Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The new normal in sports media coverage

2007 Media Day 005
pennstatenews via flickr

I usually enjoyed chatting with John Fox when he was coach of the Carolina Panthers. He was always congenial in our conversations and occasionally thoughtful and articulate.

Fox was easy to like. But only when he was talking off the record.

On the record? Fox was one of the more difficult coaches to cover. He wasn't as belligerent as some. He wasn't a jerk like others. But Fox was deliberately and maddeningly vague, bland and unresponsive to even the most obvious questions one might ask a head coach of a major professional sports team. He said nothing. For years. He offered no insight to even the most banal questions. I think if I had asked Fox on the record what time it was, he would have said, "it is what it is."

So I can't say I'm particularly surprised by the restrictive new rules for media covering the Chicago Bears during training camp with Fox now in his first year there after stints with Carolina and Denver. According to reports out of the Bears camp, all interviews with players must be requested 24 hours in advance. And reporters aren't allowed to write about what they see in training camp -- even though fans are allowed to tweet whatever they want.

The excuse offered by the Bears is that this will somehow prevent scouts from learning about opponents. Hogwash. If coaches are motivated enough to learn another team's secrets, they don't need the media to help them. See Bill Belichick.

So this isn't about helping the team win. It's about controlling and limiting the media. And whether this was Fox's idea or not, I suspect he doesn't give a hoot if the media's job is suddenly a lot harder.

In Europe, it happens all the time, as The New York Times reported today. One professional soccer team even banned the local media because the owner didn't like the coverage received.

The phase out of independent media coverage of sports teams isn't quite that extensive in the U.S. But it is happening here. Chicago shouldn't be viewed as an aberration, but more likely a trendsetter.

It didn't use to be this way. For years, sports teams and leagues had a symbiotic relationship with the media. Teams needed media coverage for marketing to build interest and sell tickets. Newspapers needed the coverage to help drive readership. It was a win-win no matter what the tone of the coverage. Back in the day, the New York Giants used to provide travel arrangements for some reporters. When I covered the Hartford Whalers years ago, I occasionally took the team's charter flight and the Whalers routinely booked a hotel room for me on the road (the flight and hotel were paid for by the newspaper).

Of course, the internet changed all of that. Teams now create their own content for marketing and can bypass the media to reach directly to the fans. And they are increasingly limiting independent media in favor of their marketing partners like ESPN, Fox Sports, etc., where coverage is more friendly and controlled.

The media still needs sports content to drive readership. But teams and leagues now seemingly view independent media as parasites. So there is a pressure on reporters to build strong relationships with teams through positive coverage. Those who don't adhere to the company line will be increasingly cut out of access to athletes and coaches.

It's even happening in sports like Nascar, which used to be media friendly but has drastically reduced access to drivers in the last year or two. These days, stories need layers of public relations approval before interviews are even scheduled. And it's not unusual for PR reps to ignore emails from media deemed unfavorable.

This is the new normal.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

I did that to a Nascar driver?

Jersey is not just a state of mind, it's a way of driving. When you are Jersey, you never know -- and maybe don't care -- who you wind up angering on the road.

Unless, of course, someone pulls up alongside of you on the highway with a grin on his face and you realize the guy in the pickup truck you just rudely tailgated is a Nascar driver.


James Marvin Phelps / Foter / CC BY-NC
It was back in the fall and I had just finished attending a press conference at the Nascar Hall of Fame in uptown Charlotte, where drivers in the Sprint Cup postseason playoff had met with the media to discuss the dynamics of the next round. I was headed home on I-77, a highway that is miserable to drive under the best conditions -- too much traffic, not enough lanes. And it's guaranteed to be a slow haul anytime it's close to rush hour, as it was that afternoon.

The only way to get through it was to be aggressive. Be Jersey.

So after entering the highway and quickly maneuvering into the left lane, I found myself behind an older Chevy pickup truck that was going a tad too slow for my liking. I edged to my left to see that the truck was not the problem; there was a slower car ahead. First chance we got, we both moved into the middle lane to pass the ass on the left.

I fully expected the truck to move back into the left lane right away, but it didn't. Instead, it stayed in the middle lane and I was boxed in just long enough for my eyes to narrow and the blood pressure to rise. Maybe two or three seconds.

Anyway, the truck finally pulled just far enough ahead to give me a tiny opening. And of course, I took it. I pulled my little Honda Fit up almost to the truck's bumper. If I was a bit too close, I rationalized that it was his fault because he should have moved back over to the left already.

So the moment I cleared the car on the left, I jerked the wheel and accelerated, zipping back into the left lane and speeding away. I left the slowpoke and the pickup truck far behind -- one small battle won.

Or so I thought. I looked in my rearview mirror and noticed the truck suddenly hauling to catch up to me. It quickly pulled up next to my car on the right. I glanced over and the driver was looking down at me and smiling.

I just did that to Ryan Newman?

I had no idea it was Newman in that pickup truck. The next time I saw him, I made sure to apologize.

He laughed. But really, what was he going to say? It's not like I came out of nowhere and put him into a wall or something.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The long and short of it

When I was a sports reporter at the start of my career, I worked at a newspaper that held a Secret Santa gift-giving exchange one Christmas. Funny what you learn about your coworkers -- and what they think of you -- when anonymity offers a shield. Office Twitter before Twitter.

The gift I received that Christmas? A framed portrait of Herve Villechaize. For those who don't remember the name, he's the guy from "Fantasy Island" who would point up at the sky and shout, "The plane! The plane!" Villechaize was what people today would call a little person -- someone diagnosed with dwarfism.

I was amazed that anyone would go through that much trouble to publicly humiliate me just because I happen to be 4-foot-11. But it wasn't the first time my height was the subject of jokes, nor the last. Honestly, I've had to put up with short jokes all of my life. I've even told a few myself, if only to have people laugh with me instead of at me from time to time.

I've never really thought it was funny to insult people because of their physical appearance, though. Try mocking an African American because of his skin color and you will be called a racist. Make fun of short people and that's somehow OK?

As I wrote in an article for OZY.com today, studies show short people are paid less and get fewer C-Suites. Russia just adopted a law banning short people from driving certain vehicles. If you saw "The Wolf of Wall Street," you'll probably remember the midget-throwing contest. I guess it was supposed to be funny.

You know what? It's not funny. It's offensive. It shows a lack of respect. And it hurts.

So please stop. I don't want to hear it anymore.