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Professional sports teams becoming their own media entities

When Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban posted on his blog last year that he doesn’t believe his team should issue credentials to most online writers and bloggers, he offered a sharp look into how a professional sports executive regards the ever-changing media landscape.

Cuban doesn’t like NBA bloggers because he believes their quest to direct eyes at their content leads them to rumor-monger and speculate in a way that can be detrimental to his team’s success. It’s one thing to say a team isn’t playing well; statistics and the scoreboard can support that assertion. It’s another to report that Player X might be traded to Team Y or that “sources” say that Player Z is unhappy with his coach. Cuban has no time for that kind of innuendo, and in some cases, flat inaccurate writing.

The Mavs issue game credentials to newspaper writers, because a certain well-heeled portion of their paying customers – and sponsors – still reads the papers. TV stations gain access, too, since they attract the most attention. Everybody else is suspect, and Cuban says that constituencies not reached by newspaper or TV reporting can be targeted with advertising. In other words, the owner wants his team’s message crafted in a way that suits it best and limiting the number of unpredictable media outlets with access to the Mavericks helps accomplish that goal.

Cuban’s approach is hardly new. Teams have tried to control what the media has said ever since the days MLB teams paid beat writers’ travel expenses and even let them ride along on the train with players and staff. But thanks to the many outlets available to teams today, their goals of reaching fans directly are closer to reality.

That was amplified last week when Boston Bruins senior VP of sales and marketing Amy Latimer declared the team was “really a media company” as the hockey club announced the formation of the Bruins Digital Entertainment Network, which will serve as a holding area for all of the franchise’s online and social media properties, including the team’s Facebook and Pinterest pages, its Twitter accounts, YouTube channel, Tumblr blog and BruinsTV channel. Although most professional teams have all of these outlets, the Bruins – according to Boston College sports business and marketing professor Warren K. Zola – are believed to be the first one to bundle them together.

The goals of the BDEN (Bruins Den – get it?) are the improved dissemination of information to fans and an increased aggregation of analytic data regarding fans’ habits that can be used to cultivate business relationships with sponsors. Speaking to Boston Globe business reporter D.C. Denison, Latimer said the network’s aim is “to get our content to our fans, in whatever way they want to get it.”

That’s a smart move, since it allows the Bruins to give fans a clearinghouse for all of the team’s outlets. Instead of bouncing from site to site and missing out on certain things, those interested in news about the team can go to one place and get it all. The goal, of course, is to build behaviors in fans that lead them to official Bruins outlets and away from other media, the better to control the message. If a fan can get video highlights, stats, news articles (albeit with a definite team slant), social media, merchandise, tickets and promotional offers from one place, perhaps he won’t go anywhere else. For years, teams had little recourse but to rely on newspapers, TV and radio to report on them. Now, they can supersede those traditional avenues and handle it themselves.

In that regard, the BDEN will be valuable. But the real significance of the Network will be in regard to the analytic data the team will be able to collect. According to Denison, Latimer estimates the team will be able to record more than 30 million impressions a month and will forward that information about fans’ behaviors to an Austin-based company, Umbel Corp. Umbel specializes in taking information about online users’ habits and matching it with the targeted aims of sponsors.

So, if the Bruins see through Umbel that a preponderance of their Facebook fans are also fans of a specific product or brand, they can go to the company and suggest a partnership. Denison uses the example of a tweet sent out by the Bruins. The team can chart how many times it is re-tweeted and how many replies it generates and determine the best way to communicate with their fans along many levels – news, promotions, advertising, etc.

“Any time you can get greater insight into your fans, it’s a great benefit,” Latimer says.

In other words, the BDEN is going to give the team greater access to fans’ habits while also leading those supporters away from more objective accounts of the teams’ play and prospects. The dual-pronged approach will bond fans to the team and its sponsors in ways that were impossible even five years ago and create a pipeline of team-centric information that flows directly to its targets, bypassing the media middleman.

And you know Mark Cuban loves that.

Michael Bradley is a writer, broadcaster and teacher headquartered in suburban Philadelphia. His written work has appeared in Sporting News, ESPN the Magazine, Athlon Sports, Hoop and Slam, among others. He is a host on 97.5 the Fanatic in Philadelphia and contributes analysis for Yahoo! Sports Radio and Sirius Mad Dog Radio. He appears on CSNPhilly.com, writes a weekly column on Philadelphia Magazine’s “Philly Post” and has authored 26 books. He teaches sports journalism at Saint Joseph’s, Villanova and Neumann Universities.

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