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Dollars, Digital, Dissemination: Sports media trends that dominated 2011

Say what you want about 2011, but it would be pretty hard to call it boring. From government overthrow in the Middle East to political drama here at home, it was a year of great change and taught us that the future is absolutely unpredictable. Throw in Charlie Sheen, and you have 365 days of fascination.

In just one short year, the face of sports media was transformed, too. Technology took on an unprecedented role. Traditional conduits of news, analysis and opinion were supplanted. And, of course, money played a huge role in the entire process. The year featured enough upheaval to fill an entire 20th century decade but was emblematic of how quickly things change today. One can only imagine where we’ll be in 2012. Rather than taxing our imaginations, let’s test our memories and recall how the sports media landscape was altered in ’11, focusing on three main areas: Finances, Technology and News Delivery.

Money (That’s What I Want): It is an absolute mistake to think the media’s infatuation with cash is a recent phenomenon. Newspaper wars of the 1920s and ‘30s were waged over circulation numbers, which drove advertising and produced – you guessed it – profits. So, it is wrong to rail against the media for its desire to increase its bottom line.

It is instructive to mention that we’re dealing with amounts that far outstrip the old fish-wrapper figures. In fact, the dough shelled out by networks for media rights in 2011 went well beyond anything imagined in the past decade, much less the previous 100 years. As much as networks wanted to produce sitcoms that hit big or dramas that reaped big ratings, they knew sports rule the day. According to Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, 23 of the top 25 TV programs in 2011 were NFL games.

The league’s power could be seen in the deal cut by ESPN to broadcast “Monday Night Football” through 2021. ESPN paid $1.8 billion, with no opportunity to air a playoff game. By year’s end, the NFL had announced that broadcast partners CBS, Fox and NBC each would shell out an average of $1 billion a year after 2013 for the privilege of showing the league’s games.

Meanwhile, MLB commissioner Bud Selig predicted baseball rights fees would go up at least 30% when negotiations commenced in early 2012, and even the NHL received a 10-year, $2 billion deal from Comcast/NBCUniversal that replaced a revenue-sharing agreement that had been in place for six years and guaranteed the league far more TV money than it had ever received.

Big money dominated the collegiate landscape and was responsible for the conference carousel that spun throughout the year. The Big Ten’s average $22 million/team payout came courtesy of strong contracts with Disney (ABC and ESPN) and the Big Ten Network and spawned serious paycheck envy around the country. Conferences sought to increase their revenue streams in order to keep existing members happy and become more attractive to future members. The Pac-12 tripled its annual rights fees to $225 million a year. The Big 12 improved its standing with a 13-year deal that boosted annual revenues four fold.

Not that it was enough to keep Texas happy. UT started the groundbreaking Longhorn Network with ESPN in 2011, guaranteeing the school $300 million over 20 years. That led other schools to create other, less lucrative, media channels. Some included TV broadcasts, while others were solely web-based. In the end, the message was clear to everyone that more money than ever before was available, and leagues, conferences, schools and teams were out to get as much of it as possible. As CBS President Les Moonves said, “Even a bad football game outrates most programming.”

Blinded By Science: In December, NBC announced that its popular “Sunday Night Football” All Access feature would be available in February when the network broadcasts the Super Bowl. Instead of confining the game to television, NBC was providing it – and the enhanced content included in All Access – to anyone with a computer. Some thought this a bad idea initially, only to learn that NBC’s surveys had shown that people were using the All Access feature in concert with the network’s broadcast, rather than in its stead. Further, the game would be available to Verizon customers on their phones and tablets. The message was clear: fans were looking for more ways to get content, and “traditional” outlets were making moves to satisfy the demand.

Tablet sales continued to grow throughout 2011, and apps that provided content increased as well. Papers, magazines, Internet outlets, TV networks and radio stations made sure consumers could access their content just about anywhere, no longer afraid that allowing that kind of access would compromise traditional market shares. The WatchESPN app allowed fans to see live programming any time for cable customers, while magazines like SI produced apps that gave subscribers access to the weekly magazine, along with on-line content and exclusive content. Philadelphia Newspapers gave readers the chance to purchase an android tablet at a deep discount and subscribe to the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, also at a savings.

The number one app on iPhones and iPads in 2011 was March Madness On Demand, the NCAA’s free web portal to its men’s basketball tournament. Viewership was up 60% from 2010, even though every game was broadcast on CBS and Turner stations for the first time ever.

Meanwhile, other parties tried to catch the tech wave. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers ended the practice of distributing paper playbooks, putting their top-secret strategies on iPads instead. And when the cities of Phoenix and Tampa Bay submitted their bids to host future Super Bowls, their pitches were given to NFL owners on tablets, rather than in clunky binders. It was clear that technology was beginning to drive the sports train, and that 2011 was when the locomotive started a rapid acceleration.

Getting Out The Word: On Dec. 20, Philadelphia sports fans were blindsided by the news that long-time Daily News columnist Bill Conlin, who had been voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame’s writer’s wing earlier that year, was accused of molesting four children decades before. (More accusers would come forward in ensuing days.) Inquirer investigative writer Nancy Phillips had written a well-researched article about Conlin that was ready to run the next day. The only problem was, Deadspin found out about the piece and reported it, scooping the Inquirer. That forced the paper to rush the article to its on-line site, a hard lesson that the old days of newspapers’ breaking stories on the printed page was over.

In 2011, consumers of sports media had more avenues available to them than ever. And those established outlets worked to make themselves more attractive. At the same time, those being covered were fighting back with their own messages, creating a torrent that informed and manipulated – sometimes concurrently.

Social media’s influence grew quickly. Those who followed the dispatches from Egypt, Yemen and other countries in the throes of upheaval received minute-by-minute updates on events. The more mundane world of sports was impacted, too. During the NBA lockout, considerable information about progress during negotiations and even internal politics could be found on Twitter. At one point, Heat owner Micky Arison engaged in a back-and-forth with some fans on Twitter, during which he revealed that some owners were pursuing a more hard line approach to the labor disagreement than were others.

The NHL established Twitter “blackouts” before and after games for players and team officials, and the Suns added a social media sideline reporter for games. Teams grappled with whether to issue credentials to those who reported via Twitter (St. John’s had a full-time tweeter courtside for its men’s basketball games) and tried to discover the best ways to use social media to their advantage. After the New York Giants beat the Eagles in September, the team posted photos from the victorious locker room on its Facebook site and had 40,000 “likes” in two hours.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban rocked the media world by declaring in the spring that he had little use for many of those who covered his team. He reasoned that he could reach most fans with Mavs-friendly messages through the team’s web site, Facebook page and Twitter feed, as well as his own blog. The rest, he said, could be targeted with advertising. Washington Wizards and Capitals owner Ted Leonsis echoed Cuban’s contempt for many media members, especially bloggers.

But that didn’t stop the social media flow. Nor did it prevent other “non-traditional” avenues from getting more traffic than ever. The fan-based site SB Nation was valued at $150 million and used some of that collateral to buy AOL’s mixed martial arts web site – and its two million unique users a month. It also hired highly-regarded baseball writer Rob Neyer away from ESPN, giving a site that had been known for its fan-centric approach to reporting a big shot of credibility.

ESPN suffered some other losses in 2011, losing Bruce Feldman, Chris Sheridan and Pat Forde. But cry not for the sporting conglomerate. ESPN consolidated its power throughout 2011, increasing its NFL programming considerably, strengthening its ties to professional and collegiate sports leagues, increasing its on-line presence (ESPN digital media logged 42.5 million visits during the first weekend of the NCAA tournament) and girding itself for the challenge from NBC’s new sports network.

There were some casualties, to be sure. Sporting News abandoned its daily e-zine and also stopped printing preview publications for professional and collegiate sports. Newspaper circulation continued to dip, although many companies reported small upticks in Sunday purchases, leading them to devote more resources to that day of the week. Publishers finally came to the understanding that they were “content providers,” no matter what format was used to distribute that information. Then again, when the biggest single story of the year broke, the Jerry Sandusky abuse scandal at Penn State and the accompanying cover-up and fallout, it was Harrisburg Patriot-News reporter Sara Ganim who led the way, uncovering information, speaking to victims’ families and showing the “big boys” that there is often no substitute for the local touch.

It was another 365 days of progress, or at least change. And since 2012 is a leap year, expect even more in the year to come.

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