Can Sports Broadcasting and Journalism Co-exist?

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The NHL Network proved that you can't expect journalism to come out most league run networks

There is a rhythm and feel to the sports calendar.

As the days start getting longer and warmer, pitchers and catchers reporting for duty just feels right. Humidity and sun burns, break out the pigskin. Dark and cold, time to lace up the skates and high-tops.

This year, as the days get shorter and there is a dearth of checks and high sticks on the dial, I feel incredibly out of sorts. Out of rhythm. Off-kilter.

It made sense to check into the NHL Network to get the latest on the lockout, the league network should have some insight, some hope, some sliver of information to quell my insatiable desire for puck time.

Zero. Zilch. Nada.

This isn’t a mistake, it’s a conscious choice to avoid what I would argue is journalism 101: stay ahead of the stories your fan base is most interested in.

A little research answered the journalism conundrum. At a conference in New York City sponsored by the Sports Business Journal, NHL COO John Collins admitted the NHL Network isn’t interested in standard news gathering.

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Don't look to the NHL Network if you want to find out when Sidney Crosby and the rest of his Penguin teammates plan to get back to work

“We were watching all the other networks to see how they handled the lockouts on their networks,” Collins said.

The (NFL Network) looked at it like it was really an external news organization and really went out of their way to not only give the league perspective, but also the players, which I thought was great. The NBA went a different direction based on certain restrictions their bargaining agreement may have. For us, we haven’t really covered the lockout on our platforms from a news standpoint. We haven’t used it as a bully pulpit to get the league’s message out there. We’ve sort of been very quiet throughout this negotiation and I think we’ll remain that way.”

As SportsIllustrated.com’s Richard Deitsch correctly points out, it’s hard to take the network seriously when they decide to punt on the biggest news story to hit their league since, well, the last lockout. But before we crucify the NHL Network, time to wake up and realize they are far from alone in their sports journalism mixed bag.

Follow the Money

In most cases, broadcast rights fees lead to compromised integrity. Networks pay huge fees for the right to be a carrier of a particular league or team, and in turn move forward as business bedfellows.

No longer is the network goal to report news objectively, it shifts to making the team or conference partner happy and selling as much advertising as possible to offset the acquisition costs.

Keeping the Partner Happy

It is simple economics, if a network wins a contract to broadcast say the Denver Nuggets games, they invest in creating pre-game shows, post-game shows, halftimes, magazine shows and much more.

The Denver Nuggets now represent a huge part of the network brand and audience expectations. Mess up the relationship and there is no second deal, which leads to no identity, a lack of attractive programming and wasted infrastructure.

It sounds like a Catch-22, you owe it to your audience to report the news honestly and objectively while at the same time keeping your partners happy, but it is not. A Catch-22 implies a problematic decision based on the options available, but for most networks forgoing traditional news-gathering to focus on the team partners’ happiness is not problematic at all.

I’ve dealt with this first-hand in my career, having to apologize to the General Manager of one of our local pro teams for reporting accurately that two of his players were arrested for drug possession. My journalism instincts were counter-productive to the business my bosses were running.

In these instances, journalism changes from investigative to personality profiling. Team partners love stories about their athletes in the community, overcoming adversity or rehabbing from injury, otherwise known as ‘fluff pieces’.

Sell, Sell, Sell

rajon rondo boston celtics nba best point guard

When ComcastSportsNet New England reportedly agreed to pay over $20 million per year to broadcast Rajon Rondo and the Boston Celtics they, like many others, sacrificed objective journalism for the bottom line. (Photo Courtesy: Damian Strohmeyer/Sports Illustrated)

When Comcast SportsNet New England reportedly agrees to pay over $20 million per year in broadcast rights fees to air Celtics games AND they include part ownership of the network as part of the deal, you can clearly see how ad sales ultimately drive a network.

That’s 20 million per year (that I’m sure increases over the 20 years of the contract) that needs to be offset by advertising revenue.

What sells ads? Ratings.

What gets good ratings? Likable players that win.

Teams look to their broadcast partners to help create likable players, and broadcast partners pray that they have signed on the dotted line with a winner.

But this balance sheet focus impacts journalism decisions dramatically. The Big Ten Network (owned and operated by Fox) largely ignored the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State because that surely wasn’t positive press, the YES network wasn’t at the forefront of the Alex Rodriguez PED scandal and don’t expect the PAC-12 network to conduct an detailed investigation into recent allegations against Mike Leach at Washington State.

Journalism Conflicts All Around, But Does It Matter?

ESPN has conflicts everywhere, mainly because they are partners with almost every conference and league on some level. But even forgetting their broadcast partnerships, they’ve been known to turn a reporting blind eye based on even low level relationships.

The worldwide leader largely ignored the Reggie Bush embarrassment at USC… possibly because his attorney was one of the their legal experts?

They avoided coverage of the Ben Roethlisberger civil suit… maybe because he was set to star in the debut of a new reality show on sister channel ABC?

They allowed Erin Andrews to endorse Reebok shoes without concern over it being a conflict of interest…probably because her contract was set to expire and they didn’t want to upset their rising star? (p.s. it didn’t work, she signed with Fox)

These are just a few of the most obvious examples.

In the end, all of the networks mentioned get great ratings and make money hand over fist, so none of the executives are lying awake at night feeling guilty for ignoring journalism.

Setting Expectations

So what do you want and what do you expect?

If you’re looking for news related to sports, I hate to admit it but don’t expect it from your cable box, even local sports coverage is struggling to continue their niche. Look for resources that aren’t tainted by big money partnerships, such as Yahoo Sports. Why do you think so many top of the line reporters have joined their ranks? The freedom to report.

Fear not aspiring sports broadcast journalists, there are still a ridiculous amount of avenues to present worthwhile stories and report on the people and events that make sports addictive.

Just don’t expect to rock the boat.

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Article by Brian Clapp

Authors bio is coming up shortly. Brian Clapp tagged this post with: , , , , Read 112 articles by
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