyche was leaving the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for a job with and the NFL Network. (Wyche remains a fixture here in Atlanta on local radio.)
Around the same time, The Sporting News hired Jeff D'Alessio away from the AJC and launched an innovative daily online newspaper, Sporting News Today.
The picture rounded out for me when the NFL season began and I noticed that had hired friend and former hockey writer colleague Tim Graham away from the Palm Beach Post, where he worked for less than one year as back-up Dolphins writer, as its AFC East blogger. That meant that in addition to all of the national writers and reporters that ESPN has on the NFL, the Web site had created a direct 1-to-4 ratio of reporters (or bloggers) to teams.
What was to prevent eventually, I reasoned, from going to a 1-to-2 ratio or a 1-to-1 ratio with, in effect, beat writers for every team?
The answer is on the front page of the New York Times today written by Brooks Barnes (with whom I worked briefly in the West Chester, Pa., office of the Philadelphia Inquirer when we were both two-year correspondents).
For some reason, today could be a watershed moment -- at least for media navel gazers like myself -- as Sports Business Journal's Bill King has a lengthy story today examining how staff and travel cuts by daily newspapers have hurt the teams that they cover. This Tweet today from SBJ's Liz Mullen sums up the story succinctly enough: "SBJ survey: 303 sports editorial job cuts at 50 North American dailies in last 18 mos. sports staffs at papers cut 21%."
The Times' story says that is opening microsites, in addition to its pilot site in Chicago, in Dallas, Los Angeles and Dallas.
ESPN already has eviscerated local sports casts, as local TV executives have cut back the amount of time they devote to sports and have filled in with relentless weather coverage, forfeiting sports news to the cable goliath. And those who follow what is going on with print journalism don't need to be reminded that the Internet (hello, is eroding the financial underpinning of newspapers to the point that a good number of large ones are half the size of their former selves, having gotten there in only a few short years.
Will's micro sites be successful? It's hard to doubt almost anything that the network does will fail. It certainly has financial resources these days that newspapers can only dream of and putting reporters on the road with teams is the backbone of comprehensive sports coverage. It seems unclear from the Times' story as to whether that will be the case or not.
But why wouldn't they? Obviously, ESPN sees the vacuum.
Here is how I began to envision sports coverage when I had my epiphany last year and it appears to be shaking out. First, you will have the large, independent news-gathering organizations. Under this I put ESPN,, Sporting News Today, Sports Illustarted and, the New York Times and a select few other truly national newspapers. (The Wall Street Journal has increased sports coverage and will continue to beef up that part of its operation.) For example, I wonder how many newspapers sent a writer to the British Open. The AJC used to and Stewart Cink, a local guy, winning the tournament was huge news, but readers will have to go to a news organization like the Times with the budget to put a writer on the ground in Scotland to find non-news wire coverage.
Secondly, you will have what remains of newspapers until they find a sustainable model for survival. In Atlanta, with the coming of the fall season, expect some significant cutbacks in terms of writers traveling with the teams they cover. (This began last winter in the midst of the paper's latest round of buyouts when University of Georgia and Georgia Tech basketball, Thrashers and Hawks coverage on the road was cut back in certain circumstances.)
Those newspapers will have to pick their poison, so to speak. It's impossible for the AJC not to travel with Georgia and Tech football and -- for now -- the Braves because of the popularity of beat writer Dave O'Brien online. The Falcons, on the upswing, should be in a similar category (also because of the relatively limited travel and, thus expense, related to an NFL team) and the Hawks -- again, for now -- also would seem to be in that category.
Everything else would seem to be up for debate, as the paper has stopped traveling with NASCAR (when I joined the paper in 1999 the paper attended races in 33 of 39 weeks, I believe) and golf, Olympic sports and a lot of others -- playoffs included -- that are national in nature.
If financial pressure continues to increase on papers like the AJC, is it possible that the paper would restrict travel further to save costs? Yes.
And it's not the simple question of how the paper travels, it's in the numbers. When Georgia Tech made it to the 2004 NCAA men's basketball tournament finals, the paper had about 10 people there. It sent several on the day of the game. But when the Hawks were in the second round of the NBA playoffs for the first time in who knows how long, the paper sent the beat writer and columnist Mark Bradley to Cleveland.
So, in addition to the expansion of some large national media entities, most notably ESPN, you will see another source of expansion: the leagues and teams themselves. The coming of these experiments were explored briefly in today's SBJ.
Bowman has been covering the Braves for a few years now. And the leagues and teams themselves keep hiring notable sports writers. Sam Smith, one of the most respected NBA writers in the league and author of "The Jordan Rules," writes for the Chicago Bulls' Web site -- with a disclaimer noting that the contents of Smith's writing have not been "reviewed or endorsed" by the team.
Another example is the recent leap by ex-Redskins beat writer Jason LaCanfora to a job seemingly similar to what Wyche is doing with the NFL.
And back on June 22 when the NHL laid off 20 employees at its league offices, it was accompanied by coverage by SBJ's Tripp Mickle that alluded to the coming growth of the league as a media company. Mickle's Tweets that day mentioned that the league would hire "20 new employees" and that the new hires "aim to get rt skills".
Oh, and let's not forget bloggers, whose contributions are significant. However, I'm talking mainly about paid media.
So, there it is sports fans. The great irony is that readers' consumption continues to increase. Where will they get their news? Here are a variety of sources. The market will determine the winners.


  1. Great read! I agree that the final bell is about to toll on print media.

    BTW, I spent my wonder years in Decatur on the corner of Gaylemont circle, went to Medlock elementary for a few years. Ruined every pair of jeans I owned playing in the creek. If you ever go by that house, that huge spruce was my Christmas tree when I was 8 years old (1984), lol. Man I miss that place.

  2. Thanks. I'll have to keep an eye out for that house. I'm probably not too far away.

  3. Great read, John. The trend continued with longtime USA Today NFL scribe Larry Weisman joining the Redskins in July. Sports teams are starting to recognize they are truly sports media companies (or should be).