Welcome to the first edition of the FOG Roundtable, an ongoing series of Q & A discussions with sports business industry participants covering a wide variety of topics. To start this series off, we posed five questions to a cross-section of prominent professionals who regularly cover sports business, in order to gain perspectives on the past, present and future media coverage of sports business.
Sean Gregory, senior writer, Time Magazine
Abraham Madkour, executive editor, SportsBusiness Journal/Daily
Mark Maske, staff writer and NFL reporter, Washington Post
Richard Sandomir, TV sports and business reporter, New York Times
David Wharton, feature sportswriter, Los Angeles Times
What initially attracted you to cover sports business?
Gregory: The demand for the stories! When I started at TIME back in 2002, we had a special edit section every few weeks dedicated to business, and I was lucky enough to have an editor interested in sports. The trick was marrying sports and business in a way that was readable for our audience. The first feature piece I ever did for TIME was about a man from Philadelphia, Reuben Harley, who saw that throwback jerseys were gaining traction. So he partnered with Mitchell & Ness, a local retail outlet that made these beautiful retro jerseys, and helped boost the company’s sales. Harley is just this fun, street-wise guy and it was a business story that had nothing to do with stereotypical elements of a business story – gray suits, drab boardrooms, dry financial numbers. Business stories can introduce you to great characters and scenes and narrative, and pretty much all stories have business elements that, when you explore them, elevate the piece.
Madkour: The chance to join a startup, SportsBusiness Daily, in 1994 was such an attractive opportunity because one could see the developing trends in covering sports business – from marketing to sports media to facility development. There was news developing across all those industry segments, but it was sporadic and there wasn’t one central source for busy sports business executives to access and read the news. You could tell the sports business was on the verge of becoming more sophisticated and with more media coverage, it would become a greater part of the overall business conversation.
Maske: I’ve always had a certain fascination with the business side of sports. When I was a young reporter just out of college covering Major League Baseball and the Baltimore Orioles for The Washington Post, one of my early competitors and role models was Murray Chass of the New York Times. He was a master of covering off-field stories and the business side of the industry, and I came to admire how good he was at it and how revealing his stories could be. He received some criticism for being pro-union in his coverage of baseball, but I always found that not only were his stories fair and balanced, but he also had sources on the management side who were as good, if not better, than his union and player-side sources. That was an early education for me about the importance of covering stories like those and how to go about that, and I have carried that with me throughout my career and into covering the NFL for the last 16 years.
Sandomir: I had made a career change in 1987 when I left Newsday where I was covering media business, and joined Bantam Books as a publicist. I realized very quickly that maximizing someone else’s creative work – that is, writing press releases, setting up book tours and pitching writers to write about the authors I was publicizing – was not what I wanted to do. A few months into that job, I got a call from my former boss at Newsday saying that its parent company, Times Mirror, was launching a sports business magazine, Sports Inc., that would be perfect for me: I had been writing about business for six years or so, and I loved sports. And it was, indeed, ideal for me; at least for the 18 months it was in business. So getting into covering sports business reporting was pure happenstance . . . when I joined the NY Times in 1991, I initially wrote almost entirely about media – the job was essentially all about sports media reporting and criticism. But it soon expanded to include business.
Wharton: I’m not sure “attracted” is the right word. Sports coverage has expanded immensely over the past 10-15 years to more closely align with news coverage. That means checking arrest reports and pouring over court documents on a regular basis. With the rise of sports as big business, it also means being more financially savvy. What happens in the owner’s suite, the front office and the network headquarters often has a great influence on what our readers experience as fans.
In what ways has the coverage of sports business evolved over the course of your career?
Gregory: I think there is more data and research available for sports business stories than there was 10 or 12 years ago. Also – and this applies to all areas of reporting really – social media brings more scrutiny to what you write.
Madkour: There are more and more media outlets covering news and information related to the business side of sports. The broad range of stories and topics weren’t previously covered. In the mid to late 1990’s, you did have a number of sports media writers at local daily papers who would review shows and talk to talent. But with declining budgets across the media industry, those positions were eliminated. So you may have less coverage of sports media talent and issues from major market newspapers, you do get more of it from blogs and other news outlets on the web. You also have far greater and more detailed coverage related to sports marketing, media, collective bargaining, ticketing and technology, as well as athlete lifestyles off the field.
Maske: My coverage has evolved in one way simply from moving from baseball to football in 1998, and being exposed to the business giant that is the NFL. You cannot cover the NFL and not spend a great deal of your time focusing on the way the people in that league have gone about making themselves so wildly popular and prosperous. They have a built-in advantage of having a sport that is so television-friendly. But the sport’s leaders have very carefully and very skillfully enhanced the advantages that they have, developed and maximized revenue streams, and kept themselves on top of the sports mountaintop for a very long time. I don’t know that I’d say I’ve spent more time and energy over the years focusing on coverage of the business side of the NFL, but hopefully I have become more efficient in the way that I’ve gone about it, simply based on experience.
Sandomir: There is a lot more interest in it and a lot more outlets devoting space to it. When I started, if you could read a 10-K report you had an advantage. Now, it’s only one small thing you need to understand about the business of sports. I remember writing a piece for Sports Inc. about what we dubbed the GNSP – the Gross National Sports Product, a project that I collaborated on with Wharton – we estimated the size of the sports business to be around $50 billion. That has surely grown by several multiples by now. Readers have an appetite for business reporting that goes beyond salaries: now, it’s finance, labor, stadium and arena finance and building, media rights, the digital revolution, and so on. When I started, ESPN was not the monolith that it is now. You could develop a rationale for a beat that involves solely covering ESPN, which is like the Pentagon.
Wharton: It started with more of the big-picture issues – television contracts, free agency, etc. Now we’re delving a little deeper by going over things like stadium leases and college athletic department budgets.
Given the breadth of our industry stakeholders, what is the biggest challenge in covering sports business?
Gregory: Access and transparency. As sports become richer, the PR shield certainly gets stronger. Though Dana White at the UFC comes to mind as a sports executive that has certainly remained very open and accessible.
Madkour: Like most industries, getting to the truth and the facts. The sports industry is still relatively small, so getting sources to speak openly and frankly can be a challenge. People frequently cross paths, change jobs or do business together, so few want to be critical. In addition, getting access to financial information is always difficult. But you need such data to tell the complete story.
Maske: Professional sports leagues in general, and the NFL in particular, are very protective of their images and very good at delivering the message they want to deliver. The challenge in all reporting on pro sports, including the coverage of the business of sports, is to be able to get beneath the surface and find out why certain decisions are made and what the decision-makers really think about things. That requires having people that you know and trust who are knowledgeable about the inner workings of the league and willing to tell you about them, and that generally comes over time with long-standing relationships with those people.
Sandomir: Defining what you want to cover because there is so much to cover, and digging out the real information from companies, teams, leagues and sponsors who all shield themselves the same way that stakeholders in other industries do. And, of course, maintaining one’s bullshit detector, with so much spin going on. I should say, though, that one of the great advances for reporters has been the digitizing of court records, especially on the federal level, so that if someone files a federal lawsuit, you don’t have to go to the courthouse; you can just go on Pacer and get it.
Wharton: Unlike elected politicians, government officials and school district administrators, many of your stakeholders are not beholden to the public and, thus, not transparent in their dealings. One of L.A.’s biggest sports figures – Phil Anschutz – does not give interviews. USC, as a private school, does not have to release detailed financial documents. Also, many sports figures are not accustomed to increased business reporting and are resistant to such stories.