SBJ/Aug. 19-25, 2013/Opinion

Practice is perfect for ramping up NFL coverage

It was a very tumultuous summer, but it’s still good to be King, meaning the NFL. After sad and ugly front-page headlines of a murder, DWIs and concussions, the focus turns to training camp and the play on the field. Yes, in other words, on practice. And I have never seen such comprehensive media coverage of wind-sprints, 1-on-1 drills, 7-on-7s and, yes, 11-on-11 run-thrus with players in shorts and shells, as is happening this year.

In analyzing coverage over the last month, no one can tell me that interest for all things training camp isn’t at an all-time high and reflected by the decision-makers at sports desks around the U.S. Now, I understand it’s a slow time of year, but let me share my own first-person experience.
 
I follow the Patriots, yes, quite closely, and I’m overwhelmed at the coverage from camp. I’m getting consistent, smart filings from at least six robust regional offerings — all with strong editorial voices and perspective. There’s ESPN Boston, where Mike Reiss and his team are exhaustive and sharp in their analysis; the Boston Globe has a number of new daily feeds and features; at the Boston Herald, there are instant observations of how second-round draft choice
Boston.com and ESPN Boston are among the many outlets for following news out of the New England Patriots’ training camp.
Aaron Dobson
has looked. WEEI.com has daily “what to watch for” features and then “takeaways” post-practice, while Comcast SportsNet New England gives me “Postcards from Camp” from the strong Tom Curran. Finally, the mothership, Patriots.com, has camp notebooks, full transcripts and numerous multimedia features from practice every day. I consume it all. Each has its own feel and flavor, and while some of the information is repetitive, there are good takeaways from each. Again, all of this devoted to covering practice.

It’s the same in my current home of Charlotte around the Panthers. I’ll use the local paper as the example. Since camp opened, The Charlotte Observer has had approximately four stories per day of coverage from camp. There’s a news lead/profile generally above the fold supported by a column on the front of the sports section. Those jump inside to at least one other news story along with a notebook. So there are anywhere from one to three pages of coverage of everything from practice. And I’m focusing only on the main regional providers, not the national offerings. Who can BUY this kind of publicity let alone receive it for free?! There is obviously consumer and business interest behind this influx of coverage, and others see the interest only growing.
 
I called Boston Globe Sports Editor Joe Sullivan, who said the Globe and its Boston.com site had beefed up their training camp coverage over the last two summers, but admitted he sensed a more recent sea change. “There is no doubt that the amount of detail and coverage of training camp has been ramped up,” he told me. “This is all a fairly recent development. Readers seem absolutely insatiable with news about the NFL.” When I talked about the volume of coverage from various outlets, he jumped right in, “We needed to do it to keep up with the competition.”
 
Sullivan walked me through their process for both the Globe newspaper and Boston.com. The site provides a “Camp Daily Briefing” early in the morning outlining the day’s events, news coverage and assorted NFL/Patriots links. Updates are filed from Foxboro during the day (outside of constant tweets from the field highlighting a virtual play-by-play of, again, practice), and it’s all followed by a “Practice Report from Training Camp” later in the afternoon that outlines the highs and lows of that day’s session, who’s up and who’s down, along with other notes. Sullivan said the “Practice Report” works online and in print for them.
 
Those features are augmented by a “Training Camp Today” video of up to five minutes posted late in the day. In terms of reporters in Foxboro for camp, they have their primary two — NFL writer Ben Volin and Patriots beat reporter Shalise Manza Young — but Sullivan also sends a third reporter to assist in getting quotes from players and coaches. “Some of this is a result of access. Players are all leaving the field at the same time, so we need a body there to get quotes,” he said. He also has one reporter and video producer committed to coverage strictly for Boston.com. Five people covering practice. Is this all a little much, I asked? He laughed a bit, paused and said, “I agree that what we’re reporting on is just practice. It’s just practice, but it is interesting material that could — could — have a bearing on their season down the line.” And while not revealing specifics, he said traffic numbers are overwhelmingly supporting the investment.

Let’s take it outside the local markets, because going long on the NFL is a national trend. Spend time on SI’s new Peter King-branded theMMQB.com and you’ll see just how voracious the appetite is for NFL news. The way King & Co. have built out his “tentpole” offerings while adding vast amounts of content has created a deep, stand-alone football hub. At ESPN.com, sources have stressed to me time and again of the appeal of NFL content. The traffic numbers are huge and the ad sales around it dwarf everything else on the site. ESPN.com will now hire bloggers for each team. It’s clear to me the NFL coverage is driving a majority of traffic to local sites — ESPN Boston, New York and Dallas. So now ESPN.com plans to scale market-by-market team coverage to boost its local strategy. Need further proof of the traffic around the NFL: Take Friday, Aug. 9. The Patriots open their preseason against the Eagles, while the first-place Red Sox are on a key road trip. The main features on ESPNBoston.com are dominated by the Patriots’ game from Philadelphia, not the first-place Sox in the middle of a division race. Would that have happened 10 years ago? I would bet not.
 
So what kind of coverage stands out? Sullivan has stressed a much more sophisticated analysis of game film, and pointed to the weekly analysis that former NFL writer Greg Bedard brought to the Globe before joining King’s operation. Bedard was a protégé of Bob McGinn in Milwaukee who is widely credited for being at the forefront of this type of analysis. “This is a real trend that we’ve seen that has really worked well for us,” Sullivan said. “Teams aren’t going to make all their players and coaches available, and you want to give readers an honest opinion of what’s going on. But you don’t want to do it in a haphazard way. So you can do it through a good analysis of game film. It’s out there and available though the NFL’s ‘All-22’ video. This really enhances your coverage at a time when NFL teams are becoming more secretive with what they’re doing.”

Five quick conclusions: First, the amount of coverage from camp gives each NFL team an additional six weeks of news footage in its market. Two, with all this coverage, young writers should know there are going to be opportunities. Three, the challenge for editors and writers to differentiate news, analysis and personality coverage will be steep, but vital. Four, teams need to invest in their news and video departments because they are best positioned to offer rare, unique and behind-the-ropes access. Finally, there is already an ad-supported element here, but someone may introduce an additional monetization element by making this news and analysis accessible to premium insider subscribers.
 
Many try to convince me that interest in the NFL has plateaued. I’ll point to this as an example of why I don’t buy it. Meanwhile, I’ve got to find out how many one-handed catches rookie free agent tight end Zach Sudfeld caught at practice. He might even make the team!

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

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