Coverage of professional sports is trickier than it used to be, with more scoop-hungry outlets across print, TV, radio, and the web turning their eyes on players' on- and off-field adventures.
There may not be a better time to be a fan of a professional sports team. In addition to the traditional coverage provided by newspapers and TV, professional sports has seen an explosion of coverage from websites, along with a dramatic rise in the number of sports radio outlets.
But that doesn't necessarily mean there are more sports reporters covering professional teams. Despite their popularity, sports sections have been hit just as hard during the advertising slump as other journalistic categories.
"We have about the same number of beat writers covering the team as in years past, but the number of reporters who travel with the team is less," says John Olguin, director of PR for the Los Angeles Dodgers. "Right now we have a number of reporters who cover the team when we're at home only. The other change is that because of the consolidation of a lot of papers, now you have one beat guy who writes for a lot of newspapers."
One trend that shows no sign of abating is the increased interest in off-the-field stories. Not only are sports sections filled with stories on TV contracts, salary caps, and new stadium deals, but there continues to be an obsession among sports reporters with what professional athletes do in their spare time. "We definitely are in a society now where players in all sports are under a lot more scrutiny," says Mike Hanson, executive director of communications for the NBA's Portland Trailblazers. "I don't think the off-field stuff was ever publicized as much as it is now."
The Trailblazers are a good example of a team that has done relatively well on the court, but seen that performance overshadowed somewhat by coverage of a few of its players off the court, especially their altercations with the law. Hanson says that presents a PR challenge, one he's tried to address head-on by making sure both the players and the front-office personnel are comfortable with the media scrutiny, and understand why reporters are pursuing a certain line of questioning.
Hanson, who's also worked for the Florida Panthers hockey team as well as the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins football teams, notes that the tone of sports coverage is changing. "It hasn't necessarily become more adversarial, but everybody's trying to create a scoop and everybody's trying to be in the know," he says. "So certain things tend to be sensationalized at times."
For that you can thank the fierce competition among websites and sports talk-radio outlets not only to break stories, but also to offer the strongest commentary and get the best interviews. "The emergence of sports talk radio has made our jobs all the more difficult," notes Olguin. "I get 15 to 20 calls a day from radio stations, and they'll all claim to be, say, Fox Sports, when it turns out it's Fox Sports Duluth. Radio is also the toughest to handle because it requires you to have a player at a certain place at a certain time."
PR people for sports teams say that one of the biggest chores they face is shooting down rumors that involve their team, many of which may have originated on a website or in a blind print item, and quickly spread across the country. "Almost invariably, you spend part of your day telling people, 'No, that's not true,'" says Hanson. "A lot of misinformation is borne out of people trying to get the scoop, and that creates more trouble for us."
Given the amount of time athletes spend in front of cameras, microphones, and tape recorders during the season, most teams take the time to give their players some media training. "Especially with the rookies and younger players coming in, we do a lot of explaining to them about the necessity of the media because they are the outlet to our fan base," says Scott Hagel, director of PR for the NFL's Chicago Bears. "Because of the way the NFL is with the scouting services, you get a lot of smaller-school players coming into the league who may not have had the same type of media exposure that somebody from Notre Dame or Florida State may have had."
Media training early on
Olguin says the Dodgers do their media training while the players are still in the minor leagues. "We have them in large groups and do mock interviews, and tell them things to look out for, why the beat guy is important, and why it's important to give time to broadcasters," he says. "Once they get to the majors we don't do as much, but we talk to them constantly, saying, 'Hey, they're going to be coming at you today with this.'"
Some athletes take it a step further and work with their agents or managers on getting even more media training, especially if they're eyeing a career as a spokesman or announcer when their playing days are over. "The stakes are increasingly higher because there's more media and a lot of athletes have seen the mistakes made by other athletes in saying the wrong thing," says Linda Dozoretz of Linda Dozoretz Communications, which does PR for talent agency International Management Group. "The teams and the leagues have their own objectives, and that is to promote the sport, whereas the athlete may want to promote a car."
Most fans view professional sports purely in terms of the big four: the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB. But there are a number of other professional leagues that are making inroads into newspapers, magazines, and broadcasting.
The Arena Football League (AFL) recently completed its 17th season, and is only now starting to get mainstream sports coverage, thanks in part to a TV deal with NBC. "2003 was unquestionably the best year ever for mainstream coverage, not just from beat reporters, which every team now has, but also from major publications like Sports Illustrated, which did two articles, Time, and Esquire," says Chris McCloskey, AFL VP of communications.
While in the past the AFL has gotten some coverage from the fact that NFL stars such as Kurt Warner honed their skills in the indoor game, McCloskey says the league doesn't play that up anymore because it doesn't want to be perceived as a developmental league. Instead, the AFL has been reaching out to TV and finance writers, noting that arena games now get similar ratings to ice hockey and Major League Soccer, and that the value of AFL franchises has soared from $400,000 seven years ago to $12 million today.
Peter Land, general manager of Edelman's sports and entertainment practice, has worked with Major League Baseball and the NFL, and this year was hired by the AFL to do pre-season media outreach to the lifestyle and business press. Land says many teams and leagues view generating coverage outside the sports pages as the key to their long-term future. "You need personality stories, you need business stories. You need stories that go beyond the sports pages because that non-traditional coverage is what brings new people to that sport," he says.
Where to go
Newspapers USA Today; New York Post; New York Daily News; Los Angeles Times; The Miami Herald; Chicago Tribune; The Boston Globe; Rocky Mountain News
Magazines Sports Illustrated; ESPN The Magazine; The Sporting News; Slam; NBA Hoop; NBA Inside Stuff; Hockey News; Athlon Sports annuals; Esquire; Maxim; Street & Smith's Pro Football; Sports Business Journal; BusinessWeek
TV & Radio ESPN; Fox Sports News; ABC World News; ESPN Radio; local and regional sports radio networks