MEDIA ROUNDUP: PROFESSIONAL SPORTS - Sports journalists hungry foroff-the-field stories

The sports pages are packed with news on baseball, football,

hockey, and basketball, but little else. David Ward looks at how teams

of less-mainstream sports fight their way into the papers.



Traditional American sports have changed little in the past few decades,

but the ways in which teams and leagues are covered by the media has

undergone a tremendous shift. Thanks in large part to the rise of cable

outlets in the 1980s and the internet in the 1990s, fans can watch their

favorite teams play virtually every game and access a flood of

statistics for each individual player.



Increased TV and web coverage has forced the traditional sports beat

writer to look at ways of reporting more off-the-field action.

Increasingly prevalent are details of locker-room discussions and

coverage of the players' private lives. "Athletes are now judged as much

for what they do off the field as what they do on the field," says MGP &

Associates PR President Mike Paul, who helps individual athletes (such

as NFL stars Freeman McNeil and Rodney Hampton) with their public and

media relations.



Professional sports contracts routinely contain a clause requiring that

players deal with the media on a regular basis. But Glenn Geffner,

director of PR for the San Diego Padres baseball team, says the players

have been dealing with reporters as they come through the minor leagues,

and already realize that it's part of a professional athlete's job.



While the club does little formal media training, Geffner says he does

take the time to introduce new players to the local beat writers who

cover the Padres full time. "Most of the players have been around the

block once or twice, so they know what to expect," he says. "Guys

occasionally need to learn some basics, like don't get upset with the

writer if you don't like the headline on a story, because he doesn't

write the headline."



The reporters who cover a specific sport belong to a fairly tight-knit

group, unlike, say, the metro or police beat writers who rarely come in

contact with journalists from papers in other parts of the country. "You

tend to deal with the same people whether it's on the telephone, in

person, or when we travel," Geffner says. "With the amount of travel

that everybody does these days, there aren't too many really unfamiliar

faces."



The most influential sports media outlets are ones with a national

reach, such as USA Today, Sports Illustrated, and cable outlets ESPN and

Fox Sports. Most of the sports journalists with national prominence are

columnists, including Sports Illustrated's Rick Reilly, Mike Lupica of

the New York Daily News, Bob Ryan of The Boston Globe, Tony Kornheiser

of The Washington Post, Ian O'Connor of USA Today, and TJ Simers of the

Los Angeles Times.



Turning sportswriters' heads



The four major sports leagues - the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL - have little

trouble cracking those main outlets. But some of the lesser-known team

sports have to do a lot more media outreach on both the team and league

levels. PR agencies are often brought in when a team wants to build

national recognition. "Each team and franchise has its own machine

locally," explains Alan Taylor, CEO of Alan Taylor Communications, which

represents the WUSA (women's soccer). He adds that agencies are hired

when a team or a league is looking to reach beyond the sports pages and

into business and lifestyle sections.



If there is a criticism of sports coverage, it's that the reporters tend

to occasionally operate with a pack mentality. Steve Blinn of BlinnPR

represents the World Wrestling Federation, and earlier this year handled

some of the PR efforts for the XFL - sports entrepreneur Vince McMahon's

gimmicky winter/spring football league that folded after one season.



The XFL benefited from massive exposure and coverage prior to its first

game, but the league quickly became an afterthought once reporters and

editors - as well as fans - saw the product. Within the first few weeks

of play, even papers like the Los Angeles Times opted not to assign a

reporter to the LA franchise. Instead, newspapers used brief snippets of

wire stories they then buried deep in the sports section.



"As far as the mainstream media, they may have been part of the

problem," says Blinn. "But I don't think (the league's failure) could

have been laid at the feet of reporters and editors who didn't cover it.

I think the product was rushed to market, and it probably could have

been better presented."



Celebrities helpful, but not required



David Cooper, communications VP for the indoor Arena Football League

(AFL) explains how he overcomes a lack of celebrity firepower on the

pitch: "In this league, we don't have superstar players who are going to

command press attention. So we do a lot of outreach, using guys like

(former AFL and current NFL stars) Kurt Warner and Oronde Gadsden. Right

now, we're pitching the ownership angle because we have John Elway as an

owner and Kenny Stabler, as well as some NFL owners who are now buying

in."



After more than a decade of existence, Cooper says the AFL has finally

gotten to a level where media outlets are assigning reporters to cover

the teams full time. Barry Wilner of the AP is assigned to the league,

and Richard Weiner of USA Today covers it on a part-time basis.



But Cooper says the bulk of the AFL's coverage ends up being local media

outlets covering the hometown team, which, he argues, is a blessing in

disguise. "I value the local markets more than national because we're

still kind of an emerging league," he says. "We can't wrestle with the

top four leagues."



PR execs recognize that sports media gravitates toward the familiar.



For example, Taylor says that the WUSA got off to a strong start this

year in part because so many editors knew players such as Mia Hamm

through her success at the Olympics and Women's World Cup. Taylor adds,

"The players understood enough about the media and were willing to sit

down with even the non-sports reporters."



Taylor notes that personality-driven sports coverage is becoming more

important, especially for magazines and newspapers that must compete not

just with local television news, but also with ESPN, Fox Sports, CNN/SI,

and a slew of sports radio outlets. "The print media has had to take a

look at what they can do differently to provide something of value," he

says.



And while teams only play during part of the year, Geffner says they

need to keep the fans interested in the off-season as well. He tries to

come up with feature ideas that showcase the Padre players in the

community, adding that local press tends to respond well to stories that

humanize the team. "The off-season does lend itself a little bit more to

that," he says, adding that many of the Padres make San Diego their

year-round home, which makes the logistics of setting up those stories

much easier.



WHERE TO GO

Newspapers: USA Today; local newspapers

Magazines: Sports Illustrated; ESPN the magazine; Pro Football Weekly;

Sports Business Journal; Slam; Sports Market Report; Baseball Digest;

Football Digest; Hockey Digest; Soccer Digest; Insider's Football;

Baseball America; The Sporting News; Basketball News; USA Today's

Baseball Weekly; The Hockey News

Television & Radio: Local TV news and sports radio outlets; ESPN; Fox

Sports Net; NBC; ABC; CBS; TBS; CNN/SI; ESPN Radio; Sporting News Radio

Internet: CNNSI.com; ESPN.com; MLB.com; NBA.com; NFL.com; NHL.com;

CBSsportsline.com



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