Sports Bigwigs–Selig, Stern, Jerry Jones–at ASNE Debate Importance of Newspaper Coverage

By: Joe Strupp

Although baseball commissioner Bud Selig claims that newspaper coverage remains vital to his sport’s promotion, NBA Commissioner David Stern and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said they have no problem bypassing daily papers to get their information out.

“Our game, in my mind, is about numbers,” Jones said to hundreds of editors at the American Society of Newspaper Editors conference Thursday morning. “We are successful because we have people who get excited about our game. Our tension [between newspapers and teams] is because we both have our eye on the same thing — getting our information out exclusively.”

Jones, Stern and Selig joined NASCAR CEO Brian France in a discussion led by Washington Post Sports Columnist Michael Wilbon, in which they talked about the growing battle between news outlets and sports teams over exclusive information, access to players and even funding of new stadiums.

Wilbon launched the talk by asking the executives about the growth of online sites where teams, and often players, can break stories or get opinions out directly to fans, leaving some sportswriters out. “It certainly isn’t typical of our sport,” Selig claimed. “There is enormous access.” Selig also said that he considered newspapers as important as ever to baseball. “When the print media has access, the coverage we get is the primary source of continuing knowledge to our fans on a daily basis,” he said. “Do I believe the coverage is essential? Yes I do.”

But Jones and Stern, who agreed that working with mainstream media is still important, said it is hardly the necessity it had been in the past. “It is important to do that, but it is not as important as it used to be,” Stern said. “You need just look at the numbers. Look at the percentage of youngsters who read [or don’t read] newspapers online.”

Jones said he is more interested in promoting the games through any outlets, including the Cowboy’s own Web site and other exclusive areas, than serving newspapers. “You want to take information, stream it out there and put it out there,” Jones said. “I like that.” But he added, “how do we take that challenge on with you and through you and keep it as exclusive as we can?”

Jones also pointed out that the changing aspects of the Internet require teams and leagues to take advantage now. “This Internet thing has broken traditional lines that we’ve always had,” he said of the sports-media relationship. “None of us are smart enough to know where we’ll be in five years.”

NASCAR’s France too a different view, noting that his organization has opened up access more than ever and seeks news coverage in all forms. “We’ve got to create interest for the masses,” he said, describing NASCAR as “an undercovered sport.” “When we are in The New York Times and the Dallas Morning News, that is credible for us.”

Wilbon then brought up the aspect of press access at games, noting that some sportswriters who could sit courtside at an NBA game, are being shoved to lesser seats. “A print reporter is less likely to be able to deliver to readers what it felt like, what it sounded like,” Wilbon said about the impact. He cited a playoff game last season in Cleveland between the Washington Wizards and the Cleveland Cavaliers in which he was lucky to get a court-side seat and hear the Cleveland coach yelling directions to a player in the final minutes. “Television did not get that,” he said.

Stern offered a stark response, noting that increased press attention at games, and more money that can be made selling courtside seats to fans, are realities. “The coverage has changed and we are changing the setting of the game,” he admitted, noting that Chinese star Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets can have up to 30 Asian media outlets covering him. “There is an enormous amount of competition?newspapers feel it acutely.”

Jones, who said he often watches Cowboys games from the end zone, offered no apologies for teams selling potential media spots to fans. “Obviously, someone is paying the premium for those seats,” he said. “The value is there.”

When asked specifically about team Web sites and player blogs, The owners also defended the new direct promotion. “It is another kind of access and the stories get picked up the following day [in print],” Stern said. Selig agreed, adding “it is another means of access. Does it makes your jobs different, yes. But sports are different.”

During the question and answer period, several editors took on the role of reporters, grilling the owners about issues in their communities, from public stadium funding to teams moving from city to city. Martin Kaiser of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which Selig said he has delivered to his home, asked the baseball commissioner why more hasn’t been done to provide a balance among larger teams and the smaller teams, such as the Milwaukee Brewers, which Selig’s family owns.

“People are saying 22 to 25 clubs have a chance out of 30,” Selig contended. “I think you’ll see it in your newspaper. People don’t understand, in some cases, how the landscape has dramatically changed.” But he added, “there is always more that needs to be done.”

David Zeeck, editor of The News-Tribune in Tacoma, Wash., and ASNE president, asked why more teams cannot fund new stadiums instead of seeking help from public entities and taxpayers. Jones, whose team is helping to build a $1 billion new stadium for the Cowboys, argued that the new stadiums help both the communities and the teams.

“You must have a mentality of growing the pie,” Jones said. “This game can’t become a stuck game, it has to have the pageantry.” Selig offered a similar view, saying “it is always interesting to me how people will focus on the cost, but you have to ask ‘will this community be a better place?’ And what are the economic returns to the city and the state?”

But he editors weren’t letting up. David Boardman, executive editor of The Seattle Times, cited the potential loss of the Seattle Supersonics to Oklahoma if a planned new arena is not built.? He asked Stern directly about the dangers of having teams move too often.

“You certainly have stated it neutrally,” Stern said. “There are enormous pressures on sports teams, on owners to create maximum dollars to compete,” he said. “The best way to do that is if something gets built, it gets built with the requirement that the team stays.” He than added, “Am I answering your question? I am trying to, despite its hostility.”

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