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What Two Owners Didn’t Say

D allas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban likes to try out ideas on his blog. He also likes to stir things up. A week ago he did both, asking what the role of the media is today for sports teams and posing an answer some found startling.

“In the year 2011, I’m not sure I have a need for beat writers from ESPN.com, Yahoo, or any website for that matter to ever be in our locker room before or after a game,” Cuban wrote. “I think we have finally reached a point where not only can we communicate any and all factual information from our players and team directly to our fans and customers as effectively as any big sports website, but I think we have also reached a point where our interests are no longer aligned. I think those websites have become the equivalent of paparazzi rather than reporters.”

From there, Cuban walked through the various species of sports media, drawing conclusions about their usefulness to the Mavericks: “Newspaper has to be in the room. I know this is counterintuitive to some, but it is a fact. Why? Because there is a wealthy segment of my customer base that does not and will not go online to find out information about the Mavs. The same logic that applies to newspapers, applies to TV. They own a segment of the population that doesn’t always read the sports section, but will turn on the TV to catch up.”

Cuban saved his ire for what might have seemed like a curious target: “The internet reporters who get paid, IMHO, are to the Mavs and any sports team, the least valuable of all media. I’m a firm believer that their interests are not only not aligned with sports teams like the Mavs, but in fact are diametrically opposed. They tend to look at the number of page views they get for any article as ‘their ratings’. More is better. Which in turn leads them to gear their work towards generating more pageviews.” (By contrast, Cuban wrote, “unpaid writers typically [write] as a labor of love and IMHO far exceed the influence of impact of their paid counterparts.”)

A lot of the commentary that followed Cuban’s post focused on paid vs. unpaid web writers and whether Cuban’s web-writer-as-paparazzo was a straw man. But what interested me most was that Cuban’s focus was squarely on how the media help or hurt the Mavericks as a business. (This led my pal Dan Shanoff of Quickish to call Cuban’s bluff, noting puckishly that “I could produce the most sensationalized, hyperbole-est, page-view-whoring, SEO-slurping, trollified Mavericks site on the Web … and if I drove ticket sales in a meaningful way, Mark Cuban would make sure I had the comfiest seat on press row.”)

All of this made me flash back to January, and the comments made by Ted Leonsis (owner of the Capitals and Wizards) in a Washington Post forum: “We’re our own media company. … I don't want The Washington Post to get the most clicks. I want the most clicks."

Cuban sounded a similar note in his post. Though he differentiated between media in general and branches of web media specifically, he too saw his own organization as a ready-made replacement: “Why not just use twitter, Facebook fan pages, Mavs.com and or our own media platforms to communicate with online Mavs customers and fans? How many customers and prospects could we possibly be missing by losing internet writers? And could we just spend money to reach whatever of their audience we don’t currently cover?”

To amplify this point, later in the week Bryan Gutierrez – formerly of SB Nation’s Mavs Moneyball and now with Mavs.com – asked Cuban if he would be happy with no media covering the Mavericks. His response? "Yeah, because it's so easy to get info out there now."

Back in January, I saw a coming sea change in Leonsis’s point of view. Leonsis’s depiction of his own organization as a media company in its own right had relatively little to do with an owner’s grievances and far more to do with making use of communications tools now at his disposal. (His, mine, yours and everybody else’s, from mommy bloggers to giant corporations. “Everybody is a publisher,” surprisingly enough, means everybody.)

Leonsis saw no special position for the existing media – no public right to know, no lofty talk of the fourth estate, no afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted. Rather, he talked business, and awareness, and how to generate those things. So too it is with Cuban, who told Gutierrez that "it's not media be damned, it's what's best for the business." (In a comment to a Craig Calcaterra blog post, Cuban did offer his opinions on the tenets of journalism, firing several salvos in the direction of ESPN in doing so.)

Here’s the warning we ought to heed: As sportswriters, we naturally see our jobs and duties as part of the larger calling of journalism. Yes, sports exist somewhere between news and entertainment, but they’re also big business, and fans feel like they are the true owners of the teams, with a succession of actual owners as stewards. This can lead us to invoke journalism’s place in society and all sorts of high-minded talk.

Such talk seems self-evident to those of us with ink (or pixels) in our veins, but it strikes a lot of the people we cover and our own readers as special pleading. Leonsis and Cuban don’t strike me as hostile to journalism’s traditions; rather, it’s that they don’t see any reason their businesses should be beholden to them. Yes, once upon a time newspapers were invaluable promotional vehicles for new sports, leagues and teams. But that was decades ago, and that history has no claim on what team owners ought to do today. If media coverage makes owners money, it’s worth it. If it doesn’t, or if it’s not worth the attendant headaches, it’s not – particularly not now that teams can produce that coverage themselves.

Teams, leagues, athletes and agents are already bypassing the media middleman to distribute news themselves. Sooner or later, some team owner will take this to the logical next step, kicking out sportswriters with credentials from certain types of media or closing the door to the whole lot and producing the news in-house. I don’t know if Ted Leonsis or Mark Cuban or someone else will be the first to try it, but somebody will.

When that happens, I have a pretty good idea how we in the press will react: We’ll clamber aboard our high horse and give a speech about journalism’s virtues and role in society. When we do, we may be surprised to find that lots of sports fans don’t see it the way we do – that their sympathies lie more with that renegade team owner who says, “It’s nothing personal — just business.”

Jason Fry is a freelance writer and media consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y. He spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy. While at WSJ.com he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing, and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom. Write to him at jason.fry@gmail.com, visit him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter
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