Thursday, October 27, 2011

The "Race" For The Sports Story

For all of the time much of the sports media spends on rumors and stories that aren't really "news" stories, some media members were faced with a serious story that went incomplete. But with decisions to be made.

The recent death of race driver Dan Wheldon was one of the saddest sports stories of the year for obvious reasons. Since one of my marketing clients had previously worked with Wheldon at the Indy 500, I was especially aware of the impact this tragedy has on those within the auto racing circle, in addition to his legion of fans.

Unfortunately, accidents of this magnitude do happen from time to time. Yet, unfortunate in its own way is that the organization which organizes the Indy Racing events around the country took a "No comment" position. I know of this through a reliable producer with one of the "big 4" TV network morning shows, who was putting together a follow up story regarding the impact of Wheldon's death.

One would think that an organization which sometimes has to deal with the death of a participant would be ready to help the media inform and console the public. However, the organization was not ready (like it should have been and should be in the future). As a result, the story was defeated and did not make it to the air.

To this network's credit, no mention was made of this aspect of the story, or even the "No comment" approach taken by the organization associated with the race. On one hand, this poor approach by the race organization is worthy of being a story in itself. It is frustrating to have an actual news story of major proportion not receive an additional and factual report to carry it along.

On the other hand, it is good that the network did not go ahead and shed a negative light on Indy Racing, as they easily could have done. Yet, I do not know how many other members of the media also knew to contact this organization in follow up from this tragic story. I would like to think there were many more, especially since this was an actual story worthy of news coverage.

Yet, much of the sports media continues to "report" on stories before they become stories, and it continues to get more and more frustrating, especially in my role of being a sports fan and with private teaching of students looking to start in sportscasting and/or play-by-play.

There were two more examples within the past week alone that I know of. I wish I could show you the headline and story that appeared for a time during an afternoon last week on the Atlanta Journal Constitution's web site. The "rumor" had been that Greg Walker was being hired as the new Hitting Coach for the Atlanta Braves, which indeed turned out to be the case later that day.

So help me, I found the AJC story with the headline stating "Walker Hired....." while the copy had not been updated, and went on to say that "Walker is expected to be hired.....". Same page, same story. It wasn't just the AJC. Several media outlets were "reporting" this before it became fact, which left me waiting to check numerous sources before I believed he really had been hired.
Even worse was the reporting on the likely (and now complete) move of Theo Epstein from Red Sox GM to Cubs President of Baseball Operations, which was made official on Friday (10/21) and then followed by the Tuesday (10/25) press conference. I can understand the sports talk stations in Chicago and Boston (as well as some baseball talk shows around the country) discussing the possibility with callers and media members. It was speculation until it became fact.

However, I draw the line when actual sportscasts, which fall under the category of "reporting" of facts, continue the recent trend of mixing speculation with factual reporting. For example, on Wednesday (10/19), Comcast SportsNet Chicago actually took time on its nightly sports news recap show to "interview" the Red Sox beat reporter from CSN Boston about the negotiations and possibility. Again, if this was a sports talk show and clearly and opinion forum, I'm fine with this. But this took place within a "news" format at a time when there was no official confirmation of this possibility.

Once the story became official about Theo Epstein, and the Red Sox went on to announce his replacement at GM on Friday, the "news" coverage was tremendous in both Boston and Chicago, and points beyond. MLB Network carried both press conferences live.
ESPN aired most of the Epstein in Chicago press conference and later the Ben Cherington press conference in Boston live during its regular SportsCenter shows.
CSN Boston, knowing that Epstein leaving and Cherington coming to the Red Sox was and is a hot topic for Red Sox fans, actually showed both the Chicago and Boston press conferences live on Friday. This was an excellent move, with live coverage of a hot topic obviously better than the regular midday fare. Yet, NESN, which televises the majority of the Red Sox games, only showed the Cherington / Red Sox press conference live.

On the radio side, both WEEI and 98.5 The Sports Hub aired both press conferences live to Boston listeners, while in Chicago the Epstein / Cubs press conference aired live on 3 stations. WGN Radio, the Cubs' flagship (which is not all sports) carried it, as did sports stations WMVP ESPN 1000 and WSCR 670 The Score.

All in all, great coverage once it became an actual "news" story. Yet, not an excuse for all of the time spent covering it before it became fact.

Speaking of Boston radio, the competition between the sports outlets continues to thrive, and it benefits the listeners even more. WEEI had Patriots owner Robert Kraft as a live guest on Friday (10/21) morning's Dennis & Callahan Show, with Mr. Kraft specifically talking about the Patriots instead of giving a "hype" interview. Kraft also appeared on ESPN via the Mike & Mike Show, willingly discussing the NFL on more of a national level.

Elsewhere, it's interesting to hear the different interpretations of the "baseball vs. football" from those who worry about the TV ratings. The baseball fans can point out that the Sunday night World Series game had a higher audience rating in Dallas than the Cowboys telecast did (with both on Fox) earlier in the day. (Actually, that is big news.) On a national level, the World Series games on Sunday and Monday nights both had higher ratings than the NFL telecasts, including Fox winning the TV ratings derby overall for Sunday night. That was the first Sunday night NBC's Sunday Night Football had not won all season.

Then, the football people can point out how this, through five games, is among the lowest rated World Series in recent history, and how the Sunday night game was a blowout and that viewers had an alternative.

Either way, it shows how much live sports on TV is taking over, and that's a fun thing.

It's hard to figure out why CBS, faced with an open slot for a late afternoon game on Saturday November 5th, made a big effort to get the Army vs. Air Force telecast for that time. The network actually "traded" with NBC/Versus to get that telecast, giving up the Nov. 19th Colorado State vs. TCU telecast to Versus, and probably a player to be named later.

Of course, that the time slot came open is very understandable, as CBS had worked a "deal" with ESPN to move the LSU vs. Alabama major matchup to prime time on November 5th.

WASHINGTON D.C.: Those who jokingly associate Eric Bickel's morning "Sports Junkies" show on WJFK The Fan 106.7 with a car wreck were not laughing on Thursday (10/27) morning. It seems that a driver reportedly swerved to avoid hitting a pedestrian and literally crashed into the studio building around 7:45 AM. Despite damage to a building wall and window, the driver was not seriously hurt.

DETROIT: WDFN 1130 has undergone another change in its morning show "Sean, Terp, and Killer", when co-host Sean Baligian left the station after last Monday's (10/24) show. Baligian claims that it was his decision and not the station's, perhaps due to the struggle since the August death of Tom Kowalski. As of press time, no replacement has been named for the afternoon drive show. Baligian is expected to remain on the local scene, including SportsWorks some Sunday nights on Channel 2 and play-by-play of Wayne State football.

PHILADELPHIA: The plan to bring some separate content to WIP 610 instead of always simulcasting from 94.1 is taking shape. WIP (only) will carry 17 of the MLS Philadelphia Union's games for the 2012 season, while 94.1 will continue with its regular sports talk format. Granted, radio play-by-play of soccer is not likely to change the listening habits of millions, but the idea of providing play-by-play content on one of the 2 stations is a solid path to take. Perhaps there will be room for adding some high school and small college play-by-play as well, bringing sports radio listeners more and distinctive choices on a regular basis.

WARWICK RI: Speaking of niche programming on a sports station, WTBQ 1110 and 93.5 is starting a show focusing on amateur sports and geared toward parents, coaches, and players. Host Tony Abbatine is also director of Frozen Ropes, which provides baseball and softball instruction, as well as a consultant to several MLB teams. For now, the show will air only on Fridays at 1 PM for 30 minutes. The station hopes to expand the show, both in terms of time and reach, since the topics are not necessarily local in focus. Along the lines of what WIP in Philly is doing with putting the soccer games on its AM, a better approach would be to put this show on for longer on one of the frequencies, and see how it stacks up against "regular" sports talk on the other.

CHICAGO: The impact, or lack thereof, of not having the NBA season getting underway is now hitting the regional sports networks and various local cable outlets which would normally be televising the games. Comcast SportsNet Chicago is going to fill much of the time cleared for Bulls telecasts by replaying 15 "Chicago Bulls Classics" telecast. To the surprise of no one, these will include the most memorable and championship clinching games during Michael Jordan's career.

MEMPHIS: Several of you picked up on our comments from last week about WMC 790 joining the sports radio derby, now giving Memphis a total of five sports radio stations. Something will have to give, considering this is a market which has only one "major league" team among the big four pro sports. Ironically, due to the NBA lockout, that team isn't even playing at the moment.
Adding to the insanity is that U. of Memphis sports play-by-play airs on WREC 600, which is NOT one of the sports talk stations. Then again, KQPN 730 does nothing throughout the weekdays from 6 PM until Noon the next day except replay the 3 to 6 PM Chris Vernon Show. (Wonder what they would do with an HD channel?) The station carries Mississippi State play-by-play some weeknights and on weekends.

WMFS 680 and 92.9 carry the other significant play-by-play, with the NBA Grizzlies (eventually), Memphis Cardinals (AAA baseball), and University of Tennessee football and basketball games.

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