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Surging rights fees, increasing network dominance compromising journalistic objectivity

Last Thursday morning, the St. Louis Cardinals were stung by the old hidden ball trick.

Convinced they had outlasted the Miami Marlins in the pursuit of prized free agent slugger Albert Pujols, the World Series champs were no doubt planning their announcement and expecting to be in the midst of the NL pennant race again in 2012. Though the Cards should be contenders next season, last week’s events make a title defense much tougher to mount.

That’s because the Los Angeles Angels, seemingly out of nowhere, overwhelmed Pujols with an offer that was as much as $34 million more than the Cardinals’ bid. That was enough for Pujols, who had spent every one of his previous 11 MLB seasons in St. Louis and had helped the club to a pair of World Series championships. Baseball fans everywhere were stunned by the move, largely because the Angels hadn’t been mentioned as a prominent suitor for Pujols’ services and had entered the bidding only one day before announcing the signing.

Thanks to Fox Sports, the Angels were able to close the deal. And, judging by the continued growth of TV rights fees, an awful lot of professional teams will have the opportunity over the next few years to buy superstars like Pujols. Colleges, now flush with big money from conference TV networks and gigantic contracts with national outlets, can build ever-larger facilities, pay coaches more and separate themselves from the rank-and-file.

The real hero (culprit?) in the Pujols-to-L.A. bombshell is Fox, which has agreed to pay the Angels $3 billion over the next 20 years, beginning next year, for the right to televise their games in southern California. That’s $150 million a season for local rights and doesn’t count what the team receives from MLB’s deals with Fox, ESPN and Turner for national broadcasts. With that kind of cash coming in, the Angels weren’t only able to throw $254 million over 10 years at Pujols, they were also able to scoop up former Rangers starting pitcher C.J. Wilson for $77.5 million over five years; this after having the majors’ fourth-highest payroll in 2011, $138.5 million.

This is not a diatribe about big-market vs. small-market teams. It’s not the Angels’ fault they happen to play in the nation’s second-largest metropolitan area. This is about what the growing money total means for those who have to cover the games that are more than ever before property of the camera’s red light. And what it means for fans who are trying to get objective information about the teams they follow.

In the early days of televised sports, the games were presented as competitions between top-flight athletes. It was great drama, and unlike other programming, it presented a guaranteed denouement: there would be a winner and a loser. Networks broadcasting the contests received relatively cost-efficient shows, since they didn’t have to pay actors and writers, and the “sets” were stadiums and arenas controlled by teams or municipalities.

That has changed now. Rights fees have reached astronomical levels, well beyond even what was paid five years ago. For example, the NFL revealed last week that its price to broadcast games in the latest round of negotiations will rise 60 percent for contracts beginning after the 2013 season. The league expects to reap $3 billion annually from CBS, Fox and NBC, and that’s on top of the $1.8 billion/year ESPN is shelling out for the chance to air Monday Night Football. Put it together, and it comes to about $150 million per team per season, or $30 million more than the 2011 salary cap. Thanks to TV, NFL teams will be able to handle all of their labor costs – and then some – with TV money.

So, what does it mean once the networks spend so much money for sports rights? First off, you can forget about the games being considered “competitions.” They are now “programming,” just like CSI, Modern Family and Glee. That means the eye is on ratings and advertising, no matter how that impacts the game itself. Fans will get sanitized pre-game interview programs and information that serves the network’s purpose of generating revenue. That is nothing new, but with so much more money at stake, the promotional component will be exponentially more important, and the game will be packaged more slickly. In other words, expect a more plastic product, as if the action on the field is almost ancillary to the show around it.

Teams not only reap the benefits of gigantic paydays, but they get more eager partners in their quest to control the messages they want fans to receive. Networks want to make sure their product is shown in the best possible light, so they will do whatever is necessary to accentuate the positive. Do you think Fox Sports West, which will broadcast the Angels games, is interested in delving deeply into the team’s shortcomings, whether on its website or daily sports news telecasts? Not likely. Fans will receive sanitized accounts, designed to protect the network’s investment. They may think they’re getting objective coverage, but they’ll be receiving their information from the Angels’ partner, not a news outlet which has no interest in the team’s fortunes. Trouble is, because of the strong production values and “inside access” the network has, it will seem like a straightforward newscast.

Early Tuesday morning, with the Packers’ chasing perfection, the Broncos’ basking in yet another Tim Tebow-led comeback victory, National League MVP Ryan Braun in the throes of a controversy spawned by a positive drug test and the NBA’s credibility taking huge hits from its ham-handed approach to the Hornets’ attempts to trade Chris Paul, the lead story on SportsCenter was a meaningless game between the Seahawks and Rams. Why? Because ESPN televised the game, that’s why. News judgment was relegated to second place behind broadcast product. All the average fan saw were highlights and a breakdown of the game. He didn’t comprehend that ESPN had placed its own, high-priced show at the top of the news pyramid, the better to promote a partner’s best interests.

Networks’ shelling out big money for TV rights is not new in the world of sports. But as the checks get bigger and bigger, so do the expectations for increased access and control. Media charged with covering teams and athletes on a daily basis must now fight through the franchises’ layers of defense, as well as the networks’ efforts to promote their partners. As sports become harder and harder to differentiate from the entertainment that clutters our screens, fans will receive less and less meat in their coverage and more pre-packaged pap designed to create interest without damaging the product. After a while, they will be unable to tell what’s real news, and what is contrived. When that happens, the teams will have completed their transformation from entities that the media covers to powerful players who control the message.

Talk about a real hidden-ball trick.

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