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2011’s controversies produce somber predictions for sports media in 2012

Looking back, he was a starry-eyed optimist with hope that sports fans would take more control of the industry, sports journalists and athletes would master new technologies and the sports world would conquer its latent homophobia and sexism.

Yeah, I can’t believe how dumb I was 12 months ago, either.

Strike that. My predictions a year ago on what sports media might bring in 2011 weren’t about a lack of intellect; they were just a hopeful anticipation of the coolest stuff that might actually take place over the next dozen months.

Unfortunately, reality proved a bit tougher. We got Jerry Sandusky, billion-dollar NFL deals and athletes gone wild on Twitter. Lots to write about, but much less to cheer.

So that may explain why my roster of stories to watch in 2012 is a bit more sober – some might even say cynical – and hardheaded. Because the road ahead for sports media looks more challenging and filled with opportunity than ever, regardless of how the realities of life might intrude.

Here’s my list of issues/trends to watch in 2012 for sports media:

More coverage of sports-connected sex abuse: News that hastily retired Philadelphia Daily News sports columnist Bill Conlin had joined Sandusky and ex-Syracuse University assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine in the ranks of accused child molesters left sport fans scratching heads. Time for journalists to look hard at sports culture and try figuring out whether this is symptom of a larger problem – like a tendency to deify successful sports figures in a way which enables abusers – or whether we’re seeing a drive toward more disclosure of sexual crimes in everyday society, also reflected in the athletic world. The grief handed to ESPN and the Syracuse Post-Standard for moving slowly on the Fine story should signal smart sports newsrooms; it’s also time to dig through old tips and make sure they weren’t unfairly overlooked.

NBC Sports Network vs. ESPN: Sure, right now the rebranding effort of Comcast’s Versus sports channel as NBC Sports Network looks super lame; no way to take a broadcast day filled with fishing and hunting shows and make it look cool, no matter what name you slap on the channel. But rebuilding a cable channel is a long-term game, so it will be interesting to watch cable giant Comcast challenge one of the biggest channels in cable television. Right now, the contest looks like Mike Tyson versus Ed Helms; ESPN has “SportsCenter,” cracking opinions shows, college football and the NFL. NBCSN reaches 75 percent of the TV households its rival connects to, with some series left over from when it was called the Outdoor Life Network. But competition usually works to fans’ advantage, so I’m looking forward to how the geniuses at Comcast/NBC will take it to the Worldwide Leader over the next 12 months.

Impact of pricey new broadcast contracts on reporting: ESPN has resisted the implications of a column by John Canzano at the Oregonian that the channel unfairly excluded rival press from Rose Bowl coverage and has offered coverage of college football intended to pump up the games. But there is no denying the suspicion among fans, journalists and even some coaches that outlets’ sizable rights deals with sports leagues may distort coverage or the games themselves. New York Rangers coach John Tortorella implied NBC might have colluded with referees to produce unfair calls to push their Winter Classic game with the Philadelphia Flyers into overtime (he later apologized and earned a $30,000 fine). That complaint was roundly criticized by an analyst on – where else – the NBC Sports Network’s new “Sports Talk” show. Expect more folks to look more closely at how channels cover, as journalists, events they also have a huge financial stake in as entertainment providers.

Social media’s impact on reporting: This week, sports fans got a close up example of how journalists are still struggling with Twitter, as a host of outlets reported new coach Urban Myer had banned Ohio State University football players from using the online messaging service. Turns out, others said the ban wasn’t true – some players may have misunderstood the situation and sent out misleading tweets – but that fact wasn’t clear until legions of outlets had reported it is fact and railed against the decision. It was bad enough that many sports media sources reported the ban as fact without comment from the college or players, using their Twitter messages as proof. But there were too many stories that didn’t reveal the source of their information, making their reports look more authoritative than they were. Silly journalists. If social media teaches us anything, it’s that transparency is key. If a report is based on a Twitter post – or your perusal of another website’s reporting on a Twitter post – best to say so. That way, if the situation changes, you might get a little less egg on your face.

Reaching new audiences: The biggest question for TV outlets broadcasting football now is pretty simple: How do you improve on the best ratings ever? The problem is one more television providers wish they had, but when you’re on top, there is often nowhere to go but down. Last year’s Super Bowl was the most watched program ever on television and NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” finished this season as the most-watched show in primetime TV (conveniently ending before the top-rated show in most years, “American Idol,” starts its run in mid-January). News from ESPN’s Poynter Review Project that the Worldwide Leader is brainstorming how to attract female sports fans is hopeful. Because without new fans coming from somewhere, it’s hard to imagine how outlets will pay for those massive rights deals just cut with the NFL.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduatYe of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed.

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