Last summer, celebrity sports columnist Jay Mariotti of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote the latest in a series of articles denigrating the Chicago White Sox and its fiery manager, Ozzie Guillen. It was the sort of piece that Mariotti has written forever—when he first arrived in Chicago, the paper advertised their new hire on a billboard that read “Sports With An Attitude.”
Guillen’s response was rather atypical, however. He called Mariotti a “fucking fag” during a press conference. He was fined for the slur, but didn’t get much criticism for ripping Mariotti, who isn’t exactly popular among his peers. And in a move that showed little remorse, the official White Sox Web site now links to a blog written by Scott Reifert, one of the team’s media relations directors, who has taken it upon himself to monitor Mariotti’s work and blast him at every perceived slight.
This is not just a case of two notoriously volatile guys doing what they do, but rather part of a broader new reality in professional sports: the increasing willingness of leagues, franchises, and athletes to attack sports writers who write things they don’t like. This aggressive zig is complemented by a message-control zag: use technology to circumvent the press and communicate directly with fans.
Sound familiar? It’s the same strategy that the Bush administration has executed masterfully, going to unprecedented lengths to marginalize and attack the press. So it should come as no surprise to learn that several communications strategists with ties to the White House have gone on to work as consultants to various pro sports leagues and franchises.
Political P.R. firms first gained a toehold in sports in the mid-1990s, when the Pittsburgh Steelers hired a Republican consultant named John Brabender to help push public funding for a new stadium past city and state legislators. That started a cottage industry of consultants advising franchises on how to “convince” (i.e., blackmail, usually by threatening to move to a new city) cities to pay for new stadiums with tax increases. But as unflattering off-field issues like drug use and labor strife have consumed an ever-larger share of the daily sports report, these media experts have broadened their horizons.
After he left the White House, Ari Fleischer, George W. Bush’s original press secretary, began spinning for Major League Baseball on a variety of issues, including controlling the reaction after the 2005 Capitol Hill steroid hearings. “The need to play both offense and defense communication-wise is similar in both industries,” Fleischer told USA Today at the time. Tucker Eskew and Matthew Dowd, meanwhile, two key advisers in Bush’s reelection campaign of 2004, took the dark art of media control to the National Basketball Association. The left side of the political spectrum has gotten in on the act as well. Democratic consultants Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane, for example, have advised the National Hockey League on media strategy.
A large part of this strategy is simply to use technology to remove pesky reporters from the equation. The New York Yankees helped to pioneer this movement, starting the yes Network in 2002 to televise its games and serve as its house organ. About thirty pro teams in various sports, and indeed entire leagues, have followed suit. Last fall, the NFL broadcast several of its games for the first time on the little-seen NFL Network, and will do so again this year.
This approach works on a smaller scale, too, as individual blogs give players the chance to say whatever they want to fans, without passing it through “the filter.” Not content to let athletes have all the fun, Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, uses his blog (BlogMaverick.com) to, among other things, snipe at the press. Recently, he ended a lengthy recounting of perceived media duplicity with, “That’s how the media have evolved in 3 years. In 2004 they misused quotes. Today, they don’t even require quotes. They just make things up.”