SBJ/October 22-28, 2012/Opinion

Could sports adopt the polarizing political talk-show model?

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I was a political junkie.

My parents exposed me to the process and various candidates at an early age. At age 8, I met Gerald Ford’s son, John, during a campaign stop for his father in Vermont. I met GOP presidential candidate George H.W. Bush during a small rally in 1979, when I was 11. I worked for Gary Hart while in high school and, yes, even during his scandal-tarred run in 1988. My first job out of college was as an unpaid intern for U.S. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) in Washington, D.C.

I was so hooked. I loved the look, feel, vibe and pulse of our nation’s capital. Walking to work past the Supreme Court and the Capitol rotunda and walking the halls of Senate offices for “work” was a high I’ll never forget. I worked in politics until I was 26, when I decided to go after my first love of working in sports. I never regretted the decision. I am still interested in the issues, the personalities and the strategies of the political process, but like many, I have become blindingly numb to the polarizing noise — the failure of our political system and its “leaders.” Night after night, I try to watch the news shows for some insight into the issues of the day, but they are so politically skewed and biased that they prevent me from getting any measured, clear-minded and balanced information.

One could argue that Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News was the instigator of this format by identifying and exploiting a “niche” of people on the right who felt their views were not represented in how news was presented. So, by saying that the rest of the media was left, they became the alternative. But then came MSNBC after liberals got so angry about Fox News. They joined in on the game and gave their own one-sided view of the news.

One night recently when flipping through this sanctimonious madness, I wondered how this could equate to sports.

ESPN is the one-network mainstream media. Who are they underserving? Hockey, soccer or UFC fans, perhaps? Certainly not NFL fans. This could lead to a network defining a niche, and then positioning itself against the powers that be that are not satisfying that group of viewers — and then exploiting the hell out of that niche. So, could we ever see sports follow the political talk-show model? Could, or would, a more developed NBC Sports Network hit ESPN the way Fox News and MSNBC go after each other? Is Fox Sports 1 prepared to become Deadspin on air? Most viewers have been OK with the polarization of news programming. Would they be OK with it in sports? Wouldn’t leagues and properties be resistant to such muckraking, fearful of dividing loyalties? Networks search for the largest audiences, and if this format draws for our news programming, it may be a blueprint for sports. I’m not advocating for it in the least, but as the election nears, it’s a topic that has crossed my mind. Thoughts or comments?

> SPORTS AND POLITICS: We’ve always tried to do a package of stories on the nexus between sports and politics around an election year. This year, when we sat around the edit table going over ideas, we had more than a few interesting thoughts — including taking a look at Mitt Romney by talking to the people in sports business who worked with him throughout his career. Instead, we decided to look more closely at what role sports played in a candidate’s evolving and vital media strategy. So this week, we’re rolling out extensive data from nine battleground states. This project couldn’t have been done without the smart work and long hours of senior writer Bill King and research director David Broughton, who pored over more than 5,000 filings and spent many a late night and early morning completing the analysis.

What stood out for them? “The degree of detail with which these campaigns are managing their ad spends,” King said. “Not only are we talking about decisions on what market to buy in, and which programming to buy, but then the money moves around as the rates move and as the budgets shift. I was struck by how fluid it is. You’ll see 10 or 11 changes off a single order. When you think about that going on intensely across six or seven states, and a couple of dozen TV markets, wow.” What was it like to get a look at so many actual ad contracts? “Hooray for transparency,” King said. “We live in a world of ‘high six figures’ and ‘mid-seven figures’ and ‘multiyear deals’ and some very squishy interpretations of who spends how much on what. It was nice to be able to dig through orders and invoices and get at some real figures.”

> WHAT CAUGHT MY EYE: MLS Commissioner Don Garber and members of his staff visited with our editorial team last week in Charlotte. It’s always good to get Don’s perspective, and it’s clear to me what he is focused on: landing a 20th team, and making it the second one in the New York City market. Garber deserves credit for much of MLS’s steady growth over the years, but this could prove to be his greatest achievement if it’s accomplished. Why? Because of the complexities and logistical challenges of building a privately-financed 25,000-seat stadium in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. A quick list: There are community concerns, questions over the use of public park land, the interests of the U.S. Tennis Association to expand its footprint, and the Wilpon family’s proposal to develop its Willets Point project — seemingly all competing for the same, small parcels of land. In other words, a lot of plans by some heavy hitters for a little piece of land. Keep an eye on this story. … For years, NBA Commissioner David Stern has been vocal in saying the impediment to global growth of the game has been the lack of viable arenas around the world. Despite some progress, it was interesting to hear him say that it’s still an issue. He told Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe that any NBA team presence in Europe is still years away. “There aren’t enough buildings, there aren’t adequate TV arrangements, we don’t have owners, and I’m not sure we could charge the prices that would be necessary,” he said. Stern said that “part of the problem is that European cities, where soccer rules day and night, are not financially prepared to build arenas to house anything more than an exhibition game.” Meanwhile, the league completed what should be considered a successful NBA China series, with games between the Heat and Clippers in Shanghai and Beijing. In talking about NBA China, Stern said the league is looking to do $150 million in business in the country this year, with a growth rate of 10 percent annually.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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