By Eddie Pells and Paul Newberry
The Associated Press
Lance Armstrong takes his message straight to his 2 million followers on Twitter.
NASCAR signs up former newspaper writers-turned-bloggers to follow the sport in tough economic times.
The NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball hire their own reporters to cover their leagues, while college conferences try to limit access to events in the lucrative Internet world, where Web sites such as Facebook can provide instant game coverage.
“When I log onto my computer in the morning, I’m putting up three screens,” said NASCAR’s Ramsey Poston, who launched a “Citizen Journalist Media Corps” this year. “I’m putting up the regular home page I have, I’m putting up Twitter and I’m putting up Facebook.”
In an environment where newspaper circulation is declining and people get ever-more of their news through computers and cell phones, pressure has increased for round-the-clock updates on even the smallest developments from the sports world. That’s created a power struggle over who delivers sports news.
Challenging the traditional media are leagues, conferences and the athletes themselves.
Who wins control of that information will have a direct impact on what fans know and when.
“One thing we constantly tell emerging students is that you may think, ‘Who needs the middle man, when I can go right to the horse’s mouth?'” said professor Robert Thompson, who teaches about television and popular culture at Syracuse University. “But what if the horse is constantly lying?”
Athletes, teams and leagues say communicating directly with fans is often the best way to say what they want without getting it twisted or filtered by the media, whom they often accuse of having agendas. Of course, those same sports groups have their own agendas, and those don’t necessarily correspond to what the public wants or sometimes needs to know.
Part of the argument is rooted in human nature. Like everyone else, players want to be seen in the best light possible. Armstrong, for instance, often bypasses the traditional media completely. If reporters or anybody else want to know what Armstrong is up to, they often have to look on his Twitter page for quotes and updates, where there isn’t the unpleasantness of
Teams, meanwhile, have a long list of issues they’d prefer never become public. NFL teams, for instance, have long treated injuries and game plans like state secrets. The Miami Dolphins went so far as to ban everyone — not just players and reporters, but fans, too — from using cell phones during practice at training camp this summer. The decision restricted the information flow out of practice. It inconvenienced thousands of spectators but also saved reporters from the potentially awkward situation of being scooped by a fan posting an update — be it on an injury or
some other topic — from the stands.
For the most part, though, the NFL encourages tweeting, with some limits. Before the regular season started, the league came up with formal guidelines, saying players and coaches can use sites such as Twitter and Facebook — just not during games.
That means when Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco isn’t on the field he can — and does — regale his 190,000-plus followers with his plans for the evening and his ever-growing schedule of TV appearances.
There’s hard news to be found, too. New Orleans Saints rookie Malcolm Jenkins tweeted first word of his signing. And the Bengals announced their signing of first-round draft pick Andre Smith with — you guessed it — a tweet.
Other leagues have not issued formal policies on social media. But tennis officials posted signs before the U.S. Open warning players and their entourages to be careful on Twitter, saying some posts could violate the sport’s anti-corruption rules by providing inside information.
Andy Roddick took issue with the warning — in yet another tweet.
“I understand the on-court issue but not sure they can tell us if we can’t do it on our own time … we’ll see,” he wrote.
Soon after, Serena Williams used Twitter and her own Web site to apologize for her on-court tirade against the lineswoman who called her for a foot fault.
The “rules” governing new media change almost weekly, and on a person-by-person and team-by-team basis. In one 24-hour period this past week, Texas Tech banned the use of Twitter after a player criticized the coach, New York Jets receiver David Clowney got benched after tweeting about his playing time and the Miami Heat were banned from tweeting from the arena.
It’s no wonder that some sports, such as the unwieldy conglomeration of conferences and schools that make up college football, have struggled to come up with quick solutions to new dynamics in the press box.
There has long been a basic agreement in all sports that gives broadcasters who pay millions to televise games a certain amount of exclusivity when it comes to the product. Now that video feeds and updates are available on the Internet, a debate has started over whether that content also should be given the same treatment.
The Southeastern Conference ran into negative feedback from traditional media, including The Associated Press, when it attempted to effectively ban the use of video or audio clips from SEC games on a newspaper’s Web site and limit any “real-time” description of in-game events on social networking sites. The conference eventually backed down on some of the most contentious issues.
Charles Bloom, associate commissioner of the SEC, said everyone is trying to navigate a rapidly changing media landscape.
“We want to be able to protect our options as it relates to what the Internet will be like in the
future,” Bloom said.
This is part of the push and pull between newspapers struggling to remain relevant, and teams and conferences that want to cash in on new opportunities.
“The institutions would much rather have someone coming to their Web site than going to the local newspaper’s site,” Pac-10 associate commissioner Jim Muldoon
said. “That’s the crux of the whole thing. You drive traffic, drive ad sales, etc., etc.”
To maintain a high profile in the wake of declining mainstream coverage, NASCAR launched its citizen journalist program, allowing nontraditional outlets such as Hardcoreracefans.com and Theracinggeek.com to have the same track access as the AP or The New York Times.
“This is now the new frontier of new media,” said Poston, NASCAR’s manager of corporate communications. “It’s important — certainly for NASCAR and really for any sport — to take advantage of that.”
MLB was ahead of the new media curve.
In January 2001, management committed millions of dollars to launch mlb.com, hiring regular beat writers to cover all 30 teams. Newspaper veteran Dinn Mann agreed to come aboard as editor in chief, but only if the new operation was given complete editorial independence, even though that might mean pursuing stories that could embarrass the sport.
“We don’t have any topics that are taboo,” Mann said.
Every story on mlb.com ends with a disclaimer saying the story was not subject to approval by MLB, though Mann concedes that mlb.com has a different focus than traditional media — focusing more on what it sees as covering the actual news, with on-the-record sources, rather than analysis.
“Somewhere in the ’80s, reporters got a little bit more in the way of attitude and a little bit less in the way of letting people know what was going on out there,” he said. “I really thought this would be a hit with the fans long before it was a hit with people inside the media.”
It makes sense that a fan of a certain team would go to that Web site to look for information. The question becomes, what might they be missing if that’s the only place they go — or if someday, it’s the only place left?
For example, news of Rick Pitino’s extramarital affair only came to light after the Louisville Courier-Journal made an open-records request and obtained police reports with details of the interview the Louisville men’s basketball coach had with investigators. The University of Louisville was not the original source.
“That was a perfect example of a story that needed to be pursued and prosecuted,” said Thompson, the Syracuse professor. “That’s true of a lot of sports stories lately.”
Mann said mlb.com isn’t trying to drive the mainstream media out of business, and Poston stressed that many of the citizen journalists are actually former racing writers who turned to the Internet after losing newspaper jobs when the economy tanked.
“Readers still have a need to know the whole story,” Poston said. “I don’t see this as a threat to the media. I do think there’s a whole new element of the media that we have to take into