Op-Ed: Sports Reporting 2011: Data, Photos, & Compromise

There’s an elephant in the room. It’s you and I.

Courtesy the Pitch Invasion blog...

As TSG scribbles–apologies–types or thumbs words on this page, it’s that very role that’s becoming redundant and antiquated as sports reporting, soccer reporting, hurtles through the Mobile Era.

Back in the day of immovable typeface, sports reporting was the very essence of what a newspaper is. Events would transpire the day or evening before, and a dutiful scribe would take notes, describe the action, and hustle it to the press so that it would be set for morning delivery.

Newspapers traveled in small circumferences around their city’s epicenter and were purchased “on the way” somewhere, serving fodder for water cooler talk later that morning. The sports report, unless you listened to the game on the radio or watched it with friends, was your lifeline to understanding your team.

A sports writer’s account was invaluable. He was on the ground, at the action and had the resume of past experience to qualify him to add his opinion on team.

In my own childhood, a favorite Sunday pasttime was the post-church, pre-sports day combination of brunch and the New York tabloids. Box scores galore, authors like Vescey–George, not Peter–Frank Isola and Filip Bondy.

Fast forward the Delorean to 2011 and, as any person reading this piece can tell you, that world has been shaken up, turned upside down, picked back up and spilled out into a million pieces.

Sports “reporting” is no longer what it used to be and in fact has almost “positively regressed” to the simplest of communication: signal, receiver, feedback in a near lightspeed-like loop.

The press box needs a rethink as well....(courtesy Noah Davis)

Today, no one waits for the daily. That daily comes out instantaneously as the game concludes. Having sat in the press box, it’s a sad yet necessary scene: reporters–through no fault of their own, but the dynamic of “internet news”–are forced to write their game summary as the game is going on. If you’re paying attention at home you’ll see a decrease in tweets and or late description of events that transpired after the 75th minute or so.

For the USA vs. Chile game in January, I watched as the multitudes of those around me furiously typed their notes, seeking to “publish” as the game concluded for “maximum hits” and then scurry to the mixed zone to get quotes to add later or to another piece.

The necessity of textually describing a game once it’s concluded is extinct; not endangered, extinct. That’s what YouTube and ESPN are for these days.

Recently, TSG’s Jay Bell went to the USA vs. Paraguay match. As he “tweeted” out the action, I encouraged him to describe instead “what the audience couldn’t see or feel on TV.” Things like: who is toeing the touchline and may be used as a sub or what does the crowd look or feel like.

With the advent of widely-adopted HDTV and instantaneous replay, you at home are better qualified to describe what happened on a play, not me up in the box for the most part. There’s a good chance your camera angle better captured that handball rather than my 20/20 nosebleed. (The lone exception here being full field player location or deployment.)

After a play happens in the press box, eyes typically shoot up to a small TV in a corner that shows a replay–the same one you see at home–at the same time everyone is furiously giving their opinion on Twitter.

Many of the most respected US reporters that went to the World Cup took in the games in the venue that gave them the best opportunity to watch and opine on the action, the living room of their rented villas.

Sports “reporting” really is becoming just a technology and rights game. I don’t mean rights as in a company like Attributor attempting to police the internet for illegally pilfered content. I mean rights to statistical or “count” data, quotes (or access) and photos.

Who is compiling how many shots are “on goal” in the 2nd frame? Who is taking the pictures that in the age of immediacy and quick attention spans root the reader to the story?

And, in fact, quotes or obtaining quotes may be less and less valuable. Twitter now is the preferred medium for quotes. Why? Because it is an environment of ambiguity (“I didn’t really mean to say that,” “My tweet was received incorrectly”), brevity (how direct can I be in 140 characters) and deletion (I don’t like what I said it’s gone just as quickly as I wrote it.).

Athletes are ever so slightly less conditioned to give canned responses on Twitter.

However, put them in the mixed zone line or in front of a camera where they are aware there is a permanent record of their account–one that they can’t typically and adjacently respond to–, one that can be replayed or etched in web annals and you get your favorite one-liners like “Nobody believed in us,” “Well we gave 110% today” or Bob Bradley’s favorite “We need to be sharper.” (And really what the hell does that mean because it seems to be the “solution” for everything.)

(Yes, this too can happen on Twitter, but again the brevity and ambiguity give a certain sense of protection.)

Ever so often you get a moment of engagement with an athlete, but that takes real work, the right relationship and most times their response is not pressing.

The biggest relative danger (sports guys are not covering oil-initiated strife in Nigeria) is the advent of the leagues controlling the medium and, because of the deluge and cacophony of everyone talking at once, that humans are now conditioned not to question what they’re consuming.

MLS Soccer, great coverage with an asterisk...

I love ExtraTime Radio and MLSSoccer.com coverage. I do. Their smart and good guys that know their stuff. However, they’re also compromised, no matter what they spin.

They are funded by the same league who they are supposed to critique.

Now, the challenge is for them that they position themselves as a “news” and oppose to “sports lifestyle” or “an online talk show.”

Recently ExtraTime Radio had Shalrie Joseph on and the circular gushing on his leadership abilities was palpable. Where was the questioning of what he was doing getting himself in trouble late night during training camp and how that impacted his leadership abilities going into the season?

Mind you, there are exceptions, Simon Borg challenging Oguchi Onyewu’s leadership in the wake of his no-comment press job after the US-Colombia match last year. But what happened there? Other soccer media luminaries came to Onyewu’s defense? Either to curry favor with fans or perhaps the player’s agent.

I have never seen a Postcard from Europe that does not have a positive slant to it. Did Sacha Kljestan expect to get more games when he moved to Anderlecht in Belgium? You bet he did.

TSG is guilty of it too mind you, though we also make a concerted effort not to let it happen. Our Michael Bradley coverage almost seems quite zealous at times as we quixotically have pursued the reason why his spot on the national team is never challenged.

We’ve dubbed Alejandro Bedoya as “the Ambassador to Brazil” although his spot on a potential Brazil 2014 US World Cup team is certainly not assured.

And therein lies the challenge for sports reporting going forward.

This is not about the evolution of the sports reporter into some new news beast.

It’s how can an independent and objective source can compete financially and maybe just survive in a world where one, everybody now has the ability to broadcast, two, access to sports figures is determined by how you interact with them online (that’s really nothing new though, but on hyperdrive) and three, the professional leagues themselves–MLS, NFL, MLS–have a financially vested interest to control and distribute the message.

When it comes down to it, anybody can layer a report over just data and photos. That’s both the opportunity and the challenge.

Oh and I’m sure about a quarter of TSG’s audience just asked, “They’ve got sports coverage in newspapers?”

Other required reading on this topic:

(Mavericks Owner) Mark Cuban: What’s The Role of Media For A Sports Team

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15 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by SamT on 2011/05/06 at 5:09 AM

    From a fan perspective, I don’t worry too much about this.

    This is all simply the “creative destruction” and reformulation of yet another industry brought on by the Internet. We may have nostalgia at times for the old way, but when you look at it with some objectivity you see it was a highly inefficient one.

    Change often takes time, however, and we have a ways to go before we find our new model. Take Twitter as one of the components in the new model. It is so damn new. We didn’t even know what Twitter was at Euro2008, and while we knew what it was at WC10, few of us grasped how it could be useful. And that was less than a year ago! And the use patterns and interactions (athlete-fan-reporter) on Twitter keep changing on us.

    So yeah, we haven’t yet settled into our new sports news industry model. But there will have to be one. Too much global interest (and money) for there not to be. The faster we get there, the better.

    I’m rooting for TSG. I think you guys are onto something.

    As for Cuban, I like his stuff, but the man is as self-serving and compromised as they come.

    Reply

  2. Posted by John Henry on 2011/05/06 at 6:51 AM

    “palpatable”: portmanteau word of palatable and palpable, meaning pleasantly touchable, as in “Jim smiled as he placed his hands on the palpatable bosom of his mistress.”

    Reply

  3. I’m listing my name as my Twitter identity in hopes of not coming off as the salty old newsman in the TSG room, but here it goes.

    You’ve hit the nail on the head in terms of the new media environment having already changed and left certain functions and roles behind. That being said, it’ll also come as no revelation that the landscape is still in flux from a uses & gratifications standpoint, which will keep it moving from a publisher/creator standpoint, so we can’t expect a sustained period of stability (stagnation?) anytime soon. God, I just reread that and it comes off really pompous, but I’ll leave it in for media nerds like myself, that’s who’s going deep on this particular post anyway, right?

    My main point, and it’s one that’s been driven home across media platforms over the past 10-15 years, is that though the roles change, there’s still a place for the the objective newsman reporter, it’s just a different role. He’s now tweeting info from the pressbox as you’ve mentioned, and yes,those press conference quotes and match reports have to be recorded more or less instantaneously.

    But more interesting than the changing role of the reporter is the effect that the new media environment has had on their numbers and quality. It’s been happening in parallel fashion in the world of sitcom writing. Fifteen years ago each of the networks had about ten sitcoms, ten! But in the world of low-overhead high-ratings reality TV, it just doesn’t pay to take a chance on every sitcom that looks like has a 22% chance of being the next Home Improvement. So sitcom number have fallen, an that’s created a hack-vacuum. Now only the best sitcom writers have shows that make it into a second season. How can the crap they put on before Modern Family hope to be picked up for a second season when the real deal exhibit A airs right after them? The same thing has happened with sports reporters. You want to keep your job? You better be good, really good. You’ve got to be able to tweet, write, make a connection with a player and catch him off guard with a great question that illicits an honest and unexpected response all within 30 seconds… simultaneously. That’s good. Make no mistake, we may have sports reporters (not bloggers) in smaller numbers now, but the quality of work has escelated, because it’s had to.

    What I find to be a bigger conundrum than your MLSsoccer.com point, is a similar one that can be made about these new do-everything super-reporters. I actually interned at NFL Network in 2005, and though that was a great experience with no direct oversight from the league, no one working their or watching on TV had any illusions about who was paying the bills. On the other hand, take a guy like Grant Wahl, or my paragon of New York Rangers news, Andrew Gross of North Jersey’s The Record. To say that objective reporting or post practice/game pressers are obsolete, or even close to it, would be a slap in the face to these great (young) media men. But at the same time, by virtue of their access and familiarity with the teams they cover, these pro’s are in some of the the best positions to weigh in with ridiculously informed opinions. If your an editor, it’s “people love opinion, this is how we’ll compete with the bloggers!”

    So for a portion of the media consuming public, it’s a win-win. And so too for some of these reporters themselves. There’s one outlet for their trade, journalism, and one outlet for their opinion, which makes them important voices in the new media’s marketplace of ideas. But many view this dichotomy as an unholy one, and they’ve got a valid point to make. Isn’t the reporter talking out of both sides of his or her mouth? Sort of. Probably. Maybe. Maybe not though.

    That’s my two cents as a media guy. Oh, and watch out for athletes being heavily coached up on Twitter within the next few years. Tweets from athletes about giving 100% and sticking to the gameplan are the future, so enjoy the medium while it’s still fun!

    Reply

  4. Posted by John on 2011/05/06 at 7:52 AM

    The way, the light and the future will be gonzo reporters playing on the field and tweeting about the game at the same time.

    “HEY, he yelled at me as we collided for the foul ball. Somewhere up there was a white object hurtling towards the ground, towards the outfield, towards the wall, towards me being traded for another bag of balls to Akron. I would run out there but my contract with Sports Illustrated told me to be objective. Pujols wasn’t objective. Neither was I.

    It was another long train to the mid-west, well… not really. We didn’t ride trains anymore, and hadn’t for quite a while. That sounds better though than ‘it was another long quite car drive in my broken down Oldsmobile Cutless Supreme as I searched the passenger side floor for Taco Bell fire sauce packets to dress up my ramen.

    Club ball in the minor leagues wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.”

    Reply

  5. John’s “The Electric Gatorade HGH Test” = Win.

    Reply

    • Posted by John on 2011/05/06 at 8:20 AM

      “The players were all passed out in the bus akin to the aftermath of a Rolling Stone party, and we cruised out into the Mojave desert for what would be determined later as a ‘Great Mistake’. We needed to see our inner shaman about letting too many back passes reach the keeper. Terry brought mescaline and the rest of us sat around with expanding pupils as we watched the sun descend into what appeared to be a four thousand year old volcano. It was later determined to be a giant coffee cup at a truckstop on the border. I tweeted – “Seen the light, more shape, more sharpness.” This led to a round robin discussion of triangles. I then tweeted “There is nothing more important than shape.”

      This confused people as they thought the shape I was interested in was the curvy kind. I decided to file my report for Sports Illustrated under the title. ‘New Age Medicines to fix old player ails” It was immediately panned.

      Flying now on a mushroom trip, I laden myself with old cans of Four Loko and proceeded to write a diatribe against the 1955 Yankees. However my approach was considered too didactic.

      I’m not even sure what that means.”

      Reply

      • Sounds like Hunter S. Thompson if he were still alive and covering sports in his own, majestic way. Too bad Twittering that awesomeness would’ve taken about 10 separate tweets.

        Reply

  6. Posted by John on 2011/05/06 at 10:29 AM

    BTW: Someone tell Kyle Martino to go to “Crema Bakery” on the other side of the river and get their Chocolate Croissant.

    2728 Southeast Ankeny Street

    Reply

  7. Posted by kaya on 2011/05/06 at 1:50 PM

    I really like this article because the direction media coverage is heading in general is fascinating. I love watching the Daily Show (online, of course) for this reason… (the content BS machine on TV never fails to amuse!)
    I’ve never visited mlssoccer.com (I’m still only a fair-weather fan of MLS), but from what you’re saying, it sounds not a lot different than coverage of US Soccer on ussoccer.com. I go there, but I know I’m not going to get any mind blowing perspective.
    You had a chart you put up once upon a time that showed the time after a game in which you needed to get out a story. Twitter, commentary, and analysis fill out a sort of mosaic during & post game periods. Media presented by MLS and US Soccer have a place in providing information, but inevitably, blogs like this one are where you get uncut content.
    I’m sure there are a lot of relevant parallels between the transformation of sports and news medias. Luckily it’s a lot less disconcerting watching this process wrt sporting news. Anyhow, I tend to think if there’s some kool-aid being passed off as US soccer news, for now I’ll chalk it up to protecting a sport that still needs some nurturing. It’s not like anyone’s going to invade a country over it.

    Reply

  8. Posted by Greg Seltzer on 2011/05/09 at 2:33 AM

    As an employee of MLSsoccer.com, I can perhaps offer a small measure of insight that may help remove that asterisk to an extent.

    I am not involved in the MLS coverage, and to be honest, don’t see the majority of it. I’m also obviously well removed from the office setting – I’m like Todd Packer with a bit more hair and a lot more respect for women. That may make it sound like I’m an outsider to the coverage myself, but I can testify to a few things that may draw back that asterisk to an extent.

    First of all, I am and have been allowed to criticize. I have even been allowed to jab at MLS, and when I do well more than jab on other outlets, there isn’t a peep about it. I was actually pleasantly surprised the one time I worried a column would not run; it was about Donovan deserving a chance to move abroad and there was never any discussion about it not running. In about 14 months there, with nearly daily submissions, I think there has been exactly one column idea and one article remark that “they” frowned out of existence (and both dealt with the thought of players leaving MLS, so I kinda already knew it wasn’t going to make it when I offered it). What can I say? I like to cross the odd line. So… I can’t speak for the MLS writers, but I am not censored or watered down by the editors.

    Secondly, I am not given any help or leads or inside info from the league to aid my reporting. None. The attitude to me when news I’m chasing involves MLS is basically: you’re a good reporter, go find out yourself.

    As for Postcard From Europe, that’s mine, so I can speak more directly over it. The name of the article has meaning; It is most often a catch-up with names you all know (such as Kljestan) or a “meet-and-greet” with new faces across the pond (such as, say, Josh Gatt). It’s a profile feature, a nice chat – not so much a place for critical opinion, though we do discuss personal setbacks or struggles when applicable. So basically, I intend for it to be bright. Who wants a dour postcard? :D

    So yeah… just clearing up a few things. I understand the concern, though. I wondered the same types of things when asked aboard, but it has been a happy ride with plenty of freedom to spout off. I’m not leashed there, nor am I the type to play along nice with being leashed.

    - And as for Kljestan: no, he didn’t expect more games in his first season at Anderlecht. In fact, he will end up right on or near the 27 games he played in 2009 for Chivas USA by Mauves season’s end, and that’s more than a lot of people expected him to get. He knew he’d no longer be an automatic choice.

    - Oh yeah, and on a different topic you mention… I hate Twitter. I consider it my greatest enemy in chasing scoops. It has taken them away from me several times. Many friends and readers urge me to use it, but I won’t go to the dark side. The silly monkey I am takes extra pride in breaking a story because of my distinct dis-twit-vantage. I guess that now makes me like Chewbacca at the end of Star Wars.

    Geez.. I really need to come up with more handsome pop culture self comparisons, something not an ape-dog.

    Reply

    • Posted by matthewsf on 2011/05/10 at 10:26 AM

      Greg:

      First, thanks for responding on TSG. Always appreciate it.

      Second, for those that don’t know, Greg probably gets more scoops and gets more info than any other US soccer reporter. While I know that MLS helps little in your/Seltzer’s work, it certainly helps the folks at MLS Soccer.com (or ExtraTime) book their guests. They’ve acknowledged as much.

      In regards to your Postcard comment above, and to be blunt and direct, it’s the one line in this editorial that I contemplated removing after editing, actually reinforces the editorial’s theme.

      I agree–who wants to get a dour Postcard–the “challenge” is it appears under the “News” section or not a “Feature” section on the MLS site.

      Very difficult, if the idea is to make MLSSoccer truly news (which is not really the idea I don’t think) to not take a more “balanced” review of a player-situation. Again, I know that’s not what is being *asked* perhaps or what the segment is.

      I certainly don’t begrudge that coverage. It’s great to get dialogue with the players. The bigger issue is–and the point of the article is–who (and it’s certainly not MLS Soccer’s responsibility or in their best interest) will provide truly objective commentary going forward.

      It may sound like an elitist worry, because fans just want basically “more” and in sports it’s less important, but truly trusted objective sources are still treasured by some.

      MLS Soccer’s site and “News” section is phenomenal. They’re way ahead of the game on the league-front as it took the NFL and NBA sometime to craft their own pulpit, their own news section.

      It’s just not–in the J-School way–”news.” And that’s okay, because it’s perfect for what it is.

      The question remains and is reinforced, “As league’s get better access and Twitter and other distribution points increase fragmentation, can a funded news source continue to get the scoops, generate the news (& gain the advertising) to make it genuine business.”

      Jury’s out on that one.

      Reply

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