The Washington Post's Paul Farhi produced a well-reported piece yesterday about the entry of sports franchises—both professional and collegiate—into the news business.
Many teams and leagues that have established their own "news" organizations now ration access to team sources, even restricting how many photos that press photographers can take. High-school teams have entered the media biz, too, Farhi continues. In Wisconsin, the exclusive rights to stream high-school sports events to the Internet belong to a private company. Last year, the University of Iowa blocked the state's biggest newspaper from interviewing the new basketball coach until he could speak to the Big Ten Network, a TV outlet owned in part by the university. Everywhere, teams are launching their own Web sites, going into direct competition with the established press for sporting news.
Here in Washington, Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, has rolled media outlets that use Redskins in the title of their shows or blogs, including the Washington Post, whose parent company also owns Slate. Farhi writes that the team now only permits " 'authorized' uses of its name—that is, under contractual agreement."
The Post article reprises some of the points reported by Dave McKenna in Washington City Paper four years ago in a piece titled "The Anti-Media Media." In it, McKenna disparaged Snyder for attempting to corner the Redskins news business by buying up Redskins-themed magazines and Web sites as well as consolidating his hold on the local half-hour TV shows about the team.
While Snyder's media grab raised McKenna's dander, mine stayed sleek and close to my scalp where it remains to this day. You don't have to like Dan Snyder—I don't—or any team owner or league to appreciate that they are in the entertainment business. News organizations have as much legal right to talk to team personnel, stream video or take pictures from the sidelines, or use trademarked names in a commercial manner as the New York Times has to talk to Steven Spielberg, shoot video on the Universal soundstage while a movie is in production, and (I waffle a little bit here) publish a magazine or column called "The Universal Studios Insider."
That is, no right. And the same goes for performances of Swan Lake, revivals of Death of a Salesman, or stadium dates for the Who's latest farewell tour. The press has no inalienable right to shoot pictures of performers during their acts or interview them in their makeup rooms before or after shows. If the Who wants to make its own movie, its own magazine or Web site, or produce its own book and not cooperate with the conventional media in producing similar products, that's the Who's prerogative. What's good for the Who should be good for the Washington Redskins.
I find it surprising that it's taken this long for pro teams, colleges, and high schools to fully realize themselves as commercial entities. But having done so, they now intend to harvest as much of the dough generated by their games as possible. The NFL, NBA, and MLB have all established their own cable networks. Most big-market professional baseball teams are heavily invested in their own cable networks, and practically everywhere a new stadium rises, teams labor to expand the facilities' footprints so they can capture as much of the concessions and parking revenue as possible. The competition to maximize team revenue has become a better spectacle than the one waged on many fields and courts.
That Wisconsin high-school sports events have become commercialized shouldn't strike us as extreme. Little League Baseball, which fields prepubescent squads, has been selling the TV rights to its championship series for generations. As long as team owners grub for dollars in a law-abiding manner to create products that consumers will buy and advertisers will support, where can there be an argument? I made many of these points in 2006, following McKenna's blasts.
Snyder's crackdown on the commercial use of the Redskins name doesn't upset me, either. It won't have any direct effect on news coverage—or even on fair-use deployment of the Redskins logo. Journalists will still be allowed to use the word Redskins in headlines or in their copy as many times as they wish without having to meet Snyder in court—where he's taken Washington City Paper in a silly libel action over a McKenna feature.
Teams that steer coaches and players away from outside media and toward in-house outlets will do so at their own risk. The best fans disdain the home-team rah-rah that in-house media tend to produce, although many independent outlets are guilty of printing and broadcasting beat-sweeteners of their own. Intense fan-hood is about arguments about players, trades, and the plays called on the field. Anything that stimulates discussion—even attacks on the owner—increases fan involvement and potential ticket-merchandise sales. By throttling outside media, teams lower the conversation's temperature. That's their right, of course, but it's stupid.
Or maybe not. Perhaps most sports fans want to live in a team-owned universe, suck sodas and beer from a bed of cotton balls, and never hear a negative word about their teams or their players. Perhaps they define news differently than does the press and are less eager for quarterbacks to be held to the same measures of accountability as mayors. Maybe those fans deserve team-owned news outlets.
I don't think that, of course—there has never been a better time to be a sports fan. As recently as 1992, I sent a young nephew a $20 check each year to clip all the Detroit Tigers spring-training coverage from the Detroit News and mail it to me. But now, thanks to the Internet and cable, I have a surplus of sophisticated and interesting coverage. I'm as knowledgeable about my team as any Motor City resident. NFL and MLB fans have it the best—they can watch every game if they're ready to pay.
The news blackout instituted by some owners annoys me, but it mostly peeves the members of the sporting press who have come to believe they have a First Amendment right to the locker room. Sports fans and sports will survive this.
I'm still mad at Tom Finkel for not giving me a ticket to even one game in the most recent Tigers-Cardinals World Series—I guess I know who my friends are. Disclosure: Paul Farhi and Dave McKenna are friends of mine. My wife, who works at the Washington Post, edited the Farhi piece. Small universe, eh? Send your picks for the 2011 World Series matchup to firstname.lastname@example.org and drop a bunk on my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)