MEDIA ROUNDUP: College-sports media alters tactics

With college-sports coverage now a bona fide 24-7 entity, the media, along with the schools' PR staffs that feed it information, have had to pick up the pace.

With college-sports coverage now a bona fide 24-7 entity, the media, along with the schools' PR staffs that feed it information, have had to pick up the pace.

Most colleges and universities host dozens of sports teams, ranging from the ubiquitous football and men's basketball squads to lesser-known wrestling, volleyball, gymnastics, and myriad others. The fact that the former have traditionally remained in the forefront can be attributed in part not only to the high level of interest shown by both current students and alumni, but also to the sports press. Both newspapers and TV outlets only occasionally go beyond major university football and basketball stories, leaving other sports to scramble for listings in the sports sections' results pages. So why have schools' sports information departments seen their workload increase tenfold over the past decade? They can thank the combination of the internet and sports-talk radio. Constant need for news "In the past, sports information departments just reported game results and summaries to the newspaper, and that was it," says David Siroty, who's now public affairs director at St. Peter's College in Jersey City, NJ and was formerly in the sports information department there. "With these 24-hour news vehicles, there's now a constant need for news. You've got pre-game, in-game, post-game, post post-game all right there. That has created a big challenge for sports information directors (SIDs)." "It's very voluminous," adds Matt Winkler, president of Washington, DC-based communications consultancy MW Communications. Winkler was formerly in the athletic departments at George Mason, American, Lehigh, and George Washington Universities, and he currently teaches a sports communications course at several DC area colleges. "An average college athletics department will have 17-28 teams playing 150 home and 150 away events each year. All of that must be updated on the schools' websites in near real time." While most local media will only cover a handful of these events with staffers, they still feel it's their responsibility to have at least the results of every event involving the local college teams. "Most of the coverage that appears in the local paper is based on the information that the sports information department has provided," says Paul Ohanian, SID at Division III Salisbury University in Maryland. "Even the human-interest angles are usually things we've incorporated in a press release, and the sports editor will see it and say, 'That's something we'd like to develop further.'" College athletes get pro treatment The other major change in college-sports media is that high-profile college athletes such as Ohio State University running back Maurice Clarett, whose suspension for allegedly lying to both police and college officials about an insurance claim made national news, are now being covered the same way as pros. "A decade ago, many of these issues would have been just a local sports story," says Mark Beal, EVP at Alan Taylor Communications and a former staffer in Fordham University's sports information department. "Now these scandals are being covered more widely on a national basis." Lost in much of this scrutiny is the youth of many of the athletes. "A beat writer at a paper near a college who's close to the players realizes that these are young kids, 18 to 21 years old." says Siroty. "So their natural reaction is to give them second or third tries because they're young." But many of the journalists who cover big-time college sports on a national level often don't have the time or the resources to get to know many of the athletes on a personal level. "You have people who are draftniks and publications that just cover recruiting, so people are watching every single thing an athlete does," says Michael Olguin, president of Formula PR. Formula represents the Wooden Award, given to the best male - and beginning this year, female - college basketball players of the year. "They can be very unforgiving about it because the expectations are so high for many of these players coming out of high school." Compounding the issue is the fact that many sports information departments are filled with people with little or no formal PR training. That expertise can be found at an outside agency, of course, but Beal says few schools consider that route. "The big reason is budget," he explains. "You have to understand the financial restrictions many sports information departments have. Many of them don't see what the return on investment would be." -----
  • College sports reporters often cover live events well into the night, so never call one early in the day trying to make a pitch.
  • Look for reporters that can generate multiple hits. Getting a story to a journalist at ESPN could mean coverage on TV, as well as its magazine, radio network, and website.
  • Even the worst college teams have a star, so focus on that player to develop a human-interest angle on him or her.

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