Pity the poor newspaper. As if it weren't enough that Craigslist and Google are feasting on its advertising revenues, now the owners of professional sport teams are doing their best to seduce and steal readers—and revenues—from the sports pages.
Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder, the biggest little man in the NFL, has purchasedthree Washington-area radio stations and has his eye on more as he builds a sports-based radio network anchored by Redskins games and coverage. This season, Snyder's operation participated in the production of five weekly TV shows and two weekly radio shows about the team. The press has taken notice, particularly Dave McKenna of Washington City Paper, who has written several pieces about Snyder's desire to outflank the Washington Post and communicate directly with the fans. Lorne Manly of the New York Timesand Paul Farhi of the Posthavealso chronicled the Redskins' forays into team-owned media, or what my colleague Bryan Curtis calls "shadow journalism."
McKenna takes a low view of shadow journalism, calling ExtremeSkins.com, a message board site purchased by the team, a Snyder "party organ." He feels the same way about the Redskins' TV shows ("infomercials," he hrumphs), Redskins.com, and Redskins Journal, a previously independent print publication now owned by Snyder.
McKenna's denunciations are, of course, on target. Upon purchasing ExtremeSkins.com, Snyder used it to personally blast local media coverage of his team and his business practices, sounding in the process like a crazed press baron from the yellow journalism era. Manly gives another example of a Redskins party-organ recital. The team unapologetically disintermediated the regular news media early this month by telling them the Redskins' defensive coordinator was not available for interviews. Then the coach sat for a direct-to-fan video chat on Redskins.com and appeared on the local NBC affiliate, interviewed by its sportscaster, who also appears on Redskins-owned TV programming.
The Redskins isn't the only NFL team constructing its own mediaplex. The Dallas Cowboys and the New England Patriots have adopted similar strategies, and the dowdier teams in the league are likely to follow Snyder's example in the coming years. Serious football fans I've talked to love the wealth of statistics, team announcements, and video press conferences available on team-run Web sites. Redskins management calls this mix "unfiltered" information, and some fans are happy to use unfiltered coverage as a supplement to, or a replacement for, the traditional sports page.
In Snyder's defense, the boundary between media companies and sports teams was erased ages ago. If it wasn't when CBS bought the Yankees then it came after Ted Turner bought the Braves, Tribune bought the Cubs, Disney bought the Angels and the Ducks, Cablevision bought the Knicks and Rangers, Rupert bought the Dodgers, and the New York Times Co. bought into the Red Sox. In recent years about 30 pro teams, including the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, Orioles, and Indians have gone the other way to launch regional TV networks of their own, so who's to say that Snyder's moves ain't kosher?
Be that as it may, most journalists scorn corporate-scripted media, and the NFL is nothing if not a corporate behemoth, producing $5.7 billion in annual revenues. But on the continuum from pure entertainment to hard news, where does sports journalism reside? Where should it reside? Football, baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer, and other pro games are nothing if not entertainment. While it's possible to mine hard news from the entertainment industry, most sports coverage is entertainment about entertainment. Pro football and baseball don't receive more ink than pro soccer and hockey because they're more newsworthy or more "important" in any cosmic sense, but because they're more popular. More entertaining.
Sports page coverage of the hiring and firing of coaches, the juggling of lineups, the trades, the drafts, and the disabled lists tends to follow the conventions we associate with quality news journalism. But the primary duty of sports sections, sports magazines, and sports news on television is not to be impartial and objective but to delight and divert the audience, no matter how boring the game or dismal the team. Beat reporters routinely skirt journalistic objectivity to subtly pull for the home team because for fans, reading a neutral account of yesterday's game is like kissing your mother. Many of journalism's best writers are assigned to the sports pages in order to entertain. The ones who don't make the grade can always be retooled into war correspondents.
When Dan Snyder steers his well-paid entertainers toward his own media outlets and makes his Web sites and his TV shows and his weekly newspaper and his radio stations a primary source of Redskins information—and ultimately a new source of revenue—he's only acting rationally. What would be insane is if Snyder cut out the competition altogether by banning Post sportswriters. By leaving ample crumbs on the table for the other media, he can leverage their huge reach to enthuse additional fans, which will allow him to command higher ticket prices, sell more ancillary Redskins goods (apparel, mugs, pennants … anybody for a Redskins cruise?), peddle advertisements, and expand Redskins fanhood into a 12-month moneyspending obsession. Outside media coverage also serves to vent fan anger: Somebody has to attack timid coaching, exorbitant parking fees, high ticket prices, obstructed views, and overpriced stadium beer, and Snyder isn't about to do that.
The old-money gentlemen who still control the NFL might not seem as rapacious as boy-wonder Snyder, but the recent establishment of a 24-hour, 365-day-a-year NFL Network on cable demonstrates a similar intention to harvest maximum profits from their shows—I mean, games. At some near-future point, the NFL season will migrate away from broadcast TV to a league-owned media space, fans will have to pay to watch televised games, and the league's control over the media will make Snyder's recent grab look like a sissy's squeeze.