Play (Hard!) Ball

Why the sports beat must evolve
September 25, 2007

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.

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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.”

Curt Schilling, a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, uses his blog (38 Pitches) to update fans on the health of his balky shoulder, explain the thinking behind certain pitch sequences, and rail at what he considers the ineptitude of the local media, in particular the Boston Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy, who satirized 38 Pitches and its readers in his column this spring.

Much of this is the fairly benign fallout of the digital world we inhabit, where the traditional terms of authority between the press and the public have been upended; the conversation, as it were, is no longer one way. But things do get nasty, particularly when a sports writer runs afoul of the company line. The person who seems to have begun the attack-dog trend is “Rufus Dawes,” the cyber moniker of someone widely rumored in Kansas City media circles to be within the Kansas City Chiefs’ front office, who since 1998 has led a jeremiad on kcchiefs.com against local writers and broadcasters who have criticized the team. His favorite target is Jason Whitlock, an influential sports columnist for the Kansas City Star who also hosts a local radio show.

A Dawes-on-Whitlock sampling:

I believe an argument can be made that he [Whitlock] has lowered the bar as far as media behavior in Kansas City is concerned. He and the nodding sycophants at the various radio stations who have serviced his interests are kings of the low brow and to say the Kansas City Star’s coverage has gone down hill since he arrived in town is like saying Bin Laden has an image problem.

Daniel Snyder, meanwhile, who owns the Washington Redskins, has gone even further with his efforts to control the press. To both boost his local media holdings (several radio stations, Web sites, and team-oriented television shows) and punish The Washington Post for reporting developments the team deemed premature, Snyder ordered team news to be distributed on his media holdings only, denying the Post exclusive interviews and breaking news. Meanwhile, on a Snyder-owned Web site called ExtremeSkins.com, a Snyder apparatchik named Arthur Mills obsessively blasts Post writers.

For sports reporters, this hostile new approach to media relations is compounded by the fact that access to players and coaches has been shrinking for years. Athletes have become miniature corporations, with strictly controlled public relations to match. Getting unmonitored time away from the locker-room scrum to probe deeper issues than that night’s one-for-four at the plate is increasingly rare.

A few media behemoths, namely ESPN, USA Today, and Sports Illustrated, will always get favored-nation status, due to their audience size. Meanwhile, local reporters make do with less and less information. NBA mega-star LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, for example, has a policy of not doing one-on-one interviews with local media. Why crack open his electric personality for an outlet that only reaches fans in a portion of Ohio?

Not so long ago, the beat reporter was essentially a fan’s sole conduit for news about his or her favorite team. Now, by the time the beat writer’s game story appears in the next day’s paper or on the eleven o’clock news, fans not only have had access to the unfiltered statistics and transcripts of post-game interviews, they have discussed the game’s various twists and turns in depth among themselves online.

Given this reality, and the reality of ever-tighter budgets across the newspaper universe, beats are being dropped or merged. The Hartford Courant stopped sending a reporter to Yankees games, for instance, and the San Francisco Chronicle pulled beat coverage of the San Jose Sharks, relying instead on wire service reports. MediaNews Group, Inc., which owns the San Jose Mercury News and the Oakland Tribune, among other newspapers, consolidated sports coverage across its chain. Over in the state capital, the Sacramento Bee dropped beat coverage of baseball entirely, relying on wire services for information on the nearby San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s.

Hidebound reporters may cry foul, but there is potentially a blessing in disguise nestled in this tale of loss. The concept of the sports beat writer needs to evolve—reporters need to be unleashed a bit to compete and remain relevant. If the rise of the blogosphere has taught any lesson, it’s that sports fans have an appetite for strongly opinionated takes on virtually every facet of their team, from performance to personality. While a daily presence in the locker room occasionally results in an intriguing story, far more prevalent are the canned clichés that even the most casual fan can recite by rote. This is not to say the sports beat writer should become just another columnist, spouting all opinion all the time. But the all-important access that those writers sought to maintain through a play-it-straight, just-the-facts approach is being lost anyway. Why not let beat writers showcase their writing—sports departments often have some of the best writers in the newsroom—and give readers the full benefit of their nuanced understanding of the team, its personalities, and the sport itself? They can still report. They can still cover the games and do the locker room interviews. The difference is how it is all put together in the final product.

The New York Islanders are helping this notion along, albeit in a surprising way. Last month, team officials announced a plan to give press credentials to bloggers who write regularly about the team, allowing them to attend games and have access to coaches and players. The game is changing, and those newspapers that still send reporters to the games would do well to loosen the reins and let those reporters compete. 

Robert Weintraub is the author of The House That Ruth Built. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and Slate, and a television writer/producer based in Atlanta.