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Corporate alliances put squeeze on sports journalism

Editor’s note:  This is an opinion article by John Shrader.

Sports journalism is dead.

That was the notion in late August, when ESPN abruptly ended its relationship with PBS’ “Frontline.” ESPN had partnered with “Frontline” for more than a year on a documentary film examining the NFL’s handling of head injuries. It looked like the perfect collaboration of the hard-hitting documentary team and the biggest, most powerful media machine the sports world has ever known.

One thing apparently got in the way: reality. ESPN has a $15 billion relationship with the NFL. ESPN had just re-signed to do “Monday Night Football” through 2021, and it wasn’t about to mess with that mojo. However, the network apparently was about to mess with it until NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, according to a report in the New York Times, stepped in and pressured ESPN to get out of the deal with “Frontline.” ESPN’s president, John Skipper, and the commissioner denied that’s the way it came down. The denials are unconvincing.

The documentary project was scheduled for a two-part airing on PBS in October, titled “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concus­sion Crisis,” which is critical of the way the NFL handled head injuries. The project was reported and written by two ESPN investi­gative reporters: brothers Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada. The two also have writ­ten a book by the same title.

It has been clear to many of us for years, and now clear to many in the sports-viewing world, that business relationships trump journalism. ESPN’s talking-head programs and the game broadcasts are filled with storytelling narratives generated to protect and enhance these relationships. The network is in the business of making money, account­ing for about half of Disney’s operating profits, according to the New York Times. Airing your partner’s dirty laundry in public is not particularly good for the bottom line – although if any network could survive it, ESPN likely could. At least that must have been the thought process when ESPN agreed to do this deal with “Frontline.”

Most of ESPN’s rights deals are good through 2020 and are worth a collective $41 billion. That’s a lot of partnership build­ing and partnership protecting. The most lucrative of these deals are with the NFL ($15.3 billion), the college football playoffs ($7.3 billion) and Major League Baseball ($5.6 billion). The deals also include the NBA and four college conferences.

Some in Bristol, Conn., the worldwide headquarters of ESPN, think doing journal­ism is an important component of what they do. They’ve been hiring newspaper and maga­zine writers – some already with jobs, others off the unemployment line – for years now. But they are sending mixed messages.

The large stable of reporters spends most of its time writing and talking about who’s starting this week, who’s injured and which coach is on the hot seat. These reporters use Twitter to discuss these developments and blab about them on the many talking-head shows. Interesting, but well-trained and experienced journalists could and should be doing more.

Regional sports networks don’t have the same volume or money at stake, but they do have many of the same concerns. Mark Shuken is vice president and general manager of a relatively new regional sports network in Los Angeles, Time Warner Cable Sportsnet (TWC.) (Full disclosure: I do play-by-play of MLS soccer games on this channel as a contractor.) Shuken told me via email that TWC’s mission is to provide “exclusive content, depth and access to fans of the teams with which we partner,” which include the L.A.-based Lakers, Sparks and Galaxy – and, next season, the Dodgers.

Shuken says sports journalism has a place on his regional sports network.

“Absolutely,” he said. “Today’s fan and TV viewer expects more than just live games. The access, connection and passion they feel for their favorite teams is best real­ized through the storytelling and personal relationships creators and journalists can provide.”

Ross Jernstrom is certain there is a place for sports journalism on TV. He says that’s what he’s been doing for more than 30 years, as a sports anchor and reporter at WOWT-TV in Omaha, Neb. He says station manage­ment has never told him to hold a story.

“As long as I have the facts right, I can do the story,” he said.

The biggest, baddest dog in his sports kennel is the University of Nebraska football team. It can be intense. The coaches expect good coverage, the players are adored and the fans are … well, fanatical.

“No pressure at all,” Jernstrom says. “If I was a hit-and-run guy, that would be a differ­ent thing. I have enough sources. People trust me. It helps to be here as long as I have.”

Dennis O’Donnell has worked in sports television in San Francisco for nearly as long, first as a producer and then as an anchor. He says he feels some pressure to maintain rela­tionships with the biggest pro teams in town, especially the popular San Francisco 49ers.

That relationship was put to a severe test in September 2010. The 49ers were a struggling team with an inexperienced coach, Mike Singletary – inexperienced both in the coaching business and in media relations. Yahoo.com had published a critical piece about one of Singletary’s assistant coaches. O’Donnell asked the coach about that on their weekly coach’s interview, which was re­corded on Thursday and scheduled to air on the KPIX-TV Saturday night preview show. Singletary was defensive and almost abusive of O’Donnell, who kept his cool.

“I didn’t think it was that big a deal,” he said.

He got through the interview, the coach looking worse for wear than O’Donnell.

“The 49ers didn’t want us to air it,” O’Donnell told me recently.

Not only did they air the segment on their Saturday night show, they put a rather lengthy clip on the news that Thursday night.

“If I thought the questions were conten­tious, derogatory or combative, I would have understood,” he says. “The way I posed the questions was very fair.”

As it turns out, that was the last inter­view O’Donnell did on that show with the coach.

“The 49ers and our general manager agreed it would be best if Kim Coyle, our sports reporter, did the interviews for the rest of the season,” he says.

The relationship between KPIX and the 49ers was, in the end, more important to station management than the relationship between their sports director and the coach of the 49ers.

“I didn’t agree with it,” O’Donnell says, “but I get it.”

Shuken, the sports regional executive who worked with me more than 20 years ago as a young producer in San Francisco television, says he thinks journalism – sports and otherwise – has gotten worse rather than better, “given predispositions, biases and the desire for ratings above all.” But he says the true fan can tell the difference “between fluff and meaningful content, and that’s where the opportunity lies.”

Meaningful content is always the goal of the storyteller. We hope, especially for the sports journalist, it is being presented with minimum interference from the business partners who help keep the doors open but also provide so many of the most interesting story lines.

John Shrader is an assistant professor of journalism at CSU-Long Beach.  He was a TV and radio sportscaster in San Francisco for more than 30 years and covers L.A. Galaxy soccer on Time Warner Cable Sportsnet.