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Thursday, August 09, 2007
 
Don't Print That! Teams and Leagues Limit Media Access to Boost Online Profits

Official websites for professional teams and leagues have become much more useful over the last few years. The days of those websites resembling bland, propaganda-style news sources are long gone. Just check out MLB.com, which, to me, seems like the best league website. Most usefully, it freely provides the gameday service, "a near-live streaming box score of baseball games," as well as plenty of other content that frequently brings readers back--and back they come, as MLB.com averages approximately 7 million hits a day. Many individual teams have developed good websites as well, sometimes delivering videos and photos that aren't available elsewhere. Others just look cool, like the website for the Portland Trailblazers, which offers a artistic display of their players.

Those websites are not only bringing in viewers, they are also bringing in money. Plenty of tickets, merchandise, and memorabilia are sold through team and league websites, as are exclusive services for readers willing to pay fees. Just consider how MLB Advanced Media, which is MLB's media and Internet company, has annual revenue of $400 million.

So as official websites for teams and leagues become more visited and lucrative, its not surprising that those teams and leagues are developing commercially-viable ways to directly inform fans, as opposed to (or in addition to) sharing a message with the media, which in turn shares it with fans, hoping to sell newspapers and local ad revenue in the process. Indeed, teams no longer have to rely on the local media to report on them in the next day's newspaper--teams can just post their story on their website, which the newspaper's website can immediately comment on, but so too can ESPN.com or a fan-run website, blog, message board, or related website. Sure, I still want to read the Boston Globe writing about about the Celtics possibly signing Reggie Miller in the next morning's newspaper, but I'm more likely to learn of that info from Celtics Blog or True Hoop, and to learn the moment the news becomes available.

None of this is really all that Earth-shattering. In a day and age when voters can directly ask presidential candidates questions in a televised debate, and where those same candidates can speak to voters through blogs rather than solely through the filter of the New York Times or Washington Post, the media's role has changed, with newsworthy persons better able to directly communicate to their own targeted audience.

But can teams and leagues go too far in essentially competing with the media? David Williams of the Memphis Commercial Appeal has an excellent column on this topic, particularly as it relates to the NFL trying to "control the message" and, in turn, make a lot of money. He interviewed me for the piece, and here are some excerpts from it:
The National Football League, in a move that would seem to steer traffic to its own NFL.com site, is limiting media outlets to 45 seconds of online audio and video from interviews and press conferences. The league also says the footage must be removed within 24 hours. [a topic Rick blogged about in September 2006]

In another rule, the league says news photographers at NFL events must wear red vests bearing the logos of NFL sponsor Canon and licensee Reebok -- turning photojournalists into "walking billboards," according to a national editors organization.

What next? Will other sports entities -- NASCAR or the LPGA, say -- claim rights to media photos shot during their events? There are reports of it already happening.

And in June, a reporter from Louisville's Courier-Journal was tossed from an NCAA post-season baseball game over in-game blogging. [a topic Howard blogged about in June]

"What we want to do is our job," said Karen Magnuson, editor and vice president of news at the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle. "We've served the public in the past without any restrictions and want to continue without any restrictions -- no matter what platform we're working on."

Magnuson is president of the Associated Press Managing Editors, an organization of U.S. and Canadian editors whose newspapers are members of The AP. In her president's role, she's written letters of complaint to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

"We recognize the importance of the Internet to traditional media organizations," said NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy. "But at the same time, we also are in the business, as well. So we're trying to find that balance."

What's happened is that the world has changed -- newspapers don't just print news on paper. Faced with declining print advertising revenue, they're morphing into multimedia companies, with streaming audio and video, blogging and, in the case of this newspaper, "AppealTV."

* * *

. . . [A]s Magnuson wrote in her letter to Goodell, "In effect, the photographers will become walking billboards for NFL sponsors."

McCarthy said such complaints are vastly overstated, in terms of logo size and league intent. He said Reebok made the vests, Canon paid for them, and the logos "can only be seen from a few feet away. You could measure it, but it's something like less than one inch in height and less than two inches in width."

On the vest issue -- or "Vestgate," as it was dubbed on a Web site for professional photographers -- the media have a valid case, said Michael McCann, an assistant professor at the Mississippi College School of Law and contributor to the Sports Law Blog.

But on matters of online content, McCann said the leagues are rightly protecting their business interests.

"MLB.com is enormously successful, from what I understand," he said. "My sense is that the NFL and the NBA, they look at the Major League Baseball model and say, 'They're making a lot of money out of this. Maybe we should be doing the same thing,' in terms of protecting content -- and restricting access, in essence. That's obviously going to annoy some people, but at the end of the day, they're in it to make money."

Visit NFL.com and it's clear the league would like to be the site for all things NFL. There you can watch video, read commentaries, respond to poll questions, shop for customized jerseys and catch up on the latest news.

There's even -- take that, traditional media -- bad news: "Goodell orders Vick not to report to camp" and "Falcons CB Williams faces marijuana charge" were among the headlined stories on a recent day.

But, journalists counter, NFL.com could never become the definitive news source, because it's not driven by journalistic ideals and ethics.

But McCann, the law professor, said the media shouldn't worry -- that fans would never settle for a league-only perspective.

"I don't believe the teams are going to be able to shut off the media completely and speak directly to fans," he said. "I don't think fans want that. Fans, they don't want to read press releases. Every time a team signs a player, they'll say, 'Terms not disclosed.' Fans don't want that. Plus, other actors are involved. You have players who could speak. You have agents who could speak. So there's still going to be a market that will go beyond the team and the league, no matter what the league and teams try to do to control content."

The NFL's McCarthy also downplays a sense of competition between traditional media and official league media.

"It can be complementary, is the way we look at it," he said, "with our overall goal of spreading the word of football to our fans. It's that balance that I keep coming back to -- which is protecting our media assets with that need to receive extensive news media coverage. . . . "

For the rest of the column, click here. For related posts on Sports Law Blog, see Rick's The NFL's New Sideline Ban: Another League Effort to Control Content and Howard's More Speech Restrictions in Sports: The NCAA and Live-Blogging, New Sports Media v. Old Sports Media, and Credentialing Sports Bloggers. Also, Eric McErlain over on Off Wing also has an excellent post entitled The Final Cut on Media Credential Guidelines, while Beau Dure on USA Today's Sports Scope likewise has a great post entitled This NFL Photo Brought to You By . . .





3 Comments:

The post is an excellent one and I will add one comparative example across the pond. In England, club websites have been an important source of revenue for years. Individual club websites, most of which are administered by premiumtv.co.uk, have long been offering streaming video online, exclusive interviews and newsletters and a slew of other minor perks - all for approximately $75 USD a year. Club websites also aggressively shill not only club and league related merchanise but online casinos as well - a concept nearly unthinkable in North America.

The English Premier League itself likewise has no problem controlling its content for online consumption. The league has granted Bullion International an exclusive license for its mobile and wireless rights in seven countries meaning that competing wireless companies or sports networks offering mobile video cannot offer Premiership highlights without first dealing with Bullion.

Thus, as the Brits have proven, control of online content can be lucrative. However, North American sports leagues and teams should be mindful of the fact that there is much more competition in the sporting landscape over on this side of the Atlantic. The NFL, NBA, MLB, and to a lesser extent, the NHL are engaged in a fierce battle for media exposure and new viewership. All gains made in online sales must be measured against the fact that limiting New Media exposure could anger sports network executives who may choose to highlight a competing product on their website and mobile outlets instead. As I have shown in a previous piece on how ESPN is killing the NHL (http://thesituationist.wordpress.com/2007/07/02/negative-press-is-espn-is-killing-the-national-hockey-league-by-influencing-public-attitudes/) the sports media holds an inordinate amount of sway in the United States and can slowly turn the tide of public opinion for or against certain sports over a prolonged period of time by choosing to either ignore or highlight it across their various platforms, including their online and mobile outlets. Sports leagues in North America should be mindful not to bite the hand that feeds it (exorbitant rights fees).

Anonymous Jason Chung -- 8/10/2007 4:11 AM  


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Blogger G. Petrovic -- 8/14/2007 1:58 AM  


To give proper credit here -- Devin Clancy was working the Sports Scope blog that day.

Blogger bdure -- 8/20/2007 10:29 PM  


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