Did NCAA Foul With Ban of Online Reporters?

By: Steve Outing

The National Collegiate Athletic Association's (NCAA) biggest event of the year, The Final Four men's and women's U.S. basketball championships, is history. As always, the tournament was well covered by the media. But online sports services -- with the exception of a Web site sanctioned by the NCAA -- worked at a disadvantage: they were denied press credentials to cover the action.

Online sports editors are steaming mad over the NCAA policy, which denied press credentials to "representatives staffing Web sites" and online services for last weekend's men's and women's Final Four games. Well established online sports services like CBS Sportsline and ESPNet SportsZone were forced to find alternative ways to cover the basketball championships, since their working online reporters weren't allowed on the floor.

The NCAA's reasoning for excluding online reporters purportedly was because of lack of physical space to accommodate all the journalists who wanted to cover the games. The decision was made also to block out other online services in favor of an exclusive, NCAA-sponsored tournament Web service produced by TotalSports and Host Communications Inc.

Sorry, you're not invited

Sports online sites like CBS SportsLine had to execute Plan B in order to cover the Final Four. According to managing editor Mike Kahn, SportsLine used its team of stringers, many of whom are columnists who work for U.S. newspapers and thus already are entitled to NCAA press credentials, for tournament coverage. He had planned initially to send a team of online staff reporters out to cover the various game venues. A portion of the site's coverage came instead from SportsLine staff reporting from satellite transmissions of the games. "It's not all that we wanted, obviously, but it was better than nothing," Kahn says.

At USA Today Online, which puts a heavy emphasis on covering college sports, the denial of credentials to two online reporters prompted a call to arms. USA Today president Thomas Curley sent a letter to NCAA officials, urging them to rescind their ban on online reporters. In his letter, he pointed out that two NCAA officials had told USA Today online managers that the policy was instituted because, in part, the NCAA had its own Web site for tournament coverage.

"The NCAA has ... advised Gannett (USA Today's parent company) that the employees of its USA Today Information Network operation will be denied credentials initially requested in our February 6 application on the ground that Gannett operates a website and that would compete against a proprietary website of the NCAA," Curley wrote. "The position of the NCAA is as unconstitutional as it is anti-competitive, high-handed and unfair." USA Today's position is that the tournament was held in a municipally owned stadium, and there is case law that would indicate that it is illegal to deny the press access to such an event.

USA Today Information Network vice president and general manager Lorraine Cichowski said that as of late Monday, top NCAA officials had not responded to Curley's letter, which was faxed to their hotel rooms during the tournament last Thursday.

Concerned that the NCAA action could set a bad precedent, Cichowski says USA Today "plans to pursue the matter. ... We're discussing the next step with our lawyers and will be making a decision in the next couple of days on where to go with this," she says.

SportsLine's Kahn says that his organization has not previously been denied press credentials for any professional sports championship, and has succeeded in getting in to most college sports championships. He's hopeful that the issue can be resolved this summer, before the start of the college football season.

The issue is coming to a head this year, as online services become more mainstream and well used. "There's so much noise (about online and the Internet) that the NCAA will have to address" this issue this year, Kahn says.

Some of the snubbed online editors are incensed at the NCAA's action. Said one online sports manager who asked not to be identified, "This is the most ludicrous job of marketing I've ever seen." It's particularly perplexing that online press should be blocked from covering the women's basketball games, says the online manager, since typically the NCAA begs for more coverage.

NCAA's own site hits it big

The subject of much of this controversy, the "official" NCAA Final Four site, proved to be a big draw on the World Wide Web. The site experienced about 10 million page views during the run of the tournament, March 13-31, according to George Schlukbier, president of TotalSports, which produced the live "cybercast" site for the Final Four.

TotalSports was the official, exclusive Web site vendor for the NCAA. It worked in conjunction with Host Communications Inc. of Lexington, Kentucky, which has been the marketing agent for the NCAA for nearly two decades. TotalSports put a small Internet team at each stadium site, providing them with ISDN lines, digital cameras and laptops to cover the games. The on-site teams recorded game statistics instantly to the Web site, while a central "cyber-center" team in Raleigh, North Carolina, wrote up game summaries while watching the televised games. The NCAA Web site was designed to accommodate huge traffic bursts, and its servers were connected to the Internet with a T-3 line, according to Schlukbier.

The site was designed to offer live updates of the games in progress, and Schlukbier says that usage of the site was greatest during workdays, as office workers connected to the Internet checked in on the championship. Overseas activity also was high.

(Schlukbier is a familiar figure to many in the online newspaper services business. He most recently was an executive with Koz Inc., the company founded by veterans of Nando.net, the pioneering online news service of McClatchy Newspapers. Koz chairman Frank Daniels III, Nando's original founder, is also an executive with TotalSports. The NCAA Final Four site was the company's first major news Web site contract.)

Says Schlukbier of the NCAA controversy over denying online reporters Final Four credentials, "It's the NCAA's tournament," and they're entitled to manage it as they see fit. The basic problem was that press space at Final Four venues could not accommodate all the journalists who wanted to attend, so some restrictions had to be applied. Even some reporters from "traditional" media could not be accommodated with press credentials, he points out.

(NCAA officials could not be reached for comment in time for this column.)


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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