BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. Back in October, we spoke with veteran sports reporter Rich Hammond who, after a decade covering the Los Angeles Kings Hockey Team for The L.A. Daily News, had been hired to cover the Kings for – the Kings. To bypass the pesky media and to get news directly to the fans, leagues and conferences and teams have been cultivating their own websites, television networks and even hiring veteran sports broadcasters. Here’s NBC’s Bob Costas for the Major League Baseball Network.
BOB COSTAS: Does today feel better in some sense because at least you’re unburdening —yourself? MARK McGWIRE: I don't know. I mean, it just – I mean, all I’ve wanted to do is come clean. [SNIFFS]
BOB GARFIELD: That was Costas last month with former St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire, after McGwire had admitted to using steroids during his playing days. It was an eye-opener, but what McGwire said was not nearly as important as where he said it, or anyway, so argues Tim Franklin, director of the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University.
TIM FRANKLIN: I really think that this was a watershed moment in the transformation of sports media in America. It’s really the first mega story that was broken on a league-owned network, and I think it symbolizes the paradigm shift from traditional legacy news organizations to new media, and in sports, especially, to league-owned, team-owned, conference-owned networks and websites. The reason is that sports online and on cable and satellite is exploding, and the leagues want a cut of that revenue.
BOB GARFIELD: Let me stop you there because the leagues have already gotten a cut of that revenue. They've sold rights to their games to the networks and to ESPN for the whole history of broadcasts. What they want is a much bigger cut [LAUGHS] of the revenue, no?
TIM FRANKLIN: Absolutely. I mean, I've seen projections that online ad revenue, for example, to sports media sites will double in the five-year period that ends in 2012. It could be a three-billion-dollar revenue stream into sports websites. So we're talking about a very large amount of money. And the leagues and the conferences and the teams, which have all been impacted by the great recession of the last couple of years, they see this money flowing into digital and they want a piece of it, a must-have credibility.
BOB GARFIELD: We'll get to the conflict of interest issues in just a moment, but first I want to talk about the emergence of these channels. I guess sort of under the radar, MLB and the NFL developed their own cable channels in the last ten years or so, and it seems like every football conference out there – and I know there’s a Big Ten TV – there’s even a Big Sky Conference [LAUGHS] regional sports channel. You know, and I'm talking about these juggernauts like Weber State and Montana State -
TIM FRANKLIN: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: - with their own cable channel. Where did these channels all come from?
TIM FRANKLIN: Well, you’re absolutely right. There are now more than 50 regional sports cable channels across the country. The Big Ten Network is now in its third year, already profitable, by the way. And there’s buzz that many of the major conferences may have their own networks in the near future. And the reason is they see the business model of subscription fees and advertising revenue as being large enough that they can profit from creating their own networks. So there is a powerful economic incentive. And also, when they're not broadcasting games, it’s an opportunity for universities to get the word out about academic programs, in addition to sports programs. So the conferences, I think, really have a powerful incentive to create these networks, and I think you’re going to see more of ‘em.
BOB GARFIELD: So I want to get back to the McGwire interview as being the watershed that you say it is. It gives legitimacy, you say, to the MLB Network, not just as a purveyor of baseball games but as a news site about baseball. Is that the nub of the situation?
TIM FRANKLIN: Yes, it is. They broke a major national story on their network, and I think you’re going to be seeing more of that. I think it’s a trend that’s about to take off in major league baseball, the NFL, the NBA and the other networks, for economic reasons, and also because of the ability to have a little bit more control perhaps over the message. So what does it mean? It means that fans will have even more choice, much more availability of news and information about their teams than they've ever had. The question, though, I think some journalists have is that fans and readers don't know what they don't know. They don't know if the hard question was asked. So there are questions about this, but in the end, it does mean more content, more stories, more statistics, more blogs about sports.
BOB GARFIELD: But more of what? In the Costas interview with McGwire, he took some flak for not having pressed McGwire on his claim that even without the steroids he would have broken the single season baseball home run record. The larger question is, as we see more and more journalists going from newspapers to the direct employ of the very teams they cover, can we trust them to have an arms-length relationship with the teams they're supposedly covering, and do you think the viewer will never figure out that something is amiss here?
TIM FRANKLIN: I think it’s too early to know what the full impact of this is going to be because we're so early in the trend. But I do think that readers are going to have to be discerning. And, just as in politics you read perhaps many different websites or different newspapers, different news outlets, you may need to do the same in sports and then do the compare-and-contrast. I think, though, that the league and conferences and teams do want credibility on their websites, and I think that does mean reporting some of the hard stories. Are they going to break a scandal on their site? I don't think we know the answer to that yet.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Tim, thank you so much.
TIM FRANKLIN: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Former Baltimore Sun executive editor Tim Franklin is the director of the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University.