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Eschewing the Media Bundle and Related Challenges for the Athletics Department

By Dr. Steve Dittmore

I was waiting at my local barber shop this weekend for my back-to-school cut when I noticed a gentleman open a full Saturday morning local newspaper, pull out the sports section, and discard the rest. The moment perfectly encapsulated the problem with the local media bundle. Consumers who want sports pay for local city council news, opinion, and business news, whether they consume it or not.


We have seen decreases in the number of cable and satellite subscribers as the number of consumer alternatives has risen. Skinny bundles and OTT services are challenging the traditional cable television typology. Podcasts are breaking up the radio typology. In some ways, the local newspaper is the last true media bundle. This begs the question of how much longer consumers, interested in sports, will be willing to pay for content they do not want?


The answer to that question will determine the success or failure of new localized media sites such as DK Pittsburgh Sports, Boston Sports Journal and The Athletic, all of whom are betting that consumers are willing to pay for the sports news and analysis they want. The historic media typologies of “print” and “broadcast” media are long gone and sites such as these are emerging as an alternative – one which speaks to today’s media consumption environment by providing thoughtful analysis, focused on a local favorite team.


Billed by CEO Alex Mather as “local sportswriting for diehard fans,” The Athletic has grown from a Chicago-focused site founded in February 2016, to five city sites (Toronto, Cleveland, Detroit, plus Bay Area and Chicago) and two yet-to-be launched vertical sites focused on college football (The All-American with Stewart Mandel) and college basketball (The Field House with Seth Davis). It is larger in scale and scope than the independent Pittsburgh and Boston sites, but the emerging typology is interesting.


Listening to Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch’s recent interview with Tim Kawakami, former San Jose Mercury News writer and current editor-in-chief of The Athletic Bay Area, it is clear the intent is to eschew the traditional media bundle and target specific consumers. The Athletic’s strategy appears to target “big name” writers and turn them loose behind a paywall to offer locally-focused “insider” perspectives. This approach, bringing together known personalities such as Kawakami, Mandel, and Davis, was first employed last year when three veteran and respected college football writers, with different regional angles, combined to form TMG College Sports. Their goal was to transfer their collective 100-plus years of experience into a credible, subscription-based site directed at hardcore college football fans. At $19.95 per year, TMG’s rates were more affordable than many annual legacy media subscriptions (The Athletic appears to be priced around $40.00 per year). One of TMG’s founders, former Los Angeles Times writer Chris Dufresne, told Poynter last September the goal was to make enough to cover travel expenses and have a little leftover.


One year later, Dufresne says the model is working. The site created 539 posts in year one. “Credibility is the least of our concerns. We want to bring insight and equity to the table.” Dufresne says he consumes information from all over, what he calls “informational skimming.” “I’m looking for tidbits which will be interesting. I’m not going to listen to 14 coaches on a conference call talk about depth at backup tackle.”


However, as a national site which does not cover any singular team on a daily basis and provides mostly analysis (the gamer is “essentially dead,” Dufresne said), TMG does not fit into a traditional media typology. It is not print in the sense that newspapers historically reported on the facts of what happened in a game (although columnists have long provided analyses). It does not produce video content.


The founders of TMG, DK Pittsburgh and Boston Sports Journal all saw what The Athletic is seeing now – traditional media typologies are dead. It is no longer instructive to think of mass media as merely print or broadcast. Technology has blurred the lines of the traditional classification of print or electronic journalism. Writers now shoot video. Broadcasters now write copy. They all take pictures and they all Tweet.


What has not died is the passion sports fans have for news and analysis of their favorite teams. This often manifests itself with fans seeking information from a variety of sources – local and national media, sport-specific media, bloggers, and organizational media. Fans increasingly consume all sources of information, and on many platforms, failing to differentiate between the pillars of traditional mass media and forms of new media.


Given the changed media typology, I was amazed by the number of college athletic department media credential policies which continue to categorize requests by traditional monikers such as “newspapers” or “television” or “radio.” Many read as if they have not been evaluated in a decade, and often seem restrictive in nature.


References to online media websites were not specific, if mentioned at all, and often left the decision about credentialing to the subjective determination of the communications staff. Consider the University of Washington policy, which is pretty straight forward: “Credentials will be issued to websites on a case-by-case basis at the discretion of the University of Washington Office of Athletic Communications.”


Some universities place conditions on the types of websites they will credential. The University of Maryland policy, for example, implies the institution will only consider online entities based on affiliation with a “national or regional media organization” or those that “regularly or substantially report” on Maryland, and register a minimum 20,000 users over 12 months. Washington goes a step further, emphasizing original content: “Priority will be given to websites that are affiliated with an accredited media outlet. Websites must have editorial, news-gathering content and not merely sponsor message boards, message centers or chat rooms where people are allowed to post anonymous information.”


Adding to the vagarity of how online media organizations are perceived, the University of Tennessee’s policy states “credentials may not be granted to ‘freelance’ or ‘fan-based’ entities that are not affiliated with a legitimate, proven news-gathering organization.” Of course the word “may” leaves the door open for Tennessee to credential a “fan-based” entity but the language about affiliation with a  “legitimate, proven news-gathering organization” certainly invites debate as to its meaning.


Legitimate and proven implies there exists a readily measurable distinction among media organizations. Again, this is where having a priori media typologies of print and broadcast is helpful, but not necessarily representative of the current media climate. Local broadcast news organizations can be evaluated through ratings; print organizations such as newspapers and magazines can be measured by number of subscribers. Clearly, reach is a useful metric.


But what about impact? Dufresne was quoted in the 2016 Poynter story saying the TMG site had 250 subscribers. Many fan blogs will have greater reach than that. But TMG has 100-plus years of experience. That certainly meets the criteria of a legitimate and proven news organization, right?


However, using steadfast criteria (and what is the point of establishing criteria if the athletic department is not going to enforce it), a site like TMG might not receive credentials. All three writers were credentialed to cover the College Football Playoff Championship in Tampa last January, more than Dufresne’s old employer, the Los Angeles Times. Dufresne also attended the Pac-12 Championship and the Rose Bowl, and said he attend more games in 2017, including Texas A&M at UCLA and Texas at USC, both in September.


So, will this new typology of media sites further strain the relationship between athletic communications staff, who process credential requests and manage finite space in a press box, and the media? Already this month we have seen several instances of media push back on athletic departments (see Tennessee, Notre Dame and LSU and Texas) attempting to control what information media disseminate when (and if) they are allowed to attend practices. The media-athletic department relationship has become so contentious, Matt Yoder of Awful Announcing was prompted to ask earlier this month, “What was the last major program to become more media friendly?


I asked two former FBS Power 5 football communications professionals (not sports information directors) how they evaluated credential requests from online news sites. Both stated they looked favorably upon a national relationship, and pointed toward the Yahoo-Rivals partnership as giving Rivals credibility. They also looked at whether the site made an effort to cover the team on a regular basis – criteria in line with Maryland’s policy.


But consider the comparison between TMG, DK Pittsburgh or The Athletic and, say, the SB Nation collection of sites, many of which were started by fans with an interest in, or brief background in, journalism. Just this week, Deadspin reported site managers with SB Nation are paid around $600 per month and that many site managers are “hobbyists” and not full-time journalists. However, SB Nation is owned by Vox Media, which is a major venture capital play. Its investors include Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis (who also owns the OTT network, Monumental Sports & Entertainment) as well as NBC Universal. The national network, and legacy media connection through NBCU, probably gives more overall exposure and reach. But who would an athletic director prefer to be credentialed? A writer from The Athletic with dozens of years in the local market, or an SB Nation reporter authoring a dozen posts per day as a hobby?


Deciding where to draw the line on credential requests in the era of new media typologies is difficult. The University of Arizona states it evaluates credential requests “in accordance with FWAA and Arizona Athletics guidelines.” The Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) is an organization with more than 1,000 members and has been in existence since 1941 and serves as a useful guide in considering requests. Several writers from TMG and The All-American serve as FWAA-NFF Super 16 voters. No one with SB Nation ties does.


Ultimately, athletic communications staff must balance a desire to have a full press box, with granting access to those organizations with a legitimate working need, and a legitimate audience. The number of media sites reporting on college sports is increasing (we didn’t even get to Gridiron Now, SEC Country, Land of 10, Saturday Down South, etc.), but how many are working on a deadline? Does the local talk radio station need four credentials when their next talk show will be 48 hours later during Monday drive time?


Credential policies are useful inasmuch as they provide guidance for organizations to communicate rationale for decision-making. It is critical that athletic departments develop media policies reflective of the changing environment, and that those policies are reviewed regularly and enforced consistently.