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
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
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
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
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
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;