SBJ/November 13 - 19, 2006/SBJ In Depth

NFL, teams find new ways to deliver, define and control the message they deliver to the public

Members of the news media surround
Washington Redskins running back Clinton
Portis on a staircase inside Redskins Park.

In the back of the lobby at Redskins Park, the Washington Redskins’ headquarters and training facility in Ashburn, Va., sits a state-of-the-art TV studio and adjacent control room. The space previously was a sitting area that often went unused, save the occasional glance out onto the team’s practice fields or as the site of evening Redskins reports by George Michael, sports director of the local NBC affiliate, WRC-TV.

Now it’s a hub of a content-generating factory that pumps out dozens of hours of team-oriented material each week, untouched by the hands, eyes and ears of local media outlets. Coaches’ shows. Nightly news reports. Player interviews. Press conferences. It’s all available on Redskins.com.

It’s also an apt metaphor for the new-look NFL. The league and individual teams, after decades of having the league’s NFL Films serve as the only major in-house source of consumer content, are now pursuing an aggressive march through nearly every facet of the media universe.

The NFL Network, launched in 2003, was undoubtedly a major step. But that venture has since been joined by a recent move to bring the league’s Internet rights in-house and more closely link NFL.com with its TV counterpart.

At the team level, the content shift is arguably even more dramatic. The Redskins not only operate a full slate of programming on their Web site, the club also has purchased a popular Redskins online message board, ExtremeSkins.com. And team owner Dan Snyder’s Red Zebra Broadcasting controls a stable of local radio stations it has branded Triple X ESPN Radio and serves as the Redskins’ new radio home.

And they’re not alone, as franchises across the league are similarly looking to turn their Web sites into full-featured content portals that serve as major fan destinations, and also have become more aggressive in establishing “official” relationships with local TV affiliates to produce and air team-specific programming.

On the surface, the shift does not appear revolutionary. The NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball each employ stables of reporters and editors who cover those leagues and individual teams, and produce high volumes of content for their own Web sites.

NFL Network is a source of league
news and often gains access that other
media outlets do not.

Media company ownership of major league teams, such as the Tribune Co.’s control of the Chicago Cubs and Comcast Corp.’s interest in the Philadelphia Flyers and 76ers, has long been a fixture of those three leagues, as have team-owned regional sports networks. And a handful of team owners, most notably the Dallas Mavericks’ Mark Cuban and the Washington Capitals’ Ted Leonsis, operate active blogs that communicate directly to the public.

But the NFL’s media moves arrive in tandem with increasing restrictions on access to coaches and players by nonaffiliated media, generating a fervent debate over whether the largest and most dominant of all American sports operations is pushing out the media outlets that helped build it in favor of its own destinations.

“It’s not a new concept, but it is new for the NFL,” said broadcast consultant David Pearlman, president of Pearlman Advisors. “These are smart and savvy business moves to generate revenue that is nontraditional in nature rather than just doing a rights deal.”

Unfiltered

The Redskins have surrounded much of their content with the slogan, and some might say mantra, of “unfiltered.” It is true that press conferences and interview segments are typically distributed in their entirety, instead of taking a single sound bite for a newspaper story or evening newscast. But that single word dives deeply into the heart of the team’s access and content debate.

Club officials deny that the establishment of Triple X ESPN Radio and the Web site ramp-up are a response to dissatisfaction with Washington-area media outlets, and insist the primary goal is to serve the insatiable fan appetite for Redskins content. That and, of course, create a new source of sponsorship inventory, one that has been embraced by companies such as Lenovo, Sprint and Re/Max, and additional opportunities to sell fans tickets and merchandise.

“This is something we’ve been wanting to do for several years,” said Karl Swanson, Redskins executive vice president. “It’s only recently where the costs have come down and the bandwidth has gone up to where we felt it made sense. What used to cost millions now costs thousands. At some point, you realize that people are desperate for content, and we are the content.”

Snyder, who did not comment for this article, provided a different version of the story early this year, telling The New York Times, “Columnists, that’s their jobs, that’s their opinions. But when a reporter becomes a columnist, that’s not right. And that happens a lot.”

The Eagles consider their Web site to be
the central nervous system of the team.

The club also has posted several complaints about local media reports, particularly from The Washington Post, on Redskins.com and has kept files of perceived inaccuracies.

The tension with the local media reached another, higher level in January when the Redskins signed assistant coach Gregg Williams to a lucrative three-year contract extension. Redskins.com broke the story, including in its post a video chat with Williams on the site. Williams declined to discuss the pact with print reporters that day, and when his normal briefing day with the press arrived two days later, he indicated he had already discussed the issue, eliminating any opportunity for writers to query Williams directly.

Swanson said the Williams video, and the scores of other interview clips posted on the Web site since then, have been distributed with the idea of their being available to any reporter to use, including those who cannot make the long commute from downtown Washington to the club’s suburban complex near Dulles International Airport.

“The media doesn’t have any less access to the team,” Swanson said. “It’s the fans who now have more access.” Added Terry Bateman, the team’s new chief marketing officer, “We’re a lot closer to YouTube than ‘60 Minutes.’”

Members of the local press, however, aren’t so sure.

“The tide is definitely turning in a negative direction,” said David Elfin, veteran football writer for The Washington Times and president of the Pro Football Writers of America. “I fear a day when if you don’t pay a rights fee, you don’t get credentialed.”

Even if on-field success has largely eluded Snyder, strong results have come from his increased ownership of media assets. Membership to the ExtremeSkins.com message board has doubled to more than 50,000 under his watch, and traffic counts to Redskins.com have exceeded 1 million unique visitors per month.

A similar dynamic exists up Interstate 95 in Philadelphia, where the Eagles operate an active Web site at philadelphiaeagles.com. Site editor Dave Spadaro said the goal of the team’s online hub is “the first place where the fans go every morning and keep going all day long. We see the Web site as the central nervous system of the team.”

To that end, club officials say 10 percent of their traffic comes from users who visit philadelphiaeagles.com at least 15 times per day. Regular updates come in the form of a message board, online chats, video interviews and news updates.

Spadaro admits he wants his site “certainly to be first” on team news, and as the house organ, owns a key advantage in that regard. But he adds, “We see the local media as a resource. It’s a daily struggle to keep everybody happy, but we spend a lot of time figuring out how to sort of divvy things up.”

A new NFL.com

Strategic rethinking is similarly the order of the day with NFL.com, with the league in October opting to take its Internet rights in-house, spurning offers to sign another deal with CBS SportsLine.com or one of its competitors. NFL.com will relaunch in time for the 2007 season with a bulked-up content offering that includes additional video, including deep access to the NFL Films archive, expanded game highlights, and a repurposing and extending of programming created for the NFL Network.

“We have the opportunity to build a truly integrated news and content company across both platforms,” said Brian Rolapp, the NFL’s vice president of media strategy. “Most other networks, they’ve been around for a long time, so they’ve had the challenge of integrating new media into a much older, established operation. The NFL Network is only three years old, really still in its infancy, so we’ll be building them up simultaneously.”

Rolapp’s overarching thinking on NFL.com is in lockstep with the stated positions of the clubs: the league as an owner and purveyor of content must stay aggressive in propagating that content in order to protect and enhance the league’s brand.

“I don’t think we’re trying to supplant the press. I don’t think we can. There are some stories that we’re not going to cover and they are. And I think one of the reasons the NFL has been successful has been the media. They do a good job covering the league,” Rolapp said. “But we have to continue to innovate and create in order to grow. Otherwise, we’re going to wake up in five years and realize we’re not as popular.”

Broadcast changes

Redskins owner Dan Snyder
has been aggressive in using
various media platforms to
boost sponsorship revenue.

Teams such as the Redskins are also flexing their organizational muscles in radio and TV. The club last month informed WTEM-AM, for 14 years the market’s only sports talk station until the arrival of Triple X ESPN Radio earlier this year, that it was not authorized to air live postgame press conferences from coach Joe Gibbs.

Getting WTEM authorization to run the press conferences would involve writing a check to the Redskins, something TV outlets such as Comcast SportsNet and WRC have done to establish marketing relationships.

Those two outlets have landed the only one-on-one, on-air interviews with Gibbs this season, thus far a tumultuous 3-5 campaign through games of Nov. 5. WRC’s deal with the Redskins allows Michael regular access to Gibbs and the ability to file reports from the studio at Redskins Park.

Those that don’t have such relationships have been forced to rethink how they gather news on the club. WJLA-TV, the local ABC affiliate, for example, must grab players and coaches in the Redskins Park parking lot rather than in the comfort of the complex inside.

“We’re trying to change the way we do things,” said Tim Brandt, WJLA vice president of sports. But he acknowledges, “If I was Dan Snyder, I’d probably be doing the exact same thing.”

And to some, the very notion of midweek reporting from team headquarters is dying out. Barry McBride, publisher of the Orange and Brown Report, which covers the Cleveland Browns, recently wrote that “I don’t go to Berea very often. It’s too much time for too little benefit.”

Said Pearlman, “One-on-one interviews may be replaced by having reporters sit at their desk, listening to interviews on Redskins Radio. But teams can’t eliminate all access. It’s all about the dollars.”

Further amplifying the situation in the case of the Redskins is the relatively small reach of Triple X ESPN Radio. The operation is an amalgamation of three low-wattage radio stations, though Snyder recently applied to the FCC for a power boost to one of the stations.

The broadcast tension exists at the national level as well. The NFL Network is actively seeking to broaden its distribution, profile and profitability, primarily through its new live game broadcast package of eight late-season games on Thursdays and Saturdays. The outlet is also a full-time source of league news, often getting access into areas such as session rooms during owners’ meetings and parts of the predraft combine, that others do not.

“Are we concerned about access as they continue to grow? Yeah, it’s something we’re watching,” said Vince Doria, ESPN senior vice president and director of news. “Thus far, at least from a news-gathering perspective, I’m not seeing anything untoward coming from them that gives me reason for concern.

“From the leagues’ point of view, they’re trying to figure out how to make these businesses profitable, but certainly not looking to kill the cash cows that have been rights holders in the past. They’ve got to figure out what’s a reasonable line to walk.”

Access rules

That line, to many longtime football writers, has been moving a lot in recent months. Fueled in part by New England coach Bill Belichick, who has won three Super Bowls while not allowing his assistants to talk to the media, seven other clubs now have extremely limited or no media access to assistant coaches. Twenty-three teams close at least some practices to reporters. Injury reports are growing more cryptic. Newspapers, similar to their radio counterparts, are forbidden from posting audio and video of postgame interviews or live press conferences on their Web sites during game days, with the league contending that game-day content is the property of the NFL and its designated rights holders.

And the NFL is now barring local TV station camera crews from being on the sidelines during games, replacing that access with a pool coverage system and creating its own heated debate between broadcast organizations and the league (see related columns, page 27).

There has been no heated outcry from the general public on the issue, not surprising given the overall levels of distrust the masses have for the media. But pushback is occurring among some segments of the media industry, even if many local radio and TV stations have discerned little choice but to pay up and financially align with NFL clubs in order to boost their content offerings.

Several network affiliates and broadcast organizations have lobbied the NFL to rethink its position on the sideline cameras, though so far to no avail. And the Pro Football Writers of America recently met with Goodell, holding what it termed a productive meeting to air its concerns over writer access to league personnel and information.

“Roger Goodell grew up around journalists, and started with the league in public relations,” Elfin said, referencing Goodell’s father who was a U.S. senator from New York state. “I believe he knows how important journalists are to the NFL.”

Some observers wonder if the NFL’s heightened interest in owning and operating media assets is already having a sizable effect on how the league is perceived. The recent suspension of star San Diego linebacker Shawne Merriman for violating the league’s substance abuse policy barely generated any national notice beyond the often-insular sports world. If anything, football writers were focused more on how San Diego would fill the void in its roster and defensive game planning.

By comparison, Philadelphia Phillies slugger Ryan Howard endured a constant swirl of suspicions of steroid use during his 58-home run season this year, despite the fact he has never failed a drug test and appears to represent exactly the kind of open, engaging young athlete the country needs in far greater supply.

“It hurts journalistically, if only for the perception,” said WJLA’s Brandt, referring specifically to Snyder’s interest in Triple X ESPN Radio. “When the same person owns a broadcast company and a team, he’s not paying for bad news. The perception is always there.”


What they’re saying

“I don’t know how much more they can restrict us, unless they go so far as to take our credentials away.”

C.J. Johnson
Program director, WTEM-AM, on the station’s
relationship with the Washington Redskins

“[Team ownership of media assets] changes the landscape. It doesn’t eliminate anyone, but it changes how access is granted. One-on-one interviews may be replaced by having reporters sit at their desk, listening to interviews on Redskins Radio. But teams can’t eliminate all access. It’s all about the dollars.”

David Pearlman
Broadcast consultant

“I’m not seeing a lot of competition coming from [NFL Network] in terms of pursuing enterprising stories. Given their relationship with the NFL, I don’t think they are going to pursue controversial stories in the same way we would.”

Vince Doria
ESPN senior vice president and director of news

“The NFL understands the need to be open and accessible to the press and public. Pete Rozelle and his commitment to having games free on over-the-air broadcasts, which is a core principle of ours that lives on today, speaks to that as much as anything.”

Brian Rolapp
NFL vice president of media strategy

“We started this as a fan touchstone, not as a marketing vehicle.”

Karl Swanson
Washington Redskins executive vice president,
on the team’s push to boost programming on its
Web site, Redskins.com

“Are they peers? Can you confide in them? These are tough questions, especially when some of the people there we’ve known for years from when they were working at outside entities.”

David Elfin
President, Pro Football Writers of America, on
staffers producing content for Redskins.com and
the team-owned Triple X ESPN Radio

— Compiled by Eric Fisher
and John Ourand

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